Lamb and Ricotta Baked Rigatoni

I didn’t have much experience with baked pastas growing up. Mom made tetrazzini occasionally to use up Thanksgiving turkey, and had a macaroni and cheese favorite, but lasagna was too much trouble, with noodles that had to be boiled ahead of time, and layered, and stacked, and then sold to her two lasagna-disinclined children (R. was picky and suspicious of casserole-type meals, and I was solidly against tomato sauce). I never even heard of baked ziti or stuffed shells until I was an adult.

How I’ve missed out! The beauty of baked pasta, if you remain uninitiated, is the contrast of textures – creamy and tender below, but bronzed and crisp on top, not to mention the opportunity to consume wicked quantities of bread crumbs and/or cheese. The edges of the pasta pieces that protrude above whatever final layer you’ve assigned the dish – cheese or crumb or sauce – toast and sizzle and become pleasingly dark and crunchy; they are the part everyone you feed will fight over.

No real story exists for how this pasta dish came to be, aside from as a way of using up a container of ricotta cheese and a few handfuls of mushrooms languishing in the back of the fridge. It came together as a “what if” sort of creature, with aggressively seasoned ground lamb and a tomato sauce bolstered by red wine and some parmesan rinds I found in my freezer, and it was so satisfying I dubbed it “blog-worthy” by my third bite.

Digging in, you get the richness of sauce soaked into the thick tubes of pasta, and the chew of the lamb, and the interspersed delight of great pockets of ricotta, since we aren’t mixing it in, but adding it in a series of large dollops, a years-old idea from Smitten Kitchen that simmered back to the surface as I faced a too-full skillet and wondered how to get everything combined and into the casserole dish I’d prepared.

This does take a little extra time and effort: the mushrooms roast separately, the sauce is better the longer it cooks, and then of course you have to boil and then bake the pasta. But listen, you probably have an afternoon coming up that could stand to have a cooking project added to it, and besides, each of these component parts needs minimal babysitting once you’ve gotten it started. It is, I would posit, a very good dinner party dish in that you can do the whole thing relatively in advance, shoving it in to bake just as your guests arrive so you are free to greet them, and, if you’re like me, fitting in time to tidy up a little during the preliminary steps: sweep up the dining area while the mushrooms roast. Do a round of dishes and set the table while the sauce simmers. Then gloat as your home fills with the aroma of melting cheese and simmering wine and earthy herbs and you have nothing else to do besides sip a little wine and relax while you nibble whatever your guests brought, because of course you’ve assigned them appetizers, right?

Baked Lamb and Ricotta Rigatoni
Serves 6-8
Approximately 90 minutes (or more, if you want your sauce to simmer longer)
6 tablespoons olive oil, divided (3 for each)
2 cups chopped onion, from 1 large or 2 small onions
5-6 cloves garlic, finely minced
¾–1 pound ground lamb
1 teaspoon dried basil
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1 teaspoon ground allspice
1 teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon black pepper
pinch red pepper flakes
1½ cups red wine
28 ounce can whole peeled tomatoes
2 bay leaves
parmesan rinds, if you have any
1 pound crimini mushrooms, stalks removed, caps quartered
12 ounces rigatoni
3 tablespoons finely chopped fresh dill
16 ounces whole milk ricotta cheese
½ cup grated parmesan cheese
Additional dill, or fresh parsley or oregano, if desired

 

