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Home with the Lost Italian

I have to be honest with you - I'm not typically a big fan of couscous (pronounced KOOS-koos). Sure, I'll eat it when it's served, but there's something about the texture that just hasn't resonated with me. In fact, prior to last week, I can't re...

Cucumber and Tomato Couscous Salad
Cucumber and Tomato Couscous Salad is made with Israeli couscous, a larger variety than Moroccan couscous. Couscous takes on the flavors of the ingredients it is cooked with, and is a great complement to vegetable or meat entrees. Darren Gibbins / The Forum
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I have to be honest with you – I’m not typically a big fan of couscous (pronounced KOOS-koos).
Sure, I’ll eat it when it’s served, but there’s something about the texture that just hasn’t resonated with me. In fact, prior to last week, I can’t recall the last time I actually ate couscous.
So when Tony told me he wanted to share a recipe for a summer couscous salad that Chef Ben recently featured at Sarello’s, I was less than enthusiastic.
How would I write about a food that not only doesn’t make my taste buds sing, but leaves me wishing I’d tried something else instead? But, being a good sport, I agreed to try the salad first before politely turning the keyboard over to Tony.
And I’m glad I did because this salad was good. Really, really good, and nothing like the grainy couscous I remembered. I asked Tony why this dish seemed so different from other couscous I’d had, thinking perhaps this was because it was served chilled instead of warm.
Tony explained that the recipe featured Israeli couscous, which is a larger variety (about the size of a peppercorn) than traditional Moroccan couscous. The Israeli couscous was delicious, offering a smoother texture and more pleasing mouth-feel than other types I’d previously tried. It felt and tasted more like pasta than a grain.
Couscous is a staple originally found in North African cuisine, but its popularity has spread to common use throughout the Middle East and even into Sicily, where it often accompanies seafood.
There is great debate about whether couscous is pasta or a grain, and the best answer I could find is that it is neither. It’s couscous, and we’ll leave it at that. But, after tasting Ben’s couscous salad, I could easily imagine substituting it for orzo pasta in some of our other recipes.
Couscous is made from granules of durum wheat called semolina, then moistened and tossed in flour until it forms into little balls. It is very mild by itself but will generously absorb the flavors of other ingredients cooked with it. I found this to be especially true with this salad, as it had a wonderful, rich blend of flavors that were perfectly balanced by the texture and coolness of the cucumber and tomatoes.
A versatile and easy side dish, couscous is a great complement to vegetable or meat entrees, but Tony’s favorite use of it is in salads because it mixes in so well.
“It is neutral and nutritious – a great base for all dishes,” Tony smugly said to me as I passed him my empty bowl for seconds, trying not to roll my eyes at his poetry.
Chef Ben’s recipe is straightforward and easy to follow, and will take about 25 to 30 minutes to prepare, depending on how good your knife skills are. Ben used smoked paprika for this salad, but plain paprika will do in a pinch. The recipe also calls for white wine, and Tony has given the go-ahead to use any type you may have on hand.
One simple, but important step that will enhance the overall texture is to fluff the couscous with a fork or whisk several times once it’s fully cooked, until the couscous is warm enough to touch.
I absolutely loved this salad and can’t wait to have it again. I don’t say this very often, but Tony was right about this one. And all because of couscous. Who knew?
Cucumber Tomato Couscous Salad
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 yellow onion, diced
1 bulb fennel, diced
2 tablespoons garlic, diced
1 teaspoon smoked paprika
1 teaspoon ground oregano
1½ cups water
½ cup white wine
2 cups Israeli couscous (also called Middle Eastern couscous)
For the salad
1 English cucumber, peeled, cut in half lengthwise and sliced into half-moons
2 cups grape tomatoes, sliced in half
1 cup vinaigrette (see recipe below)
In a large pot, combine the olive oil, onion, fennel, garlic and other spices. Sauté over medium heat until tender, about five minutes.
Add white wine and continue cooking over medium heat to reduce, about three to five minutes, until most of the liquid is gone. Add water and bring to a boil.
Add the couscous and reduce heat to medium-low, stirring occasionally until the liquid has evaporated, about five minutes. Remove from heat and cover, fluffing the couscous with a fork or whisk every few minutes until it is just warm to the touch.
Add the dressing, cucumber and tomatoes, and chill for at least an hour before serving; overnight is even better. Salad can be kept refrigerated for up to three days.
½ cup extra virgin olive oil
½ cup red wine vinegar
1 teaspoon smoked paprika
1 teaspoon ground oregano
Salt and pepper to taste
Mix all ingredients in a large bowl until combined. Toss with warm couscous, cucumbers and tomatoes if using immediately, or refrigerate for up to one week until ready to use.
Home with the Lost Italian is a weekly column written by Sarah Nasello featuring recipes by her husband, Tony Nasello. The couple owns Sarello’s restaurant in Moorhead and lives in Fargo with their 9-year-old son, Giovanni. Readers can reach them at dine@sarellos.com . All previous recipes can be found at http://thelostitalian.areavoices.com

Related Topics: RECIPESFOOD
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