I almost never "do" recipes. I've written a book that if anything is an anti-recipe book. I set out on this culinary journey in part because, as I wrote in Making of a Chef, I sensed that recipes were nothing more than a tease, that the real cooking lay beneath the recipes. This is not to say that recipes are bad. Say you made a really killer stir-fry and wanted to be able to do it over and over, or you wanted your best friend to give it a try, you'd want to follow a recipe. If you want to recreate a dish, you need a recipe. I could probably make a decent oatmeal raisin cookie just by figuring it out, but I'd feel better at least glancing at a few recipes. The whole of baking is fairly recipe reliant. My beef with recipes is only that I think cooks rely on them too much. Cooks ought to practice thinking for themselves more often, ought to give their beans a little more credit, ought to lean inward with more confidence.
This weekend I "did" a recipe. Earlier in the week, David Lebovitz's newletter arrived in my inbox. David is one of the best writers and cooks working in both social and traditional media. His blog is excellent and well read; he's a superb non-fiction writer, and his cookbooks are thoughtful, imaginative, and responsible (the recipe work); his Twitter feed is unfailingly entertaining. In the newsletter there's a link to a recipe for Israeli couscous. Ordinarily, I wouldn't have clicked the link. But I happened to have bought some of this unusual pasta-like stuff on a whim; we were having a few people for dinner over the weekend, and I was serving lamb, which is a natural pair for the couscous; and I had some preserved lemon on hand. The clincher was that David called it "the best." He's kind of a stickler, so when he proclaimed it was superlative, I took note.
I followed the recipe exactly. It was great. David being David and me being me, I felt ethically bound to add a little butter. I also gave it a few squirts of fish sauce. I put pepper on the squash because the orange dice looked naked and the sweet flesh needed some spice. Dishes evolve. This was a fun recipe to follow because it had a lot of stuff going on but wasn't taxing, and bold flavors really paid off (which was lucky because I ruined the lamb!). There's a cinnamon stick in the pasta water, there's dried fruit, there's the great technique of using sauteed onion as a flavor base (onion is technique numero quatro in 20); there are toasted pine nuts which are delicious and always give a sense of danger and imminent defeat in the kitchen, because they are so so good but so so easy to forget about and burn (see note below and you'll never burn them).
Bottom line: this is indeed a superlative recipe.
Israeli Couscous with Butternut Squash and Preserved Lemons
Adapted from Gourmet magazine
- 1 ½-pounds (700 g) butternut squash, peeled and seeded
- 3 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 large onion, peeled and minced
- 1 ¾ cup (280 g) Israeli couscous, or Italian pepe-style pasta
- 1 small cinnamon stick
- 1 preserved lemon
- ½ cup (60 g) golden raisins
- ¼ cup (30 g) dried cherries or cranberries, coarsely chopped (optional)
- ¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon
- Fish sauce to taste
- 1 oz butter
- 1 cup (60 g) chopped flat-leaf parsley
- ⅔ cup pine nuts, toasted (see Note)
- Preheat the oven to 475 degrees F./245 degrees C.
- Cut the squash into ½-inch (1.5 cm) cubes and toss them with 1 tablespoon of olive oil and a seasoning of salt in a large baking dish or pan.
- Cook on the upper rack of the oven until the squash is just tender, about 15 minutes. Give them several grinds of fresh black pepper.
- While the squash is cooking, heat the remaining 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a skillet and cook the onions over medium-high heat with a bit of salt until translucent.
- As the squash and onions are finished, scrape them into a large bowl.
- Bring a large pot of salted water, with the cinnamon stick, to a boil and cook the Israeli couscous until tender, about 10 minutes.
- While the couscous cooks, cut the preserved lemon in quarters and scoop of the insides, which you should reserve. Dice the lemon into ¼-inch (1 cm) cubes, add them to the squash, then press the reserved flesh through a strainer to extract the liquid, and add the liquid to the squash.
- Drain, but don’t rinse the couscous. Discard the cinnamon stick.
- Return the couscous to the pot and add the squash mixture along with the raisins, cherries or cranberries (if using), ground cinnamon. Toss to combine.
- When read to serve, rewarm the couscous over medium low heat, stirring in a little butter to annoy David, seasoning with a few drops of fish sauce. Stir in the parsley and pine nuts.
Note: To toast pine nuts, spread them on a baking sheet and toast them in a 350F (180C) oven, checking and stirring them frequently, until nutty-brown. Pine nuts burn quite easily so put one or two on your cutting board, which will be a continual reminder to check the. Your brain wants to clean your cutting board but you can't because, oh, gotta keep an eye on those pine nuts.
If you liked this post on Couscous, check out these other links:
- My post on how to cook dried beans.
- Diners and Dreams is a blog about Moroccan food written by Nisrine Merzouki.
- Clifford A Wright writes about the history of couscous.
- A dessert recipe to warm you at night; baba au rhum.
© 2012 Michael Ruhlman. Photo © 2012 Donna Turner-Ruhlman. All rights reserved