Lemony Israeli Couscous with Tomato, Arugula, Chickpea and Bocconcini

Substitutions are fine when you’re comparing like to like. For example, if you substitute tangerine with clementine in your citrus sorbet, you won’t be disappointed. You can use brown sugar instead of cane sugar to sweeten a tart tamarind chutney and there will be no ill effects.  However, there are some times when you don’t have quite the right ingredient on hand and a substitution seems to make sense, but falls a little bit short.  Any of you who have stumbled into the kitchen early in the morning, reached for the carton and accidentally poured buttermilk into your coffee will know exactly what I mean.

Israeli couscous entered our ever changing “Rice, Grains and Pasta” rotation a couple of years ago, and quickly became a go-to for side dishes and light luncheon salads.  Israeli couscous is a a small extruded pasta shaped like tiny balls.  Unlike North African couscous, which can be easily steamed with the addition of boiling water and 5 minutes of laziness letting the bowl sit with a tight fitting lid,  Israeli couscous needs both more water and more time to cook until tender. I used to toast Israeli couscous, cover it with water brought to a boil and then let it steam, not unlike rice.  That is, until I was making an Israeli couscous salad and realized that we were out of Israeli couscous. A quick scavenge through the cupboards identified a perfectly feasible alternative, the tiny Italian pastina (little pasta) called acini di pepe which I had bought for an Italian Wedding Soup (made with turkey meatballs and kale, but that’s a post for another day).

It seemed like a one-for-one. Both Israeli couscous and acini di pepe are small extruded pasta balls, both are delicious, and both could be used in my salad. I toasted the pasta, poured in an equal amount of water, affixed a tight lid, and wandered off, humming a tune, waiting for my couscous to get nice and plump. I checked the pot ten minutes later, and what I actually had was a massive clump of chewy pasta, where each ball had glued itself both to it’s neighbors and also to the bottom of the pot.  This was hubris at it’s best, and frankly, I think it served me right. If you wouldn’t toast and steam penne or rotini, why would this possibly work with acini di pepe?

Israeli couscous on the left, acini di pepe on the right

When you look at them together, Israeli couscous actually bears very little resemblance to my “pasta equivalent”, and I certainly felt the fool for trying to slap a ribbon on a donkey and call it my prized pig.  As penance in the name of experimentation, the next time I cooked Israeli couscous, I boiled it like pasta with plenty of well salted boiling water that was drained away when the couscous was tender.  Surprisingly, I found that the balls were more tender but equally toothsome when cooked to al dente, and the post-cook pot clean up was a breeze. These days, I rarely steam Israeli couscous anymore, opting for the fool proof boil method and shaking my head every time that I never thought of it before.

If you have ever gone digging through our archives, you’ll see that one of our favorite salads (which is a frequent offering at potluck tables, and not always from us) is a cherry tomato, chickpea and bocconcini salad, fragrant with fresh basil and lemon.  This was one of the first recipes that we posted, way back in 2008, and we eat it just as frequently  now as then, although often without the excessively expensive pine nuts for garnish.  Another one of our favorites is a Mediterranean inspired Israeli couscous salad with cherry tomato, bocconcini, olives, lima beans and earthy oregano.  Rather than thinking of this as derivative, which really doesn’t suit my fancy, I consider this recipe to be a “best of both”, the love child salad that takes influences from both sides but has a personality all its own.

The languid arugula leaves and fronds of fresh dill keep this salad light and healthy, but with the creamy cheese and nutty chickpeas, it is hearty enough to be a meal of itself for lunch or a light dinner.  What I like best is that the recipe is easily doubled to serve a crowd or pass around at the potluck buffet, and the dressing as well as most of the ingredients can be prepared while the couscous boils.  To me, big, fast and healthy is like a plus-plus-plus of recipe grades.

Lemony Israeli Couscous Salad with Tomato, Arugula, Chickpea and Bocconcini

Serves 4 as a light meal, 6-8 as a hearty side dish

  •  3/4 cup Israeli couscous
  • 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil, divided
  • 1 pint cherry tomatoes (~ 2 cups)
  • 1 – 19oz can chickpeas
  • 1 tub (200 g/ 7 oz) mini pearl bocconcini balls*
  • 5 cups (~ 3 oz) loosely packed fresh baby arugula **
  • 1 lemon (juice and 1/2 tsp zest)
  • 1 large clove garlic
  • 2 tbsp white wine vinegar
  • 1 tsp Dijon mustard
  • handful fresh dill (1/4 cup minced)
  • salt and white pepper, to taste

* I like the mini-mini-wee-tiny bocconcini that are roughly the same size as a chickpea. If you have larger bocconcini balls, dice each bocconcino (the singular for bocconcini, about which we were (somewhat) politely educated) into smaller pieces as you see fit.

** This is roughly one bunch of fresh arugula, or half of a pre-packaged plastic container from the grocery store. Don’t be afraid to use a little bit more or a little bit less; salad is not a science.

