Israeli Couscous is a small, round semolina pasta that should not be confused with the tiny, yellow North African couscous; it is a different animal altogether! Sometimes called pearl couscous or maftoul, it resembles barley, or very small, white peas.
After being shaped and rolled into small balls, these semolina pearls are toasted in an open-flame oven. This distinguishes the couscous from most pasta, which is dried but not toasted. Toasting lends the couscous a distinctive, nutty flavor and particularly satisfying mouth-feel, and it also seals in the starch and reinforces the exterior, allowing the pearls to absorb liquid without falling apart. This is why Israeli couscous is ideal for saucy preparations whatever the sauce or reduction, the couscous absorbs the flavor beautifully, and the sauce sticks well to every tiny pearl.
Israeli Couscous is one of my favorite ingredients, and it is a pantry staple in my house. I love it for two reasons: it is incredibly versatile and delicious, and it is fun and easy for kids to eat. Mac and cheese made with Israeli Couscous is almost as much fun as ice cream dots!
Although Israeli couscous does not cook quite as fast as the quick-cooking version of North African couscous, it is much speedier than the traditional method of steaming couscous several times.
Like other pasta, Israeli couscous is very easy to prepare; you can simply add it to boiling water and cook for 10 minutes or so. Once it is ready, sauce it as you would any pasta, or use it as a delicious, eye-catching bed for grilled or roasted fish, meat or chicken. Just add a pan sauce for a really wonderful dish! It is great the next day too. For lunch, I will often sprinkle leftover cooked couscous over some greens and chopped veggies It is an easy way to give a salad a little more substance.
But there is another way to make Israeli couscous, and it is well worth the extra time. Try it “risotto style.” Unlike risotto, you do not have to stand over the couscous adding simmering stock every few minutes. Simply sauté aromatics (like onions and garlic) in olive oil, add the couscous and stir well to coat, and then add broth or stock. Cook, allowing the couscous time to simmer and absorb the liquid, and when it has, add vegetables, herbs and seasonings as desired. This risotto-style couscous is simply sensational made with fresh basil and summer tomatoes; sprinkle some feta cheese on top and serve with grilled marinated lamb or chicken.
Israeli couscous is also wonderful for picnics and potluck dishes. Try it in your favorite pasta salad. Pasta salads are often made with larger pasta shapes that dominate the dish with their starchy texture. But pasta salad made with Israeli couscous allows every mouthwatering element to shine. Each mouthful is a perfect balance of soft, flavorful pasta and whatever delicious ingredients you have chosen for the salad.