Week 4 of my project (hear that, everyone? That means January is over and I’ve stuck with my resolution!), and we’ve had our first gathering of ingredients that resulted in a not-amazing dish. I’m going to share it anyway, though, in the spirit of the project, because I have some ideas for amendment.
“33. Cook Israeli couscous in stock or water. With a fork, stir in chopped, pitted Kalamata or other olives, chopped green onions and diced, poached or roasted sweet potatoes. Dress with a vinaigrette.”
Dutifully, I found and purchased Israeli couscous and cooked it in chicken stock. I roasted cubes of an enormous sweet potato because I thought the flavor would be more intense and therefore more exciting than just poaching it. I halved my olives instead of chopping them finely because I was feeling a bit lazy, and I stirred together a vinaigrette of red wine vinegar, a squeeze of dijon mustard, a dribble of honey, and olive oil. I dressed the couscous while it was still hot, as I’ve learned from experience with pasta salads that this helps the flavor of the dressing permeate the pasta.
And then we tasted. The couscous was chewy and intriguing, like savory little balls of tapioca. The green onions were crunchy and fresh, the olives were briny and salty and rich, and the sweet potato was… sweet.
I’m a fan of salty-sweet. I like chocolate covered pretzels, I love salted caramels, I think craisins are a perfect accompaniment to roasted nuts, but this combination just didn’t thrill me. Maybe we just had a too-sweet-sweet-potato, or maybe the olives should have been in smaller pieces to lessen their impact, or maybe I wasn’t in the mood for the reminiscences of Thanksgiving, but I think it just wasn’t the perfect collocation of ingredients for our usually investigative little taste-buds. What I was wanting, I realized halfway through dinner, was acidity – more than the mildly tart vinaigrette I made was offering. I wanted lemon zest, or capers, or even the glorious salt-packed earthy richness of anchovies. And then I realized I wanted the dish to be Shauna and Danny’s Pasta with Lemon, Anchovies, and Olives. And now that’s all I can think of.
So my recommendation for this collection of ingredients is to make one substitution. Cook up the couscous. It is filling without being overbearing, and the green onions and vinaigrette lighten it up. Chop up the olives and fold them in, unapologetic. They are delicious and they know it. But leave out the sweet potato. Replace it with something more savory, like sundried tomatoes or capers or shards of prosciutto. And then add a squeeze of lemon juice and a few teaspoons of zest. It will change the tenor of the dish. It won’t marry nicely with roasted turkey and cranberries and mashed potatoes and green bean casserole anymore. It won’t be out of place as a fresh take on pasta salad in the summer. It wouldn’t complain, if you paired it with grilled chicken, or sausages, or Mediterranean-spiced kebabs. But it will, I think, be good.