  • Heat 3 tablespoons of the olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat while you chop the onions and garlic. Sweat the onions and garlic in the oil until softened and fragrant but not browned, 8-10 minutes.
  • Add the lamb, basil, oregano, red pepper flakes, allspice, salt, and black pepper to the skillet, and work with a wooden spatula to break up the lamb and distribute the spices and vegetables. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the crumbled pieces of lamb are no longer pink in the center.
  • Next, add the red wine and simmer for about 10 minutes, to reduce slightly, cook out some of the alcohol, and mellow the flavor, then add the whole peeled tomatoes, the 2 bay leaves, and the parmesan rinds, if you have any available. Simmer, using your wooden spatula to break up the tomatoes as they cook, for at least 30 minutes (though you can cook it longer if you want).
  • While the sauce is simmering, you can attend to the mushrooms: preheat the oven to 400F and toss the quartered mushroom caps with the remaining 3 tablespoons olive oil. Roast 20-25 minutes, stirring once at around the halfway mark. When finished, remove from the oven and turn the oven temperature down to 375F.
  • As the sauce simmers, boil salted water and cook the rigatoni about a minute less than the package directions indicate; it will soak up sauce and continue to cook as we bake it.
  • When the mushrooms and pasta are done and the sauce has simmered at least half an hour, remove the bay leaves and parmesan rinds, then stir the dill, the mushrooms, and the pasta into the sauce.
  • In a large baking dish (something in the 9×13” range fits everything in), add the pasta and sauce mixture in small batches, interspersed with large spoonfuls of the ricotta cheese. The idea is to have pockets of the cheese throughout. Once the pasta, sauce, and ricotta are loaded into the dish, top with an even layer of the grated parmesan cheese, then bake at 375F for about 30 minutes. The sauce will bubble and the parmesan cheese will melt and brown over the top. The whole thing will be molten hot; you might want to wait 5-10 minutes before serving to let it barely cool.
  • If desired, serve with a few tablespoons of chopped fresh herbs scattered over the top.

 

Spaghetti with Miso Tomato Sauce

2016-food-blog-september-0763A lot of people focus, when they talk about their own recipes – the recipes they have created, or modified from already-existing dishes – on secret ingredients. There’s that one, singular item you add to “make it your own,” (or, if you’re the Colonel, maybe eleven). If you’re a certain kind of cook, you leave it out of your written recipes so no one can duplicate your masterpiece exactly, and they struggle for a lifetime trying to figure out why theirs doesn’t taste quite like yours. Secret ingredients puzzle your audience; they are intrigued but can’t quite identify that flavor combination – it blends just enough to keep it unidentifiable.

2016-food-blog-september-0737My one big secret ingredient used to be nutmeg in oatmeal chocolate chip cookies – it added another layer of warmth and interest, and it made one of my high school friends giggle about my cookies being aphrodisiacal. It was unexpected until you knew it was there, and then it made sense. My college roommate adopted it in her own chocolate chip cookies and at least once left it out of the recipe she passed along to a friend, so that the cookies would never be quite the same, thereby keeping them special.

2016-food-blog-septemberApart from that, my typical “secret ingredient” practice is just adding so many components that I likely won’t remember them all when I need to recreate whatever dish it was (clearly ideal methodology for a food blogger!). But suddenly, I have a secret ingredient. It fits all the qualifications: it adds a definite flavor without being obvious, and it would be difficult to guess at were you trying blindly to taste out every component of the dish.

2016-food-blog-september-07442016-food-blog-september-0747This came about by accident, as many of my masterworks do. We had just arrived home from our annual summer road trip, which meant a whatever-is-still-good meal. Pasta is easy here – a bag of spaghetti and a can of tomatoes are guaranteed to be fine and tasty – but being who I am, the urge to tinker kicked in and I was rooting around in the fridge looking for something to make it special. I found a container of heavy cream that, shoved to the very back, was not only still good, but almost frozen, and a tiny, hard, crusty little corner of miso paste. It looked okay, apart from being approximately the texture of granite, and in a moment of innovation genius “well, why not?” I tossed it into the sauce.

