One of the things that can be challenging in vegetarian cooking is creating a colorful and interesting dinner plate. I don’t mean the meal as a whole, I mean what you actually find as your main course. If you eat meat, your plate is probably something like protein, starch, green vegetable. In England they call that meat and two veg. There used to be a vegetarian restaurant in London called Eat and Two Veg which I thought was hilarious. Anyway. On our plates, that diversity is harder to accomplish. You can’t just swap out the steak for tofu.
When I am making a special dinner, I try really hard to come up with a three part main course. I always have at least one course preceding the main, but I like that main to look really colorful and appetizing. I found a recipe for this wonderful couscous dish and knew I wanted to make it for my brother’s special dinner. If I make a starchy side, I try to make a protein-heavy dish along with a clean vegetable. Galettes are great for dinner parties but in this case, I thought the crust and the couscous would be starch overload. This time, I made a crustless quiche with kale and zucchini and that amazing blasted broccoli.
This dish was so lovely. Two kinds of couscous mixed with slow roasted tomatoes, caramelized onions, and fresh herbs makes for a substantial and delicious side. The recipe instructs you to top it with dollops of homemade labneh – a type of strained yogurt cheese, but I opted out of that easy but time-consuming step. I could have probably bought some labneh, but I opted out of that time-consuming third stop on my grocery shopping tour and just bought fromage blanc. Really, after tasting the dish, I would probably use something more pungent next time – like a Montrachet or even feta cheese.
If you make this as written, you will end up with approximately one ton of couscous, so it would be a great addition to your next party or potluck. Never a bad thing.
Ottolenghi calls the larger couscous mograbiah which apparently is the Lebanese name for what we call Israeli couscous. It is about half the size of a pea. Sometimes it is difficult to find so when I see it, I buy it. I have used a small Italian pasta as a substitute (not acine de pepe or orzo) the name of which, for the life of me, I cannot find. I liked it in this dish because the color is not so uniform so it had a more rustic look and texture. Anyone know the name of what I describe? (Update 7-16-10: Thank you to Mary for reminding me of the name – fregola! If you can find that type, use it here.)
I know this seems like a crazy amount of tomatoes, but just make them and use them in other things if you don’t want to add them all to the couscous. They are delicious.
16 large, ripe plum tomatoes, cut into halves lengthwise
2 tbsp. muscovado sugar (DT: or sub brown sugar)
2 tbsp. good balsamic vinegar
2 onions, thinly sliced
8 oz. Morgrabiah or Israeli couscous
1 2/3 cups vegetable stock
Pinch of saffron threads
8 oz. couscous
2 tbsp. chopped fresh tarragon (DT: basil would be good here too)
4 ounces fromage blanc, Montrachet, or feta cheese
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
Preheat the oven to 300ºF. Arrange the tomatoes halves on a baking sheet, skin side down, and sprinkle them with the sugar, some olive oil, the balsamic vinegar, salt and pepper. Place in the oven and bake for 2 hours, or until the tomatoes have lost most of their moisture.
Meanwhile, place a large skillet over medium-high heat and drizzle in just enough olive oil to coat the bottom. Add the onions and saute, stirring occasionally, until the onions are a dark golden color – 15 to 20 minutes. Set aside.
Bring a large saucepan of water to boil. Add the mograbiah and cook it as you would pasta until tender but not overcooked, about 10 minutes. Drain and rinse well with cold water. Drain again.
In a separate pot, bring the stock to boil with the saffron and a little salt. Add the (small) couscous, give it a stir, then immediately turn cover the pot and turn off the heat. Let stand for 5 minutes, then use a fork to fluff up the couscous.
In a large bowl, stir together the mograbiah, couscous, tomatoes, tarragon, and onions. You will most likely need to add olive oil to keep things from sticking together and a couple good pinches of salt. Turn the whole dish out onto a platter. Scoop some of the fromage blanc over top or crumble one of the suggested cheeses.