Here’s why Israeli couscous used to baffle me. It’s baffling. On a superficial level (how else do we judge new things at the market?) it looks nothing like couscous and that’s part of what sucked me in–the novelty–but being called “couscous” put in familiar territory (I thought) so I brought it home. And put in on a shelf and left it untouched for so long I was sure it could expire even though it was dried, like, pasta? Like couscous? Like both. Since they are all the same thing: wheat flour in various shapes and sizes. The thing is, being a little like both but not enough like one or the other, I didn’t know how exactly to cook it. So I looked up how and found not a clear answer but another reason to be confused: people toasted it and then boiled it. I do that to neither couscous nor pasta. What was this ingredient? And why crisp them only to wet them? The fact that some only boiled it led me not to think I could do the same, it led me to think they were doing something wrong. That’s right. I didn’t know what I was doing but I still assumed people were more wrong than I was about to be. Oh for the day in the future, eight years out, when a million bloggers would show and tell how to deal with every ingredient under the sky and magazines put their entire recipe archives on their sites. I finally made it once and it didn’t turn out well and it was years until I tried again.
And when I did, I toasted and boiled them.
But then I finally knew why. That Israel couscous is a little like pasta in size and bite once cooked (tender but chewy like a good al dente noodle), but it’s roasted which lends it a nutty flavour. And you toast it to bring it out, even if in the end you’re boiling it. You can boil it without toasting and when you toast Israeli couscous and do it with a little butter, you’re definitely adding some flavour so there’s that. Plus I told myself early on that the people who dismissed with this step can’t be right and, I’m this stubborn, now I have to live with that.
If Israeli couscous is not new to you, this is recipe is soup with Israeli couscous. For either camp, this is a soup I am really fond of if I do say so myself. Shiitakes and favas just play nice together, both flag bearers for spring, one silky, one more mealy. Zucchinis give the broth some structure and while it too can be found year-round, change this up in the winter with root vegetables and shredded cabbage instead. While you can omit the nuts, they do add to the texture, holding up even after a short stint in some liquid. They’re toasted first to bring out their flavour. And because I knew why I was doing that, that, I had no problem with.
Zucchini, Shiitake and Fava Ragu with Israeli Couscous
250 g fresh favas in the pod (or asparagus trimmed and chopped into 1/2-inch pieces)
2 tbs extra-virgin olive oil, plus more
1 c Israeli couscous
Ground black pepper
2 tbs unsalted butter
1 small onion, minced
200 g fresh shiitake mushrooms, stems discarded, caps sliced thickly
4 small zucchinis, trimmed, peeled and grated coarsely
2 c low-sodium vegetable broth
1 tbs lemon juice
1/4 c finely chopped walnuts or almonds, toasted (optional)
1/4 c combined chopped fresh basil and parsley, plus more for garnish (or use tarragon, chives or other mild herb)
Remove favas from their pod, discard pods. Blanche the fava beans (or asparagus) for 3 minutes in a small pot of boiling water. Remove with a slotted spoon and when cool enough to touch, slip the peels off the favas. Discard peels and set the fava beans aside.
Add 1 tablespoon of the oil to a large, high-sided skillet or pan and heat over medium-high heat. Add the couscous, season with salt and pepper and toast, stirring, for about 3 minutes. Remove couscous and set aside.
Add the remaining oil and butter to the same skillet and heat over medium-high heat. When the butter has melted, add the onion and cook until translucent. Add the mushrooms, season with salt and pepper, and cook, stirring occasionally, for about 5 minutes. When the mushrooms will have started to brown, add the grated zucchini, couscous and broth to the pan. Season with salt and pepper, bring to a simmer and cook for 7 minutes or until the couscous is almost done (it will just slightly hard in the centre). Add the fava beans, nuts, lemon juice and herbs and cook for 3 more minutes until the couscous is cooked to al dante. Season to taste, top with reserved herbs and serve.