On this solemn day of remembrance, we pause to recall that ninety-five years ago one of the worst atrocities of the 20th century began. In that dark moment of history, 1.5 million Armenians were massacred or marched to their death in the final days of the Ottoman Empire.
~Barack Obama, April 24, 2010

Apricots were originally cultivated in China or India, depending on the source. They arrived in Europe through Armenia, which explains the scientific name Prunus armenaica. While this small, densely canopied tree first arrived in Virginia in the early 18th century, its appearance in the Spanish missions of California several decades later marked the real arrival on North America’s center stage. As the climate on the west coast is perfectly suited to apricot culture, these pastelled gems are grown primarily in sunny orchards there.

A drupe similar to a small peach, flesh tones range from yellow to orange, and even tinged red on the side most exposed to the sun. A single seed is enclosed in a hard stony shell which has three ridges running down one side. The skin can be glabrous or display short pubescent hairs—some catholic priests’ dreams. (Just this week, northwest Jesuits agreed to pay $166 million to more than 500 victims of sexual abuse, many of whom were American Indians and Alaska Natives who were debased decades ago at boarding schools and on the safe grounds of remote villages.)

Apricots are a good source of vitamins A and C, and also provide needed dietary fiber and potassium.

In the mood, once again, for my luscious little pearly friends known as Israeli couscous. This version is chocked with texture: the distinct pop of couscous, the nutty crunch of almonds, the tender chew of sweet apricots and currants. An apotheosis when nestled up to roasted or grilled meats.

ISRAELI COUSCOUS WITH APRICOTS, ALMONDS & CURRANTS

Sea salt
2 C Israeli couscous

Extra virgin olive oil
4 fresh, plump garlic cloves, peeled and smashed
Pinch crushed red pepper flakes
1 t cumin seeds, lightly toasted and ground
1/2 C sliced almonds, toasted
1 C chicken stock

1/2 C dried apricots, diced into 1/2″ pieces
1/4 C black currants, plumped in warm water and drained
4 scallions, both white and green parts, cut thin on the bias
Fresh mint, minced

Bring a saucepan or pot of generously salted cold water to a boil over high heat. Add the Israeli couscous and cook until cooked through, about 6-7 minutes. Strain from the water and reserve.

Coat a large sauté pan with olive oil. Add the garlic, crushed red pepper and cum, then bring to medium high heat. After a few minutes, add the almonds to toast them in the oil. When the garlic is golden and aromatic, remove from the pan and discard. Do not brown or the garlic will become bitter. Add the cooked couscous and chicken stock. Season with salt and cook until the stock has reduced by half. Add the apricots, currants, scallions and mint. Stir to combine well and serve.

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Couscous & Vinaigrette

October 7, 2009

A pantry staple, Israeli couscous is a small, round semolina pasta that should not be confused with the tiny, light yellow tinted North African couscous. After being shaped and rolled into small balls, these semolina granules are toasted in an oven, lending a distinctive nutty and buttery flavor and a pleasing firm yet gentle texture—little bursts in the mouth. The labor intensive sieving and toasting process also seals in the starches and reinforces the exterior, allowing these minute globules to absorb liquid without falling apart.

Israeli couscous serves as a light and fluffy standby carb to round out a meal and can also be the base for a luscious salad that can be customized in a myriad of ways. Season versatile. I have become fixated on these little pearls.

ISRAELI COUSCOUS SALAD

1 C extra virgin olive oil
1/4 C red wine vinegar
1 T Dijon mustard
1 T honey
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

2-3 T extra virgin olive oil
1 C zucchini, cubed, using only the outside skinned area
1/2 C red onion, diced, rinsed and dried
Fresh thyme leaves, minced

2-3 ears fresh sweet corn, shucked
2 C cherry tomatoes, halved

2 C Israeli couscous
1 1/2 C water
1 C chicken stock

3-4 T mint leaves, chopped
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Whisk together the red wine vinegar, mustard and honey, then slowly drizzle in the olive oil while continuously whisking to emulsify. Season with salt and pepper, then set aside.

In a large heavy sauté pan, heat the olive oil, and add red onion, thyme and then the zucchini and sauté until cooked, yet al dente. Add the sweet corn and cherry tomatoes and cook more, but just briefly.

Bring water and stock to a lively boil in heavy pot. Add couscous and cook until al dente, about 8-10 minutes, then drain. Allow the couscous to cool and then toss with the vinaigrette, and finally the zucchini, red onion, corn, tomatoes and mint. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

This salad tends to be even more flavorful after it sits for awhile in the frig.