Fill a pot with water (at least 6 -8 cups) and set it over high heat until it comes to a simmer. This will help you to bring the Israeli couscous up to a quick boil.

Heat two (2) teaspoons of oil in a pot set over medium high heat.  When the oil is shimmering, add the Israeli couscous and stir it around to coat the little balls with oil.  Toast the couscous, shaking the pot regularly and stirring, until the grains are light golden and some have turned a tawny brown.

Pour in the water and season well with salt (about one tablespoon), as if you were boiling pasta.  The pot will begin to bubble and steam immediately, so do take care when pouring in the water.  Turn the heat up slightly to high and bring the water to a rolling boil, stirring the pasta to make sure that it doesn’t clump.

Boil the couscous for 8-10 minutes or until it is very tender, softer than the al dente pasta that you prefer for dinner.

In the mean time, press or mash the garlic clove into a small bowl.  Add in the Dijon mustard, white wine vinegar, lemon zest and juice, whisking this together. Slowly drizzle in the remaining oil, whisking constantly, until you have an emulsified dressing.  Season the dressing well with salt, remembering that the dressing will be used to season all of that often bland bocconcini and chickpea mixture, so don’t be shy.

When the Israeli couscous is tender, drain it in a colander and rinse it well under cold running water to remove any residual starch which would cause the couscous to clump.  Toss the couscous with half (1/2) of the dressing, reserving the rest.  At this point, the couscous could be packed into a sealed container in the fridge until the next day if you wanted to do some prep work in advance.

Rinse and drain the can of chickpeas before adding them to the couscous, along with the drained mini bocconcini and cherry tomatoes, which have been sliced crosswise in half. Gently toss the mixture together.

Before serving the salad, finely mince the dill and toss it with the rest of the salad along with the reserved dressing and  arugula leaves.  Do be careful and keep a gentle hand to avoid bruising the delicate greens.  Arugula stands up surprisingly well in salads like this one and it can be tossed several hours in advance.  If you keep the salad refrigerated, it will not suffer any kind of gross negligence.

Check the seasoning and add salt and finely ground white pepper, to taste.

This is the kind of pasta salad that doesn’t really feel like pasta salad. I mean, where is the goopy mayonnaise or astringent vinegar dressing?  Gone, I say! And good riddance.

Peppery arugula is perfect with summer sweet cherry tomatoes and the mild, creamy, gently sweet taste of bocconcini.  Adding the richness of nutty chickpeas makes this dish wholesome and balanced, or a perfectly delicious vegetarian meal, with a full complement of starch/grain, protein, and vegetables. With the bright zing of lemon and a kick of garlic for flair, this is a meal that I would happily pack into lunch sized tupperware containers for three days straight.  And, in fact, I have.

  • cayenne

    This has all the my ideal salad ingredients, but the inclusion of fresh dill is the clincher. This goes in the to-make pile.

  • Abril

    Oooh, I LOVE Israeli couscous! I made your other salad (the one with olives and lima beans) and it was delicious, totally got me into eating this type of pasta. Now I can’t wait to try this one, it looks so fresh and summery!!!

  • http://www.celia.org Celia

    I’m really amazed by this blog. Tons of useful posts and info on here and I love the recipes. Tried this last night and it was delicious. Thumbs up!

  • http://food.lizsteinberg.com Liz

    Wow, if the lunch counters here made Israeli couscous like that, people wouldn’t know what to do with themselves! Usually they make it with a bit of onion, and some soup powder if you’re lucky. Weirdly, Israeli couscous isn’t called couscous in Israel, it has another name that translates as “flakes.”

  • http://laurenrjacobs.com Lauren

    I love every item in that dish! I am now wondering why I don’t have Israeli couscous in my pantry!

  • http://www.choosy-beggars.com Tina

    Cayenne – aw, thank you! If you give this a shot, please let me know what you think…good, bad, indifferent, or maybe a little tweak or spin you gave it. You must know by now that I’m insatiably nosy….

    Celia – Thank you for the kind words and I’m delighted that you enjoyed this recipe!

    Liz – Flakes? Really? That’s interesting, I would have expected “balls” or “orbs of pasta goodness” before thinking “flakes”. As for the local preparation, there is something to be said for simplicity and that sounds like perfect comfort food.

    Lauren – oh, you should! It is great for hot or cold preparations and super easy to prepare. If you like little pastas, you would like Israeli couscous!

  • http://www.crumbblog.com Isabelle @ Crumb

    Coincidentally enough, I was planning to make an Israeli couscous pilaf and a tomato salad for dinner tonight… however, being the lazy person that I totally am, I think I might just kill two birds with one stone and make this instead. Couscous and salad in the same bowl? Hells yeah.

  • Gabe

    This recipe was too good looking to turn down. I substituted dried dill for fresh because I didn’t have any but herbed it up with some fresh parsley. Also added some preserved lemon instead of the zest. It was absolutely delicious and I will definitely make it again!

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