After a ten-day hiatus from regular cooking, I was back for my traditional “meal + plus Mad Men” last Sunday evening. My return to kitchen time also happened to coincide with a lucky discovery – I finally managed to track down an elusive piece of pasta. Now, maybe that doesn’t seem like that big of a deal to you, but you aren’t scrambling for content for your personal blog. If I can’t squeeze 500 words out of a search for basic grocery items, maybe I just don’t have the narcissism to really make this blog a serious part of my life.
Anyway, you might have noticed that the title of this post mentioned couscous. Couscous is a really interesting food – you might think it’s a grain, but in fact it’s pasta, ranging from the tiny (traditional couscous) to the somewhat less tiny (Israeli, or pearl, couscous). Personally, I dislike traditional couscous, though: it gets mealy, it never hold up on its own. So why am I writing about couscous? Israeli couscous.
Israeli couscous, unlike traditional couscous, is much larger – the size of small peas – and holds up much better to cooking. Even better, when toasted before being cooked, it retains a nutty sweetness that comes from the carmelization of the of the starches in the pasta. Israeli couscous, however, has proven exceedingly difficult to find in this town. Which is exceedingly strange, considering how easy it was to find in Boise Idaho. Yes, people, the state that brought us Larry Craig’s bathroom shenanigans and Bill Sali’s independent discovery oil alternative fuels in our forests also gave me pearl couscous in the bulk food aisle of my local supermarket, something DC’s Whole Foods, Yes Organics and Safeway/Giant pu pu platter haven’t provided.
I was on the verge of taking desperate measures, when I finally found some – yes, Whole Foods had heard my silent prayer. I loaded up; at $2.50 a pound, it’s more expensive than regular pasta, but at this point I was desperate. Since my supply seems to be somewhat intermittent, I’ve come up with a plan to stretch my couscous supply: I’m going to eat so much of it that I get sick of it, and then I don’t want it again for months.
So here’s the first step towards couscous overload:
Pesto Couscous Gratin
Obviously, this was a Mark Bittman production, with modification.
Note: this dish requires about a cup of pesto. You could buy some…but maybe you should just quit reading if that’s the case.
Also, I modified this recipe pretty heavily, trying to use mostly seasonal veggies.
2 Tbs. Olive oil
1 shallot, finely chopped
1 cup chopped mushrooms (I used 1/2 cup of baby portabellas, replacing some of the mushrooms with other veggies)
Veggies (the recipe calls for asparagus, instead I used one medium zucchini, very thinly sliced – maybe a chiffonade cut – and two bell peppers, diced)
1/2 cup cream (I used whole milk)
1/2 pesto, or more depending on taste
1 1/2 cups pearl couscous
4 oz. goat cheese
2 cups packed basil leaves
1/2 cup olive oil
2-3 cloves garlic, minced or put through a press (more or less depending on how much time you spent in close proximity to loved ones)
1/4 cup pine nuts
1. Put the couscous in a 2 qt. saucepan with a little olive oil and toast until golden brown. Add two cups of hot water and bring to a boil. Cover, turn heat down to medium and cook 12 minutes or until most of the water has been absorbed. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
2. While that’s happening, throw the basil, garlic, pine nuts and about half the olive oil in a food processor. Pulse for about 15 seconds. Check the consistency and aroma: you want the pesto moving towards creamy and really, really fragrant. Close up the processor and pulse while streaming in the rest of the olive oil – use more or less to control the wateriness (remember, I’m looking for creamy and that needed about 1/2 cup of oil).
3. Put the rest of the oil in a skillet and add the shallot. Cook, stirring frequently until softened – maybe 30 seconds. Add the peppers and cook another 3 minutes, then the mushrooms and zucchini. Cook until everything is tender but still slightly toothy. Sprinkle on some salt and pepper, then stir in the couscous and cook until heated through.
4. Whisk the cream, egg and pesto together in a small bowl and season. Set aside. Spread the couscous mixture in the bottom of a buttered gratin dish. Drizzle the pesto/cream/egg mixture over the couscous, then spread the goat cheese on top.
5. Bake until the edges and top of the gratin are brown and bubbling, about 30-40 minutes. Serve hot.
I really enjoyed making this dish; the combination of basil, peppers and zucchini make for a nice summer combination. One note: Bittman allows you to substitute stock for the cream, something I might do for a summer dish, allowing you to cut down the richness for a hot day.
I’m not nearly sick of couscous yet, but I’ve got plans: a pilaf of couscous, raisins, spinach and sun-dried tomatoes, and a couscous risotto. We’ll see if I ever want to see round past again.