Pourboire: Rincing the minced raw onions removes the pungent, sometimes overpowering, flavor. When onions are chopped, sulfurous compounds are released from the cell walls. Cold rinsing this sulfur away results in a more mellow product. Also, as always, the base vinaigrette can be varied to suit your tastes.

….I decided I was a lemon for a couple of weeks. I kept myself amused all that time jumping in and out of a gin and tonic.
~Douglas Adams, Life, The Universe and Everything

Another relatively flat stage in the Tour today, coursing through the pastoral Champagne Berry region smack dab in the middle of France. A day which displays the gracefully tessellated peloton and culminates in a crazed sprint for those pursuing the green jersey.

The quaint start town, Vatan, with a little over 2,000 inhabitants, is one of several French villages with tongue in cheek names: (Vatan means “Go Away”), Arnac-la-Poste (“Cheat the Post Office”), Bouzillé (“Broken”), Trécon (“Very Stupid”), Poil (“Naked”), Monteton (“My Tit”), Corps-Nuds (“Nude Bodies”). Coincidentally, the town of Condom is on the river Baïse which without the umlaut over the “i” means “coitus” in common French parlance. With the ironic exception of Condom, these towns even belong to a group called the Association des communes de France aux noms burlesques et chantants.

The Tour town displays it motto without pretense: “Vatan… you’ll be back”…a saying which could be applied to Condom as well.

A refreshing change from the insipid names that tend to grace many of the towns, streets, and subdivisions of dysturbia.

LEMON ISRAELI COUSCOUS

1 1/2 T extra virgin olive oil
1/3 C yellow onion, peeled and finely chopped
1 1/2 C Israeli couscous
2 C chicken stock

3 T fresh mint, finely chopped
1 T grated lemon zest
3 T freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 T parsley, minced
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Heat the olive oil in a heavy saucepan over medium high heat. Add the onion and cook, stirring, for 2 to 3 minutes, until tender and translucent. Stir in the couscous and cook for 2 to 3 minutes longer, until evenly coated with oil. Add the stock and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to low, cover and simmer until tender, about 12 to 14 minutes.

Stir in the mint, lemon zest, lemon juice, and parsley, then season to taste with salt and pepper. Cook the couscous, stirring, over medium low heat until the mint and lemon are aromatic, 2 to 3 minutes longer. The couscous should be tender and fluffy.

Israeli Couscous (x2)

June 6, 2009

In Hebrew פתיתים אפויים are “baked flakes.” These little curvaceous pearl gems that pop on each bite deserve more playing time.

COUSCOUS WITH PINE NUTS & MINT

4 T unsalted butter
2/3 C pine nuts
2/3 C shallots, finely chopped
3 C Israeli couscous
2 large cinnamon sticks
2 dried bay leaves
3 3/4 C chicken broth
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper
1/2 C fresh mint, minced

Preheat broiler.

Toast pine nuts in broiler until lightly browned. Set aside.

Melt butter in heavy skillet over medium heat. Add shallots and sauté until light golden, about 5-8 minutes. Add couscous, cinnamon sticks, and bay leaves and stir until couscous browns slightly, stirring often, about 5 minutes. Add broth and salt and bring to boil. Reduce heat to low; cover and simmer until couscous is tender and liquid is absorbed, about 10 minutes. Remove bay leaves and stir in mint and pine nuts. Season with salt and black pepper.

COUSCOUS SALAD WITH OLIVES, LIMA BEANS & HERBS

1/4 C sherry vinegar
1 C extra virgin olive oil
1 T Dijon mustard
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper

2 fresh plump garlic cloves, peeled and minced
1 T extra virgin olive oil
2 C Israeli couscous
1 C chicken stock
1 C water

1 C fresh basil leaves, cut into ribbons
1 C cherry tomatoes, cut in halves
1/2 C kalamata olives, pitted and chopped
1 C lima beans, cooked
3 green onions, chopped
1 C arugula, roughly chopped
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper

Whisk together the sherry vinegar and mustard, then slowly drizzle in the olive oil while continuously whisking. Season with salt and pepper, then set aside.

Heat 1 tablespoon of olive oil in a heavy, medium sauce pan over medium low heat. Add the garlic and cook until fragrant but not brown, about 2 minutes. Add the couscous to the pan and stir regularly until it starts to turn light golden, about 5 minutes. Slowly add chicken stock and water to the pan and then cover. Turn the heat to low and let gently simmer until flat and fluffy, about 8-10 minutes. Avoid the temptation to lift the lid and allow the precious steam to be released.

Allow the couscous to cool and then toss with the vinaigrette, then the basil, tomatoes, olives, lima beans, green onions, and arugula.