Monday, May 17, 2010

Israeli Couscous Picnic Salad

As I've mentioned before, the game of Iron Pantry Chef reigns supreme at our house (also known as "what can I make for dinner without leaving my house to purchase additional ingredients?"). A few months back my boyfriend came up with an entry consisting of a can of turnip greens (don't ask) that were pureed and cooked with some sauteed garlic, asafoetida, turmeric, chili flakes, and a few other random ingredients. The resulting olive-drab puree was used to sauce a bag of gnocchi from the pantry. I dubbed it "Saag of the South,"and in addition to earning high marks in the categories of Originality and Best Use of Available Ingredients, it was actually surprisingly tasty. As a rule, this game is thrifty, time efficient, and keeps your pantry from gathering dust. But last week I was aiming for an Iron Pantry Chef meal that was so delicious I'd want to make it again, even if I had to (gasp) shop for ingredients. This couscous salad is totally that meal.

Friday was the sort of spring weather that verges on summer. I sent out a message to see if any friends wanted to meet for a sunset picnic at the top of a local park. It was an impromptu decision, and since my guests would only have a few hours' notice, I figured they'd probably just pick up snacks en route. As befitting a good impromptu host, a more substantial contribution on my part seemed in order, to round out the picnic meal.

I've always been blown away by the oh-I-just-threw-this-together salads on 101 Cookbooks, where chef Heidi Swanson casually surveys her pantry and farmer's market purchases, and creates a dish I'd pay good money for. Her creations toe that often-difficult line of being substantial main dishes, while also feeling light and healthy. With this thought in mind, I grabbed a bag of large-pearl Israeli Couscous off the shelf. I cooked it up with some saffron, and a few pinches of some random Georgian spice mixture I'd picked up at the Russian market (optional, of course). A cup of cooked wheat berries were lolling about in the fridge from an aborted bread project, which added a bit of toothsome contrast to the soft couscous (you could substitute any other nubby grain, such as barley or farro). I chopped some mint from a neighbor's yard, and the last of the bolted cilantro from a friend's garden. A can of fava beans added protein, some toasted hazelnuts added crunch, and lemon and crumbled feta sparked it all up. I briefly flirted with violating Iron Pantry Chef protocol and running to the store for some asparagus to blanch and add. But it didn't need it. This recipe is lovely as it is.

Israeli Couscous Picnic Salad

serves 6-8 as a picnic dish

1/2 cup wheat berries
1 1/2 cups Israeli couscous
pinch saffron
1/2 bunch cilantro, washed, dried and coarsely chopped
2 sprigs mint, washed, dried and coarsely chopped
1/4 cup hazelnuts, coarsely chopped and toasted
1/4 cup feta, crumbled (can be omitted for a vegan variation)
1 can fava beans, rinsed and drained (available at Middle Eastern groceries - these fully mature beans may be labeled Ful Madamas, and are different from fresh green favas, although the latter might make a nice substitution)
juice and zest from 1 lemon
~2 Tbsp olive oil
salt and pepper

Place the wheat berries in a sauce pan with 2 cups water. Bring to a boil over high heat, then lower the heat until it's just high enough to maintain a simmer. Cook until the wheat berries are tender, ~45 minutes. Some may split open, but most will be intact, and there should be no hard white centers remaining. Drain any excess water, and set aside.

While the wheat berries are cooking, prepare the Israeli couscous. In a large saucepan, bring 3 cups of water to a boil. Add the couscous, saffron, and a pinch of salt. Lower the heat until it's just high enough to maintain a simmer, cover, and let cook until the water is absorbed and the couscous is cooked through, ~10 minutes.

Set the grains aside to cool somewhat (so that they won't melt your feta and wilt your cilantro--I tossed them in the refrigerator for a bit to speed this process). While the grains are cooling, gather and prep the remaining ingredients, and place them in a large bowl. Add the cooled couscous and wheat berries, tossing gently to combine. Season to taste, and add more olive oil if needed to moisten, or lemon juice if desired. This salad keeps well, and is delicious at any temperature.


  1. What a nice combination of flavors! I had a hard time finding the Israeli couscous for a long while, then finally found some at a specialty Italian grocery. I still have some in my pantry...just waiting for something like this!

  2. There's a large-pearl Sardinian couscous called fregola that you can sometimes find at Italian markets (although usually the Israeli version is a cheaper substitute for the former). Israeli couscous is one of my insta-meal secret weapons: even if you don't have the full run-down of add-ins for a recipe like this, you can still get a lovely side dish by adding some pine nuts and parsley, or scallions and walnut oil, or saffron and cauliflower, etc etc etc.

  3. i haven't come across this type of couscous before - does it taste like pasta, or more like normal couscous?

  4. Pasta and couscous are actually both made of semolina, so they shouldn't be *too* different. This is somewhere in between -- somewhat fluffy like couscous, but also slippery like pasta bits. Try some!