I don’t like restraint. It’s the same complaint I have about being a grown-up (also, restraint, complaint? They were clearly meant to go together!): the liberties are great, but the requirements to limit and be responsible for myself sometimes seem unfair. Ice cream for dinner because I want to? Yes I can! Work still starts at 7:45 on Monday morning? Oh. Right. Responsibility.
This tenuous relationship with restraint (and adulthood) contributes to the way I cook. Though what I try to bring here are dishes that I’ve tinkered with and scaled back or spruced up appropriately, that doesn’t reflect the me-in-the-kitchen reality most often produces. This “real” me is spattered with flour, knocking over bottled spices as she reaches for, most often, embarrassingly, the garlic powder (because honestly? Mincing up garlic on a weeknight after I’ve spent all day grading papers is sometimes beyond my capacities). I’m constantly in the line of fire of spurts of olive oil that spring out of my too-hot pan, and consistently grateful for the lovely canine I live with who willingly volunteers to “mop” the floor after dinner has been served. It’s a disaster zone, if I’m honest, which is why there are so rarely photos of me here to go along with the food.
And when it comes to the food, I must admit to occasionally overdoing it. I’ve made salads with so much in them it was hard to find the lettuce. My stir-fry sauce has probably a dozen ingredients. My pizza crusts don’t always crisp up because there are too many toppings crammed, well, atop them. Rarely is my final choice an unadorned one, but a basic that I’ve dressed up because I can’t help myself. Even in the words I use to tell you, I’m forever prattling on.
Sometimes, though, the minimalist in me steps in. She clears the counter with a glance. She demands simplicity, clarity, balance. She puts away the crumbled feta and the dried cherries and the dreams of fried sage. And she is usually right.
This simple Israeli couscous salad was born of a vision of combining raita and tabbouleh, though bizarrely with none of the most important ingredients for either. But that’s me. I’ve stripped away the parsley and the yogurt and the tomatoes and the bulgur wheat, and wound up with a collection of flavors and textures I’m totally in love with. And it’s so simple. Israeli couscous. Cucumber. Green onions. Mint. Pine nuts. Olive oil and lemon juice to dress. That’s it.
Israeli couscous, if you’ve never had it, is like a savory pile of tapioca balls, squashy and chewy and appealingly gummy. It makes a nice replacement for the bulgur wheat in tabbouleh, though it needs significantly less acid. Here, paired with the waterlogged freshness of cucumber and the creamy-crunch of pine nuts, it’s near perfect. And the mint. Guys, if you aren’t fans of mint in savory dishes, or if the last time you had it was as the leading flavor in that almost glowing green jelly spooned over a trembling haunch of lamb, you have to give it another chance. I already knew its herbal punch went well with cucumber, but I was surprised and delighted by how well it complements the pine nuts.
We ate this as a side dish for some tandoori-spiced grilled chicken and Bittman chutney one night, and then, in testament to its simple goodness, it conveniently acquiesced to be my lunch for several days in a row later that week.
You could, if you wish, add ¼ – ¼ cup halved cherry tomatoes, or shredded grilled chicken, or even a few tablespoons of yogurt for creaminess, and I think it would be stellar. But I, in an uncharacteristic display, decided not to. Restraint. For once. And I think I’m glad.
Israeli Couscous Salad
Serves 4-6 as a side dish, 2-3 as a main salad
1 cup Israeli couscous (sometimes also called pearl or pearled couscous)
1 ¼ cups water
2-3 tablespoons olive oil
2-3 tablespoons lemon juice
¼ teaspoon salt
⅛ teaspoon black pepper
¼ cup toasted pine nuts
¼ cup sliced green onions, whites and green tops
1 cup seeded, diced cucumber
¼ cup chopped fresh mint
- Bring the 1 ¼ cups water to a boil in a medium saucepan. Add the couscous and cook over medium-high heat until the water has absorbed and the couscous pearls are like little tapioca balls. Don’t overdo it – you want a touch of resistance to remain. These are, after all, a form of pasta.
- When the couscous is done, drain any extra water that remains and toss with the lemon juice and the olive oil. Season with the salt and pepper to taste. Let cool to room temperature.
- Add the pine nuts, cucumber, green onions, and mint to the room temperature couscous and serve immediately.