Mediterranean Salad with Israeli Couscous
Couscous is a common staple in our household because it’s versatile, incredibly quick to prepare, and to be honest, because it’s cheap. You get a lot of bang for your buck with couscous, or at least a lot of carbs for your cash. Every time that I make couscous I drastically overestimate how much I’ll need and we end up eating couscous for the rest of the week. It’s like pasta salad – you only mean to make enough for dinner, but somehow the noodles multiply overnight in the fridge and even though you THOUGHT there were only a couple of servings in the mixing bowl, staring back at you is enough pasta salad to keep the British infantry fed for three days.
Although it looks like a grain, couscous is actually a very small semolina pasta. In Canadian supermarkets, the most common couscous is the tiny, golden North African style couscous which is made from moistened semolina which is sieved and dried in small granules. Israeli couscous on the other hand, is significantly larger with an appearance and mouthfeel similar to pearl barley. This variety or couscous is extruded and then either rolled into small balls or cut into small shapes which end up resembling spheres when they’re cooked. Traditionally, after the couscous is extruded into a pearl-like shape they may be toasted in an oven. Again, this is different from the North African style couscous which is traditionally dried in the sun or in a low, dry oven for a longer period of time. Toasting the Israeli couscous seals each little orb into a small dense ball, so that when they’re cooked the pasta absorbs liquid without losing it’s integrity. Because the exterior is nice and starchy it’s easy for sauces or dressings to stick.
Israeli couscous is a horse of many names. In the Middle East, it’s often served to children who know the wee balls as ptitim or p’titim, their Hebrew name. In the Western world, we usually see it sold as Israeli couscous or Jordanian couscous. Cooking Israeli couscous is quite simple, and takes just barely more time than it’s North African cousin, although the technique is rather different. Many people suggest cooking Israeli couscous the same way that you would any other pasta, but I find that the texture is better when it’s cooked in a manner similar to rice or grains - add boiling water and then let it steam, covered, for only about 10 minutes. See? How easy is that?!
Mediterranean Salad with Israeli Couscous
Serves 3-4 as an entree, or 6 as a side dish
- 2 cups Israeli couscous
- 2 cups boiling water
- 2 cloves garlic
- 4 + 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
- 1 large lemon
- 1.5 tbsp white wine vinegar
- 6-8 sprigs fresh savory (about 1.5 tbsp finely chopped) *
- 1 pint cherry or grape tomatoes (about 2 cups)
- 2/3 cup kalamata olives
- 2 cups cooked lima beans **
- 3 green onions
- 2 cups loosely packed arugula
- salt and freshly ground pepper
- 500 ml tub mini or pearl bocconcini balls (slightly less than 2 cups)
* If you don’t have fresh savory, feel free to substitute fresh oregano but use slightly less (about 1 tbsp finely chopped).
** Fresh cooked lima beans would be ideal, but I’m far too lazy to bother with all that shelling nonsense. Instead, I like to keep frozen lima beans on hand. For 2 cups of lima beans you can add 2 tbsp of water to a microwaveable container with a tight fitting lid. Cook the beans on high for 5-6 minutes, and then rinse them under cold water for a minute or two before adding to the salad. Although I buy and use canned beans on a disturbingly regular basis, I only use canned lima beans when I can’t find frozen – the texture suffers a bit from the canning process, and they don’t always have that same lovely green hue.
Finely chop the garlic.
Heat 1 tbsp of the olive oil in a mid-size pot over medium low heat. Add the garlic and let it cook just until it’s fragrant, about 2-3 minutes. You want the garlic to mellow out a bit but not to brown. Add the uncooked Israeli couscous to the pot and stir it regularly for about 5 minutes until it starts to turn golden and some of the kernels are a light toasted brown color.
Carefully add the two cups of boiling water to your pot (it will spit and bubble furiously for about 30 seconds) and then cover it with a tight fitting lid. Turn the heat down to low and let this simmer for 8-10 minutes. It’s great to be a Nosy Nelly when it comes to riffling through your best friend’s medicine cabinet, but sadly couscous is not quite as rewarding to the inquisitive personality – don’t lift the lid until the couscous has been simmering away for at least 8 minutes or you’ll release all of that precious steam.
In the mean time, as the couscous cooks away you can ready your salad dressing. Pull the leaves off of your fresh savory and discard the woody stems. Chop it up quite finely, and you should have about 1.5 tbsp of herb.
Measure out the remaining 4 tbsp of extra virgin olive oil into a large mixing bowl. Squeeze all the juice out of your large lemon and add that, along with the white wine vinegar, to the oil. Season the dressing with salt and freshly ground pepper, add the chopped savory, and give it a good whisk.
Note: I just tried to write ‘whisk’ three times. Each time, I actually typed, ‘whiskey’. Methinks that Tina needs a cocktail……
Has it been 8-10 minutes yet? The couscous is done when it’s fat and fluffy, with a just barely chewy texture.
As soon as the couscous is cooked add it to the dressing and give it a stir to coat before it starts to cool. The warm couscous will absorb most of the dressing and all of that flavor as it comes down to room temperature, which will take about 5-10 minutes.
Pit the olives and chop them up roughly. Slice each tomato in half and mince the green onions. Add these to the mostly cooled couscous, along with the lima beans.
Roughly chop the arugula and add this, along with the bocconcini balls, only when the mixture has fully cooled to room temperature.
Give it a taste and add more salt and freshly ground pepper if you wish. I find that the olives notwithstanding, couscous, lima beans and bocconcini just cry out for seasoning. Please be a dear and give it to them before they have to beg.
This Mediterranean inspired salad is a perfect quick vegetarian dinner option, or a nice pick-me-up on one of those cranky lazybones nights where if dinner can’t be on the table in a half hour it’s just not going to happen.
The couscous has a delightful texture. It’s just slightly chewy but still tender, and after soaking in that lemony dressing each lovely pearl offers itself up to you, daring you to leave the bocconcini until the end. Not that I ever would, mind you, because I prefer to eat all my bocconcini first and then steal some of Mike’s when he’s not looking. But the thought was there.
Fresh, light and full of flavor – despite the fact that this is a glorified pasta salad containing a generous amount of bocconcini cheese balls, I still felt somewhat virtuous after eating it. Go figure. And now, in honor of the fact that we had a somewhat light and healthy salad for dinner, I’m going to excuse myself and go find some dessert. If anybody’s looking for me, I’m the one who’s elbow deep in the cookie jar.