2016-food-blog-september-0749As secret ingredients go, this is a good one. No, you don’t necessarily want to buy a whole tub of miso paste just for this, since you’ll only be going through a tablespoon or two, but the number of other sauces, soups, and stir-fry dishes that it will contribute to makes it a great thing to have at the back of the fridge. (And really, if you bought the stuff for Deb’s recipe in the first place, you’ll need a new recipe to use up that last stubborn chunk that has been hiding in your fridge for months anyway.) The miso adds all the salt needed to the sauce, but it also contributes a lux, complex quality that gives depth the tomatoes and somehow makes the cream feel lighter – more sprightly.

2016-food-blog-september-0754In the final incarnation, I added leeks for an onion-y aromatic base, a splash of wine to deglaze, and a smattering of chili flakes, and I was delighted with all of these additions, though you could certainly leave out the heat, replace the leeks with garlic or shallot (or some combination), and I wouldn’t say no to marsala in place of the wine.

In any case, though, scatter the top with a chiffonade of basil or some parsley fragments, and challenge your dinner guests to guess what that extra flavor is – I bet they will be stumped, trying to determine our new secret ingredient.

2016-food-blog-september-0762

Spaghetti with miso tomato sauce
40-45 minutes
Serves 8-10
1 pound spaghetti
2 tablespoons salt for pasta water
4 tablespoons butter
½ cup finely chopped leek, white and pale green parts only
½ cup dry white wine
¼ teaspoon red pepper flakes (or to taste)
2 tablespoons white or red miso paste
28 ounce can whole peeled tomatoes
½ cup heavy cream, at room temperature (adding to the sauce at room temperature, rather than cold, eliminates the danger of curdling)
optional: 2-3 tablespoons chopped parsley or chiffonade of basil to scatter over the top

 

  • Fill a large pot with water, add the 2 tablespoons salt, and bring to a boil. When it boils, add the spaghetti and cook according to package directions, stirring once or twice to separate pasta strands. When the spaghetti is tender but still has a slight bite, drain it and add it to the sauce as directed below.
  • While the pasta water heats, melt the butter in a large skillet over medium heat. When it is melted, add the leeks and turn the heat down to medium-low; sweat the leeks, stirring often, until they are tender. This should take about 8-10 minutes.
  • When the leeks are tender and translucent, add the wine and the red pepper flakes, stir to integrate, and raise the heat to medium-high. Simmer for 3-5 minutes to cook off some of the raw flavor of the wine.
  • Now, add the miso paste, using a wooden spoon or a whisk to break it up and integrate it evenly into the wine mixture. Cook 2-3 minutes to allow it to soften and distribute (the older the miso paste is, the more reluctant it will be to integrate).
  • Dump in the canned tomatoes and their juice, stir, and turn the heat down to medium-low. Simmer for 20-30 minutes, stirring occasionally. Periodically, crush the tomatoes with the back of a wooden spoon or with a potato masher (be careful: they squirt!).
  • When the sauce has simmered at least 20 minutes to let the flavors blend, and when the pasta is cooked and drained, take the skillet off the heat and stir in the room temperature cream.
  • Integrate the drained pasta (I use tongs for this), then place the skillet back over medium-low heat and cook, frequently manipulating the pasta with your tongs, for another two minutes. This lets the pasta absorb some of the sauce.
  • To serve, transfer to a large bowl or serving dish and, if desired, scatter the top with your parsley or basil. Warm garlic toast is a welcome accompaniment.

Arugula and Feta Pasta with Lemon Garlic Crumbs

2015 Blog August-0259I know what you must be thinking. I rhapsodize about meatballs, toss around semi-exotic ingredients you might have to go to multiple stores to obtain, advocate that you turn zucchini into noodles, and then disappear for almost three weeks with only a few photos to tide you over.

2015 Blog August-0227During those weeks, I must admit I didn’t cook much. We were traveling, making our annual pilgrimage to Oregon where we attended a wedding, stayed with good friends, single-handedly prevented the Cascadia quake by staying in a hotel that overlooked the ocean, N. bought a banjo, and I pulled a muscle in my back. (We also discovered the glory that is a chocolate stout float, but more on that in a few weeks.)

