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Pearls of Wisdom About Israeli Couscous

February 19, 2014 By:
Rivka Tal, JE Feature
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Those little pearl-shaped nutty-tasting toasted pasta pieces? Yes, they are called “Israeli Couscous,” and are certainly Israeli, but … are not actually couscous. Those little balls do have an interesting history, however. 

In the early years of the State of Israel, Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion appealed to the Osem food company to devise a wheat-based substitute for rice, to specifically target the eating habits of much of the new immigrant population.

So the company developed rice-shaped ptitim, made of roasted hard wheat flour, and it was an instant success. The small balls of ptitim more familiar in the United States were added later, and Osem coined them “Israeli couscous.”

Ptitim seem to appeal to everyone: children love it with ketchup (it’s a popular side dish at schools and even in the army); adults like it as a base for many more sophisticated dishes, and indeed it can be found today in many trendy res­taurants. What’s great about ptitim is that they hold their shape and don’t become mushy.

Here is the basic recipe, to which you can add/top/mix almost anything.

Basic Israeli Couscous
(Pareve)

Add 1 and 1⁄4 cups of boiling water to 1 cup of couscous. Cover pot and simmer for 8 to 10 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Israeli Couscous With Sesame Seeds and Cilantro
(Meat)
1⁄3 cup golden raisins
1 Tbsp. olive oil
1 and 1⁄2 cups couscous
1 cinnamon stick
1 and 3⁄4 cups low-sodium chicken broth
2-3 scallions (green part only), chopped
2 Tbsps. fresh cilantro, minced
1⁄3 cup toasted sesame seeds
zest of 1⁄2 lemon
salt to taste

Soak raisins for 5 minutes in boiling water to plump. Drain well and let dry.

Heat the oil in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Add the couscous and the cinnamon stick and cook, stirring, until the couscous browns slightly. Add the broth and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low, cover and simmer for about 10 minutes until the liquid is absorbed.

Remove the pan from the heat; remove and discard the cinnamon stick. Stir in the scallions, cilantro, sesame seeds, lemon zest and raisins.

Salt to taste and serve immediately.

Serves 4.

Israeli Couscous and Hot Dogs
(Meat)
Embarrassingly simple, yet a guaranteed favorite of children.
6 hot dogs
2 Tbsps. olive oil
1 large onion, diced
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 cups couscous
3 cups chicken stock
1 (14.5 oz.) can diced tomatoes, drained 
salt and pepper to taste

Cut hot dogs into small noodle-like shapes for young children, to avoid choking hazard.

Heat olive oil over medium-high heat in large skillet. Add onions, garlic and hot dog pieces and sauté for about 3 minutes. Add Israeli couscous and continue to sauté for a couple more minutes.

Stir in tomatoes and chicken stock. Raise heat to high and bring to a boil. Cover and simmer for 15 minutes. Remove from heat and let stand, covered, for about 5 minutes.

Serve with ketchup.

Serves 4.

Simple Israeli Couscous Herbed Tomato Salad
(Dairy)
16 cherry tomatoes
1⁄4 cup olive oil and more to taste
salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 package (1 lb.) couscous, cooked according to package directions
2 medium ripe tomatoes, cubed
1⁄2 large cucumber, peeled and chopped finely
3 Tbsps. roughly chopped parsley
2 Tbsps. roughly chopped fresh mint
olive oil
juice of 1⁄2 lemon
4 Tbsps. shaved Parmesan cheese

Preheat oven to 350˚.

Make a small slash in each cherry tomato. Place cherry tomatoes on a parchment paper-covered baking dish. Drizzle with olive oil and season with salt and freshly ground pepper. Bake for 12 to 15 minutes or until tomatoes soften. Remove from oven and let cool.

Combine couscous and vegetables in a large bowl. Season to taste with olive oil and fresh lemon juice. Serve immediately with shaved Parmesan cheese.

Serves 4.

Israeli Couscous Risotto With Spinach and Parmesan Cheese
(Dairy)
2 Tbsps. olive oil, butter or margarine
1⁄2 small yellow onion, chopped (or 2-3 shallots)
1 cup Israeli couscous
1 and 3⁄4 cups vegetable broth
1⁄4 cup white wine
1 bunch fresh spinach
1⁄4 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese, plus extra for garnish
sea salt or kosher salt and pepper, to taste

Heat the onions in olive oil in a large skillet. Allow to cook, stirring occasionally, for about 5 to 7 minutes, until softened. Add Israeli couscous, and toast the grains, stirring, for just a minute or two, until lightly browned.

Add the vegetable broth and bring to a simmer. Cook for about five minutes, then add in the white wine, stirring to combine. Heat, stirring, for another five minutes, then add in spinach.

Reduce the heat to medium-low, cover, and allow to heat until spinach has wilted, about 2 minutes, then stir in the Parmesan cheese and season generously with sea salt or kosher salt and a bit of black pepper, to taste.

Serves 4.

Rivka Tal is a former Minne­sotan who has lived in Jerusalem for the past 46 years. She is a food writer and translator. Email her at: [email protected].

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