You know how some foods hold you hostage? You eat bite after bite, all the while wondering: What is that flavor? What makes this so irresistible? Why am I taking yet another serving? Well this is one of those recipes. I hate to ruin the surprise, but the hostage-taker is preserved lemon. It looks innocent enough, all slumped and yellow in the jar, floating in its pool of lemony brine. But preserved lemon takes what would be an ordinary pasta salad (yawn) and makes into one of those stellar, memorable, “I can’t stop eating this” dishes.
Sure, there are other great things going on in this mix. Israeli couscous and toasted nuts. Roasted butternut squash and sautéed onion. But the hostage drama all hinges on the lemon. If you haven’t tried preserved lemon, now’s the time. You don’t have to make your own. You can buy some. But don’t miss out. How often do you get to welcome a whole new hostage-taking, non-negotiating ingredient into the fold? Preserving lemons takes their sourness away, leaving a sweet, flowery and salty bit of heaven behind. I’m sure there’s a scientific explanation for this transformation, but I prefer to think of it as magic.
The only thing that gave me pause about trying this recipe was the number of pans involved. (Three.) But it’s worth it. I wouldn’t steer you wrong on such a substantive matter. The fact that this recipe makes the unfussy cut despite the high pan count is a true testament to its tastiness.
We ate this as a side dish with grilled pork chops. But it would make an impressive vegetarian main course. It’s also a notable potluck dish, as its served room at temperature. Hey, it’s even mobile gambling vegan! How about that?
ISRAELI COUSCOUS WITH BUTTERNUT SQUASH AND PRESERVED LEMON
adapted from this recipe in Gourmet, makes eight generous servings
1 preserved lemon (available at Whole Foods, gourmet shops, and middle-eastern markets)
1 ½ pound butternut squash, peeled and seeded, and cut into 1/4-inch dice*
4 tablespoons olive oil
1 large onion, chopped
1 pound Israeli couscous
1 cup chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
1 cup roasted salted pecans, chopped**
¾ cup golden raisins
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
salt & pepper
Preheat oven to 475 degrees.
Toss squash with one tablespoon olive oil on a large, rimmed baking sheet. Sprinkle with salt and pepper, and roast for about twelve minutes, stirring once. Put roasted squash in a large bowl.
Heat two tablespoons olive oil in a large skillet over medium high heat. Saute onions in oil until they are just golden, about seven minutes. Add onions to large bowl with squash.
Cook Israeli couscous in a large pan of boiling water until tender, about ten minutes. Drain but don’t rinse. Add couscous to squash and onion mixture. Salt generously, add a tablespoon of olive oil, and toss.
Scrape the pulp out of the preserved lemon and dice the peel finely. Add diced peel to the couscous and vegetables. Add a tablespoon of the brine from the jar of lemons.
Add nuts, parsley, raisins, and cinnamon to the bowl. Toss. Taste for seasoning and add more salt, cinnamon, or lemon to taste.
*Butternut squash poses a challenge to the lazy cook. The peel is thick and hard, making a vegetable peeler too slow for my money. So here’s my speedier method: With a big knife, I cut the long skinny neck from the bulbous, seed-filled end of the squash. I cut off the stem end, leaving a big cylinder of squash. Then I stand it on a cut end, and cut the peel off from top to bottom using my big knife. I lose some meat, since the knife is straight and the squash is round. But I gain precious serenity not wrestling the squash peel. Once I have a big skinned length of squash neck, I turn it on its side and cut across it forming “rounds.” (They look more like stop signs.) Then I chop them. Unless I need more squash, I don’t even use the bulbous seeded part. I’m not proud of this wasteful practice. I’m just not a patient person.
**The recipe called for pine nuts. But have you heard of “pine mouth?” It’s a weird affliction caused by eating some pine nuts. I don’t think it’s been determined exactly which pine nuts. It makes everything you eat taste like metal, and it can last for weeks. My husband suffered a bout of it, making us a little gun-shy about pine nuts for the time being. The pecans were delicious, but next time around I think I’ll take my chances and try toasted pine nuts.