2015 Blog August-0237Not much makes you look forward to an eight-hour car ride less than having a pulled muscle in your lower back. Apart from trying to get comfortable and working to stay awake through the muscle relaxers I was taking (man do those things knock you out!), I sorted through what had become unexpectedly difficult to accomplish without the muscle just left of your spine: spitting out toothpaste without dribbling it down your front. Shimmying into a pair of shorts – your feet and ankles are suddenly so far away! Rolling over in bed. Hobbling across the street at a snail’s pace while the kindly drivers on either side regret waving you forward. Filling and then draining off a pot of pasta water.

2015 Blog August-0240Cooking, thus, when we got home, had to be simple at first, and required some of N.’s help for the parts that had become surprisingly heavy. Fortunately, I’d been hoping to repeat this simple little pasta dish: capellini, also known as angel hair, tangled together with lightly wilted arugula and salty crumbles of feta, topped with an aromatic, heavy dose of crunchy breadcrumbs flavored with garlic and lemon zest. The whole thing only uses two pans, it requires only a handful of ingredients, none particularly exotic, and it takes a mere twenty minutes or so to throw together, since most of the prep and cooking of the breadcrumbs can be done while you’re waiting for the pasta water to boil.

2015 Blog August-02422015 Blog August-0243

2015 Blog August-0246If you aren’t accustomed to having arugula in your fridge, you should be – it’s a wonderful go-to green for salads and a refreshingly different take on pesto. Delicate but peppery, it’s also called rocket and is one of my favorite salad bases. As for the topping, I’m using panko – those delightfully brittle shards that are Japan’s answer to the breadcrumb, and unquestionably my favorite type. You wouldn’t want them for your meatballs, where the goal is light, springy absorbency, but once toasted, they make an addictively perfect crisp topping for basically anything. Since they don’t taste like much, I’ve bumped up the flavor with lemon zest, a healthy bit of grated garlic, and some red pepper flakes for N., who likes that hit of warmth on the back of the throat.

2015 Blog August-0249Coming home at the beginning of August is a bittersweet proposition, because at once it means a glory of summer fruits and more vegetables at the Farmers’ Market than my market bag or my wallet can handle, but it also means the first day of classes looms ever closer on the horizon. And as nice as it is to be home, the fact that it will be at least another year before we see all the friends we just hugged goodbye is a pang quite different from my slowly healing back muscle. This week, then, we’ve covered a bit of the bitter, with the peppery greens and the briny sharpness of the cheese. Next week, inspired by a bourbon-loving friend I didn’t get to see on this trip, I want to make up for it with something sweet.

2015 Blog August-0252

Arugula and feta pasta with lemon garlic crumbs
Serves 4 very hungry diners, or 6 less hungry diners
6 tablespoons olive oil, divided
1 cup panko breadcrumbs
¼ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon red pepper flakes
1 tablespoon grated garlic (from about 4 cloves)
1 tablespoon lemon zest (from 1 large or 2 small lemons)
8 ounces capellini or angel hair pasta
¼ cup fresh lemon juice (from 1 large or 2 small lemons)
5-6 ounces baby arugula
4 ounces feta, crumbled

 

