I’ve had a minor fixation with Israeli couscous, the larger, more pearl-like variety of couscous, since my first year of graduate school. A friend of one of my housemates who was working as a live-in nanny-slash-cook for a wealthy family in Bethesda, brought over some leftovers from the family’s dinner and what was this? This smattering of white polka dots through a tangle of greens and vegetables? You call it couscous, too? Why has nobody told me about this before!
Of course, back then I could barely find it anywhere, except occasionally at the Fresh Fields in upper Georgetown where they had those bins which I still miss today when I’m forced to buy half a pound of pecans when I need a half-cup. But even there, Israeli couscous was something of an enigma.
Nowadays I can find it in a lot of stores, but I feel less good about eating it. Couscous, a fact that seems to repeatedly surprise my husband (namely because he hasn’t listened the first four times I told him, I’m just saying) is not a whole grain, in fact, its closer to a pasta than anything else, formed from semolina flour. In practically any dish that you see couscous, a grain such as quinoa, bulgur or barley could be easily replaced for added nutrients and fiber, and while we often do, I just can’t be so earnest every night. I was missing my couscous.
I have only three tried-and-true Israeli couscous dishes, the first, with roasted butternut squash and lemon, and was my standby carry-along to Thanksgiving dinner all those years I was a vegetarian and had no issue repeating the same recipe dozens of times. The second recipe is from Madhur Jaffrey, including morels and asparagus and is a total delight. And the third, well, I confess that the third is store-bought, a salad with dried cranberries, pecans, saffron and green onions from Whole Foods that I have yet to try to make at home.
Yet, it being not butternut squash, asparagus nor cranberry season and my craving for Israeli couscous was unremitting, I was forced to seek out something more weather befitting last night and ding-ding! I believe we have a new winner. Cherry or grape tomatoes are slow-roasted for an hour at a low temperature (ideal for the summer, as it will not offset your a/c’s goodness) with whole cloves of garlic. Tomatoes, when roasted, take on a deeper, more pronounced flavor, far from the artificial pungency of sun dried tomatoes, but more intense than the fresh, fruity variety. The roasted garlic is pureed with a handful of the tomatoes to make a dressing. The couscous is soaked in broth, and then minced thyme, mint and parsley are added in along with black olives. The olives amplify the flavor, without dominating, as do the array of herbs.
With a greens salad or a piece of meat or fish, dinner is most splendidly served and I get to sink my pearly whites into their chewy goodness, seasonally and enthusiastically, once again.
Pearl Couscous with Olives and Roasted Tomatoes
Gourmet, September 2002
Makes 6 servings
For roasted tomatoes and dressing
2 pt red grape or cherry tomatoes (1 1/2 lb)
3 large garlic cloves, left unpeeled
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1/4 cup warm water
1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
2 3/4 cups vegetable or chicken broth
2 1/4 cups pearl (Israeli) couscous
1 tablespoon olive oil
1/2 cup Kalamata or other brine-cured black olives, pitted and chopped
1/3 cup chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
1/4 cup chopped fresh mint
1 teaspoon chopped fresh thyme
Roast tomatoes and make dressing:
Preheat oven to 250°F.
Halve tomatoes through stem ends and arrange, cut sides up, in 1 layer in a large shallow (1-inch-deep) baking pan. Add garlic to pan and roast in middle of oven until tomatoes are slightly shriveled around edges, about 1 hour. Cool in pan on a rack 30 minutes.
Peel garlic and puree with oil, water, lemon juice, salt, pepper, and 1/2 cup roasted tomatoes in a blender until dressing is very smooth.
Make couscous: Bring broth to a boil in a 3-quart heavy saucepan and stir in couscous, then simmer, uncovered, 6 minutes. Cover pan and remove from heat. Let stand 10 minutes.
Spread couscous in 1 layer on a baking sheet and cool 15 minutes. Transfer couscous to a bowl and stir in remaining ingredients, dressing, roasted tomatoes, and salt and pepper to taste.
Do ahead: Roasted tomatoes, dressing, and couscous can be made 1 day ahead and kept separately, covered and chilled. Bring to room temperature before proceeding.