Perhaps this should have been titled Serendipity Salad.
A few weeks ago my daughter, Natalie, who is home from university for the summer holiday, decided she’d like to have a dozen friends over for a barbeque.She’d made a potato salad, bought buns and sausages, organized drinks and dips. But knowing that there would be strapping teenage boys with bottomless appetites coming over, I thought that she needed another side dish.
One disadvantage of living in Days Bay is that it is very popular on Wellington’s sunny days (although these have been rarer than unicorns this summer.) And with a just a coastal road in and out of the bay, the slow moving crawl of cars is a real disincentive to the idea of a quick trip to the supermarket. That, and a post-holiday sense of thriftiness made me suggest that we try to make something out of what we could find in the fridge and pantry.
First up was Israeli couscous…
A hunt of the pantry shelves found plenty of dried fruit, from the pre-Christmas fruit cake baking binge. I thought currants and tart dried cherries would be good. And, inexplicably, I found dried apricots soaking in Marsala (don’t ask!) in the fridge.
The salad was very well received, and I got requests to make it again, and to pass on the recipe. So the photo above is from the remake, where I tried to figure out quantities for a dish that was thrown together in a rather improv way. Assuming most people don’t have apricots in Marsala lurking in their fridges, I worked out a method to shortcut the process. So, a cup of apricots, chopped, soaked for 20 minutes, then a minute or two in the microwave come out plump and sweet.
My herb garden is positively fecund at the moment, apart from the coriander being rather straggly, so fist-fulls of parsley, mint, and as much coriander as I could muster, were chopped. The currants were given a little bath in orange juice, then also zapped in the micro. I also zested the oranges (note to self; remember to zest oranges before squeezing.) I toasted some slivered almonds, but they were too shy for a photo-shoot. The dried cherries were cut in half, but I felt the salad would need a bit of chew, so no soaking for those..
The new season garlic has just been harvested here in NZ. It’s sweet and mild, so four fat bulbs did not seem excessive, but it is wise to temper this amount to what is available in your market. Fruity extra-virgin olive oil, to simmer the garlic in. And a generous two tablespoonful of Ras El Hanout.
Ras el Hanout is a middle eastern spice blend that can vary from a simple mix of five or six spices, to lavish and costly mixes with thirty plus ingredients. Adventurous cooks might like to try their hand at making their own, a good recipe can be found in Greg Malouf’s book, Malouf: New Middle Eastern Food. But for now, I’m happy to use his Golden Ras El Hanout spice mix.
The first lemons from the tree we planted last year. A rather puny harvest, but gratifying nonetheless to be able to pick my own fruit. These three were zested and juiced. That tool in the background is a Microplane zester, and if you don’t already own one run, don’t walk to your nearest kitchen supply store. You’ll thank yourself.
While the couscous was boiling in lots of salty water, the garlic was gently sizzled in the olive oil, then the Ras el Hanout was given a minute in the pan, to toast the spices and draw out their fragrance. Don’t omit this step, as the spice will be harsh in the back of your throat if you use it “raw”.
Everything gently tossed, and scattered with crunchy toasted nuts. The barbeque evening was terrific fun, and when I found a small bowl of this leftover the next day, I realized it was even better after a little wait. So, a great do-ahead dish that will feed a crowd, or that is easily scaled down to more moderate portions. Do let me know if you try this, I look forward to each and every comment.
Cheers from the South Seas, Karen. The recipe is on the next page
Israeli couscous salad
serves 12 generously
1 cup chopped dried apricots
1/2 cup Marsala wine
1 Tbsp water
1 tsp. brown sugar
1/2 cup currants
2 oranges, zested, then juiced
1/2 cup dried cherries, chopped in half
1 cup chopped parsley
1 cup chopped mint
1 cup chopped coriander
2-4 garlic bulbs, minced
2 Tbsp. Ras El Hanout spice mix
4 cups Israeli pearl couscous
3 lemons, zested, then juiced
1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
salt and pepper
Things to know: the couscous can be quite starchy, and has a tendency to foam up and boil over. Either be prepared to skim a head of foam off the pot, or give the couscous a brief rinse in a sieve under cold water, to remove some of the starch dust, immediately prior to boiling. This is a recipe that requires you to taste and adjust the final seasoning. Does it need more lemon juice? More salt and pepper? Trust your taste buds.
Cover the apricots with the Marsala, the water and brown sugar. Leave to soak for 20 minutes, then microwave for 1- 1 1/2 minutes until apricots are plump and the liquid is syrupy.
Soak the currants in the orange juice for 20 minutes, (set zest aside for now) , then microwave for 1-2 minutes until currants are plump and juice is syrupy.
Gently fry garlic in the olive oil over medium low heat until softened, then add Ras el Hanout to the hot oil. Stir constantly for 30 seconds -1 minute until the spices are toasted and fragrant. Be careful not to burn the garlic or spices, as they will be bitter.
Bring a large pot of salted water to a rolling boil, add the couscous and boil for 5-7 minutes. Keep checking the couscous, by biting a piece, and as soon as it is “al dente”, and no longer chalky in the middle, drain well in a colander, tip into a large bowl, and gently stir in the garlic and spiced oil. Ensure every grain is coated, otherwise they will stick in clumps. If necessary, add a tiny bit more oil.
Toss through the apricots, cherries, currants, and the liquid the fruits have been soaking in. Add the herbs, the zests of the oranges and lemons, and the lemon juice. Season well with salt and pepper. If making ahead, do not add the toasted nuts until immediately prior to serving. Otherwise, toss the nuts in, reserving a few to garnish the top of the salad