I have a big crush on pearl couscous (also known as Israeli couscous). These big, pearly grains of pasta cook quickly, becoming chewy and tender, and they taste good at all temperatures — cold, lukewarm, hot. This makes them the perfect base for summer salads and quick dinner dishes. I've drenched pearl couscous in lemon and chili and piled shrimp on top, and I've tossed it with asparagus, almonds, and goat cheese. Leela added her own twist with a simple salad of couscous with mint and pecans.
But a new chapter just began in my love for Israeli couscous — there's a sexy new variety on the scene. Bob's Red Mill just released a whole wheat pearl couscous and I couldn't wait to get my hands on it. It brings nutty, wholesome flavor to the party, with the gentle bite of whole wheat.
To draw out that richer flavor, I cooked the couscous with citrus, and mixed it with a pile of finely chopped arugula, huge dried cherries (plumped up), and shavings of young Gouda cheese. The result is a summer dish that works on its own or as a side — with nutty walnut crunch, sweet juicy cherries, and the mild yet exciting spiciness of arugula.
This salad is quite straightforward. Like other grain salads, it starts with cooking the grains. I cooked the couscous with a little orange juice, mixed with water, to give it a mild citrus aroma. I spread the couscous out to cool when finished cooking, so that the cheese doesn't melt instantly when mixed in. But this won't take long; if you spread the couscous on a baking sheet, it will be quite cool in a matter of minutes.
Meanwhile, as the couscous cooks, you can chop the arugula, celery, shallots, and other ingredients. When the couscous is lukewarm to the touch, toss it with the dressing and the rest of the salad ingredients. If possible, let it sit for an hour or so before serving; the flavors develop over time.
Also, while this salad is excellent cold, I do prefer it slightly warm or at least room temperature. The nuttiness of the couscous seems to bloom a little more when warm. So let it sit out on a buffet table at your next picnic, and eat it warm from the sun. It's really a perfect picnic salad.
• Find it: Whole Wheat Pearl Couscous, $15.92 for a case of 4 bags at Bob's Red Mill.
Whole Wheat Pearl Couscous with Cherries & Arugula
1 cup water
2/3 cup orange juice
1 1/3 cup (1/2 pound) whole wheat or white pearl couscous
1/4 cup orange juice
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
2/3 cup dried cherries
2 stalks celery, finely diced
3 ounces baby arugula, finely chopped
1/2 cup walnuts, lightly toasted
3 shallots, peeled and thinly sliced
Flaky sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 ounces young Gouda or sharp white cheddar
Put the water and the orange juice in a 2-quart saucepan and bring to a boil. Stir in the whole wheat couscous, cover the pan, and turn the heat down to a simmer. Cook for 20 minutes. Prepare a large baking sheet by covering it with parchment paper. When the couscous is done (it will have absorbed all the liquid) spread it out on the baking sheet to cool.
Whisk together the orange juice, olive oil, and red wine vinegar in a glass measuring cup. Add the dried cherries and microwave for 2 minutes on HIGH. (Or bring the mixture to a light simmer in a saucepan on the stove, then stir in the cherries and turn off the heat.) Let the cherries stand in the liquid for at least five minutes, or until they are glossy, plump, and soft. Drain off the liquid into another cup, and reserve it.
When the couscous is lukewarm to the touch, pick up the parchment paper and slide the couscous off the paper into a large mixing bowl. Take the reserved poaching liquid drained from the cherries, and whisk vigorously until it is combined and emulsified. Stir this into the couscous.
Stir in the steeped cherries, minced celery, arugula, toasted walnuts, and sliced shallots. Taste and season with salt and pepper if needed. Use a sharp vegetable peeler to create thin shavings of the cheese. Toss this with the salad. Serve warm, or at room temperature.
Updated from recipe originally published June 2011.
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(Images: Faith Durand)