  • Heat a large, lidded pot of well-salted water over high heat. When it comes to a boil, add the capellini and cook according to package directions. While you wait for the water to boil, however, make the breadcrumbs and prep the other ingredients, as detailed below.
  • Heat 2 tablespoons of the olive oil in a 10-inch skillet over medium heat. When it is shimmering, add the panko breadcrumbs, the salt, and the red pepper flakes. Toast over medium heat, stirring almost constantly to brown evenly and prevent burning.
  • When the crumbs are golden, which for me was about 2-3 minutes, add the grated garlic and lemon zest and stir well to evenly distribute. The zest and garlic will want to clump up, so stir assertively. Cook, stirring, for another 1-2 minutes until the mixture is fragrant and nicely browned. Remove from heat and set aside.
  • By now, your water should be close to or already boiling. Add the pasta and stir to submerge it. Cook with the lid off to al dente, following the package directions. As soon as the pasta is done, drain immediately into a colander or strainer.
  • Add the remaining 4 tablespoons of olive oil to the now-empty pasta pot and swirl it over medium-low heat to evenly coat the bottom of the pot. Add the lemon juice, then the pasta, and toss with tongs to coat evenly with oil and lemon juice.
  • Dump in the arugula and use the tongs to gently integrate it with the pasta. When the arugula is gently wilted, turn off the heat and sprinkle in the crumbled feta cheese. Use tongs again to toss so the cheese is evenly distributed.
  • Serve hot in large, shallow bowls, and top each serving with about 2 tablespoons of the crumbs.

Spinach and Goat Cheese Orchiette with Hazelnuts

One of the great things about the last house we lived in during our tenure in Eugene – the best house – the party house – was its location. Just over a mile from campus, it was also within walking distance of downtown (for the incredible produce and local craft market each weekend) and the fairgrounds.

Food Blog September 2014-0616The Lane County Fairgrounds played host to … well, let’s call it an interesting line-up of events. Among others, a gem and mineral show, a bridal show and wedding expo, a model train exhibit, and (I am not kidding) a wool festival. In the summers during the County Fair, we could smell the fried food and hear the cover bands from our backyard as the sun fell. Sometimes they were fun. But sometimes it was someone covering Huey Lewis and the News again. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m a believer in the power of love. After all, it don’t take credit cards to ride that train, and far be it from me to critique the theme song from Back to the Future! But several nights in a row, even if it’s only once a year, is pushing it.

Food Blog September 2014-0607Despite its foibles, the fairgrounds also hosted an annual event that N. and I went to every single year. The Friends of the Library Book Sale happened in the spring, and with most books priced at 50 cents or $1, the season was important, because we ended up having to establish rules. A household with two English literature PhD students may lack many things, but what it does not lack are books. By our third year in the program, we already had at least four bookshelves jammed so full we were piling books atop each other and committing the shelving equivalent of double parking with some of the smaller paperbacks. Every shelf sagged in the middle from the weight. Cheap books were a danger zone.

Food Blog September 2014-0611We ended up instituting a rule that we had to walk to the book sale. This required us to get some exercise and celebrate the season, but more importantly, it meant we were limited in what we could add to the collection by our own biceps. If you can’t carry it home, you can’t have it. It helped. A little.

Facing a room full of tables full of books, with more books in boxes underneath, is a daunting task. After I’d perused the “literature and fiction” area and the “classics” table, I would routinely wander to the cookbooks section. Selections here were usually hardback, which meant I’d be able to carry fewer of them, and (surprise, surprise) usually a bit pricier than the twelve ratty copies of Heart of Darkness with torn covers gracing the literature area. But for people with limited willpower, these kinds of hard and fast prohibitions are a good thing. They mean you have to really want what you’re getting, and that leads to better purchases.

Food Blog September 2014-0610Food Blog September 2014-0612I acquired several good cookbooks via this method, including one containing the first yeast bread I ever made (and it was a success!). But by far, the star has been an old annual collection of Food and Wine Magazine recipes, and within that collection itself, the single page that receives the most attention contains a pasta dish by Mario Batali. It features goat cheese, hazelnuts, and red pepper flakes coaxed into a sauce to coat a pile of orchiette, those little domes of pasta named for their apparent resemblance to little ears (though to be honest they have always reminded me more of a lady’s cloche hat).

Food Blog September 2014-0614Batali’s recipe is delicious but basic. He blends the aforementioned ingredients with a smattering of chopped parsley, a glug or two of olive oil, and a healthy pour of starchy, steamy pasta water into a creamy sauce. After tossing the pasta in all this tangy, spicy, nutty glory, Batali adds a dusting of toasted bread crumbs for some needed crunch.

