A springtime couscous salad recipe, complete with feta, grapes, and pickled rhubarb.
I’m almost ashamed to admit it, but I hate salad. I don’t just mean ‘dislike’ – what I have is a deep-rooted, emotionally charged, nearly-unnatural hatred for the stuff. I’m one of those sorry people that will eat everything else on my plate, picking around the salad, finally mushing it up into a ball and hiding it under a slice of bread or a hapless biscuit. I know, it’s pathetic.
The weird thing is that I actually like vegetables. Give me collard greens, grilled asparagus, kale juice, blanched broccoli, or sautéed bok choy any day of the week. I’ll greedily slurp down chard wilted with soy sauce or a green smoothie large enough to fill a football helmet. But put everything together in a bowl and dribble it with dressing… then it’s a no go.
It’s something about the idea of a salad. Growing up, every salad I knew consisted of mealy pink commodity tomatoes, a fluttering of insipid iceberg lettuce, and a sorry slice of cucumber. The whole mess was covered in some sort of bottled goo that claimed to be salad dressing, but looked and felt a lot like the reincarnation of my eternal arch nemesis, mayonnaise.
And for the love of all that is holy, don’t even get me started on chicken salad, potato salad, or *gack! shudder!* macaroni salad. I may retch right here, in front of everyone.
On the few occasions that I’ve managed to get a few bites of a decently-made salad down my gullet, I actually enjoy the experience. In fact, I’ve made incredibly good salads for dinner parties when I’ve been to lazy to actually cook something. I even wrote a book with an entire freaking salad chapter, for god’s sake. But if given the choice, I’ll still go to inhuman lengths to avoid all possible contact with salad.
Sigh. I’m working on it.
Thankfully I have friends that enjoy the subtle art of stuffing salad in my face. You see, if someone makes me a salad, I’ll feel totally trapped and eat it just to be polite. I think they’re aware of this fact and set me up intentionally, but in the end they’re probably doing me a huge favor, even if they’re being manipulative.
Here’s the rest of the salad recipe I mentioned when I posted the pickled rhubarb recipe the other day. I’ve never really thought about making a couscous salad – or any salad, usually – but Garrett and I developed this recipe on the fly a few weekends ago when he decided to have a barbecue. We were wandering aimlessly around Whole Foods, as we’re wont to do on Friday nights, the conversation going something like this:
G: I want to make a salad with that pickled rhubarb. We can turn it into a macaroni and cheese dish.
Me: Really? Mac & cheese? Like a salad?
G: Yup. Let’s get some pasta, cheese, and whatever else we can throw in there.
Me: Hrmm, ok. How about…. feta? That’s nice and salty. It might weirdly go with the rhubarb.
G: Done. What else? How about strawberries?
Me: *eyeroll* Oh gawd, there’s strawberries in freakin’ everything right now. How about… those grapes over there?
G: Welllll…. actually, yeah, let’s do that. It might work.
Me: And the pasta?
G: OH! I have some whole wheat couscous at home! Let’s use that.
Me: Wow, I’m actually getting excited about this salad. This was essentially the entire recipe development process for Melt: the Art of Macaroni and Cheese.
Couscous is one of those funny foods that feels healthy, but no one ever seems to be sure. Is it a grain? Is it a pasta? Is it made with white flour? Where does it come from?
Here’s the deal: Couscous is actually a pellet-shaped pasta, originating in North Africa and eventually making its way to various parts of the Middle East. Traditionally, couscous is made with semolina. The flour is mixed with water, then rolled and crumbled to form tiny pearls. The couscous is then dried in the sun to dry it for storage. These days, of course, couscous is made in huge factories and shipped all over the world. So to clear up any misconceptions…
- Couscous is
essentially dried pastais not a pasta at all, apparently. See below.
- The standard, everyday couscous you find in grocery stores is not gluten-free
- In its general form, couscous is not a grain, let alone a whole grain.
Friend, food historian, and insanely prolific cookbook author Clifford A. Wright was generous enough to educate me on the finer points of couscous. According to Cliff:
Although both pasta (pastasciutta) and couscous are only made from two ingredients, wheat and water, they are two different products. Pasta is made by forming a paste or dough then forming it into the shape you want and drying it. Couscous is not made by forming a dough. Two sizes of wheat grain are rubbed together with water until pellets are formed, like a neutron to an electron to form a molecule (pellet) that is then dried.
The largest form of couscous, which is called pearl couscous, large couscous, or fattened couscous is indeed a real couscous. Large couscous can be made in 2 ways: as a couscous where a small grain of semolina attaches to a large grain with mists of water and rubbing and then sieved r as a pasta, where an alimentary dough paste is made and balls are pulled off the mass and rolled. This couscous is a native of North Africa. Israeli couscous is merely a marketing name and not Israeli. Here are the variety of names large couscous:
- Muhammas: Used in Morocco, Tunisia (alternate spellings: mhammsa, etc )
- Burkukis: Used in Algeria (alternate spellings: berkoukis, berkoukus, etc)
- Maghribiyya: Used in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Palestine, and Arab-Americans (alternate spellings: moghrebiyya, moghrabiya, etc)
- Palline: Used in Italy, but pasta not couscous
- Israeli couscous: Used in Israel and by some importers
Bob’s Red Mill came up with a healthier, whole grain version of couscous that I love. Since I’m trying to increase the fiber in my diet and avoid refined flours, I have a huge appreciation for their Whole Wheat Pearl Couscous. It has a nutty, robust flavor that lends depth to whatever dish you’re adding it to, and of course, there’s the whole grain compent. Win.
(Ed note: This post is not sponsored by Bob’s Red Mill. I’m just sharing this because I really like this product. If you like another variety of couscous, the recipe below will be more than happy to accommodate!)
This couscous salad is an exercise is paradoxes: bracing and sweet, nutty but herbal, filling and hearty whilst remaining both fresh and light. It’s a quick and easy springtime salad if ever there was one. The pickled rhubarb can made with this recipe with very little effort, though that step must be completed a day or two before, depending on how pickled you like your rhubarb.
- 2 cups dried couscous (we used Bob’s Red Mill whole wheat pearl couscous)
- 3 tablespoons good, fruity olive oil
- 1 tablespoon lemon juice
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1/4 teaspoon freshly-ground black pepper
- 1/2 cup diced pickled rhubarb
- 2 cups halved red grapes
- 1/3 cup chopped parsley
- 6 ounces brined feta, crumbled
- 1 teaspoon red pepper flakes (optional)
- Prepare couscous according to the instructions on the package. Pour the cooked couscous into a large bowl. Dribble with olive oil and lemon juice, then sprinkle with salt and pepper. Toss lightly with a fork, making sure to not mash the couscous.
- Add pickled rhubarb, grapes, parsley, feta, and red pepper flakes (if using). Toss lightly again, and adjust seasoning to taste. Serve immediately.