My version, though it maintains the procedure, plays to my own tendency for gluttony. Unsatisfied with just goat cheese, I add some shredded white cheddar for extra savory tang. N. is a fiend for bread crumbs, so I nearly triple the quantity called for in the original recipe. In an attempt to atone for these culinary sins, I also add a tremendous half pound of fresh baby spinach leaves, lightly wilted in the pasta water during the last minute of cooking. Further, it’s gluttonous in its allowances for laziness: the sauce, such as it is, is constructed in the serving bowl, the spinach cooks with the pasta, and though you do have to dirty up your food processor, you can process the bread crumbs and the hazelnuts in it one after the other with no need to do more than tamp it out a bit in between.

Food Blog September 2014-0617The finished dish is a mountain of pasta, caressed with sauce and threaded through with enough wilted spinach to eliminate the need for a side salad (though if you still want one, be my guest!). It’s a study in textures, with the orchiette themselves retaining a lovely chew, the spinach soft, the sauce silky but rumbling with pebbles of hazelnut resistance, and topped off with the perfect golden crunch of the toasty bread crumbs. Behind all this is the steady heat of the red pepper flakes, which I alternate quantities of – sometimes just enough to add a suggestion of spice, sometimes enough to clear the sinuses of the persistent fall allergies the LA basin is kind enough to grant me. Either way, it’s a dish that I forget about in between instances, but once I’ve tasted a fresh, steaming forkful, it becomes the only thing I want to eat ever again. Again.

Food Blog September 2014-0619

Spinach and Goat Cheese Orchiette with Hazelnuts
adapted from Mario Batali
Serves 8

1-1/2 cups fresh bread crumbs (whir 4-5 slices of sourdough in a food processor)
1/2 cup hazelnuts
6 ounces goat cheese, at room temperature
6 ounces extra sharp white cheddar, grated, at room temperature
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
1/4 cup minced fresh parsley
1 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes (or to your taste; this quantity produces a moderately spicy flavor)
1 pound orchiette, preferable, or another vaguely shell-shaped pasta
8 ounces fresh baby spinach
salt and pepper to taste

  • Preheat the oven to 350F. Once you’ve processed your bread into 1-1/2 cups of fine crumbs, spread them out on a cookie sheet and toast them in the oven until golden, tossing and fluffing occasionally. Depending on the density and size of your crumbs, this will take 10-15 minutes. Once golden and crisp, remove from the oven and set aside.
  • Use the same food processor, shaken free of bread crumbs, to grind the hazelnuts into a gravel with individual pieces about the size of coriander or mustard seeds (i.e. we want them small, but not quite ground into a paste).
  • Heat well-salted water to boiling in a large pot and cook orchiette according to package directions.
  • Meanwhile, put the goat cheese, shredded cheddar cheese, crushed red pepper flakes, olive oil, parsley, and ground hazelnuts into a large serving bowl. Mash it about with a rubber spatula to combine into a thick, lovely, cheesy paste.
  • In the last minute of the pasta’s cooking time, add the 8 ounces of baby spinach leaves and push them down into the boiling water with a wooden spoon.
  • When the spinach is wilted but still bright green and the pasta is tender but still pleasantly chewy, drain both, reserving about 1 cup of the pasta water.
  • Add pasta and spinach to the serving bowl with the cheese and nut mixture. Begin to add the pasta water, 1/4 cup at a time, stirring, until a thick, sauce forms that coats the pasta evenly. This may not take the entire cup of water; thin the sauce just to your desired consistency.
  • Season to taste with salt and pepper, then scatter on the breadcrumbs immediately before serving.

Israeli Couscous Salad

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.

Food Blog October 2013-2656This 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.

Food Blog October 2013-2650And 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.

Food Blog October 2013-2648Sometimes, 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.

Food Blog October 2013-2641Israeli 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.

Food Blog October 2013-2652

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.