Monday, September 24, 2012

Israeli Couscous with Roasted Butternut Squash and Preserved Lemon

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Israeli Couscous with Roasted Butternut Squash and Preserved Lemon
Israeli Couscous with Roasted Butternut Squash and Preserved Lemon

I first made this recipe in New Orleans while visiting my vegetarian daughter. I often cook when visiting and freeze the food for her later use. She is a busy medicine resident and never seems to have time to cook from scratch. I thought this would freeze well – and it has. Of course, I too had to sample – the flavor was amazing!! There is a reason that squash is called butternut! The flavor is nutty, sweet and moist.

Israeli couscous can be found in health food stores and many traditional grocers. Called pearl couscous or Ptitim in Israel, they are small round pasta-like granules made from semolina and wheat flour. Unlike the familiar small, yellow semolina-based North African couscous, Israeli couscous is twice as big and is toasted rather than dried. This provides a nutty flavor and sturdy composition that makes it a bit chewy bit and allows it to stand  up well to this preparation. One possible substitute would be acini di pepe pasta.
Israeli couscous
Preserved lemons can be found readily made in Mediterranean section of grocers or online.  However, it is very easy to make your own (see recipe at the end) but you would need to plan well in advance as it takes several weeks to a month “to cure”.  I always have a jar on hand in the refrigerator – it keeps for at least one year – and can be used in any recipe that calls for both lemons and salt.

  • 3-pound butternut squash
  • 1½ preserved lemon (recipe for making preserved lemons below)
  • 5 Tb extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 large onion, chopped
  • 3 Tb butter
  • ¾ C pine nuts
  • 1¾ C Israeli couscous (about 1 lb.)
  • 1 3-inch cinnamon stick
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 2 C vegetable or chicken broth
  • ¾ C chopped parsley
  • ½ C golden raisins
  • ¼ tsp ground cinnamon
  • Salt and Freshly ground pepper
  • ¼ C dried cherries or cranberries - optional
Preheat your oven to 475 degree F. Begin with a 3-pound butternut squash – select one that is rock solid and heavy for size. Although traditionally a winter squash, it is readily available year round. Look for the large pear shaped squash with a matte skin – a shiny one is a sign that the squash was picked prematurely. It can be stored in a cool, dry place (not a refrigerator) for a month making it useful to have on hand for impromptu meals. 
If you dont' want to buy the squash, you can always grow it! From our garden....
Split it lengthwise and remove the seeds. Simply scraping them out with the edge of a spoon most easily does this. Peel squash and cut into ¼ - ½ inch dice – they should be uniform in size in order to assure they roast uniformly.
Scooping out the seeds of the squash

Diced butternut squash
Toss squash with 1 Tb olive oil and salt in a large shallow baking pan/sheet. Spread out into one layer. Roast in upper third of oven for 15 minutes or until squash is tender. Transfer to a large bowl.
Cooking the diced squash
 Quarter 1½ preserved lemons, rinse thoroughly to remove excess salt, remove flesh, reserving only peel. Dry thoroughly and finely chop. Set aside.
Chopped perserved lemons
 Cook 1 chopped large onion in 1 Tb olive oil in a heavy skillet over medium high heat, stirring occasionally, until just beginning to turn golden. Add to bowl with squash.

Put 1 Tb butter in a saucepan over medium-low heat. Add ¾ C pine nuts, stir until golden brown, about 5-8 minutes.  Watch carefully because pine nuts burn quickly. Add to bowl with preserved lemon. Using the same pan, melt 2 Tb butter over medium heat.  Add 1¾ C Israeli couscous, 1 3-inch cinnamon stick and 1 Bay leaf and stir until couscous browns slightly, stirring often, about 3 minutes. Add 2 C vegetable or chicken broth and 1 tsp salt – bring mixture to a boil. Lower heat, cover, and simmer slowly about 10 minutes until the couscous is tender and liquid is absorbed. Drain; remove cinnamon stick and bay leaf. Do not rinse the couscous.
Cooked Israeli couscous
Add couscous to vegetables and toss with 2 Tb olive oil to coat. Add preserved lemon peel, ¾ C chopped parsley, pine nuts, ½ C golden raisins, ¼ tsp ground cinnamon and salt to taste. For additional sweetness and color, you could add ¼ C dried cherries or cranberries.

Toss to mix well.  Just before serving, sprinkle with final 1 Tb of olive oil over top of dish. Serve to accolades!  This would work well as a vegetarian entrée or a side dish. It can be made a day in advance – add additional olive oil as needed to keep it moist.
Ready to serve!
We enjoyed this with a wonderful dry German Riesling – but any dry white wine would work.  Bon Appetit!


Preserved Lemons
Preserved lemons

My favorite lemons to preserve are the thinner-skinned, sweeter Meyer lemons, but Eureka lemons work equally well. To make them, all that is required is lemons and salt. Additive free kosher salt is especially recommended, as it seems to dissolve more quickly. They are terrific in so many dishes – you will want to make your own to use again and again.

Wash the lemons well. While holding them over a plate to catch the juice, make four deep longitudinal cuts, evenly spaced around the lemon, effectively dividing it into four sections attached at the ends. You want to keep the lemons whole. Pack the cuts generously with salt. Put a couple of tablespoons of salt in the bottom of a clean, sterilized mason jar and pack lemons in layers, sprinkling a thin layer of salt between layers of lemons. Push the lemons down firmly to pack them tightly and to help express some of their juice. To enhance the Mediterranean flavors, feel free to add a cinnamon stick, whole black peppercorns, cloves, coriander seeds and a bay leaf to your jar as you build it with the lemons. Finish with a final layer of salt. You almost cannot use too much.

Pour any juices that collected on the plate when the lemons were cut. Cover the jar tightly. Leave at room temperature in a dark corner, monitoring the level of liquid in the jar. The lemons should be completely submerged in juice after a few days.  If they are not, add more lemon juice. Ideally, you should wait one month, shaking the jar daily, before they are truly preserved. But, if needed, they are likely ready in a few weeks and will keep for up to a year.  They do not absolutely require refrigeration, but I always keep them tucked in the corner of our frig. Use wooden utensils when removing lemons later for use. As the metal in the Mason jar will become eroded by salt, I would recommend covering the top with saran wrap after first use, before replacing the lids so it can be more easily opened later.
Perserved lemons in a mason jar
Preserved lemons are featured prominently in Jewish, Mediterranean and Italian cooking.  They are used in drinks (lemon drop martini & lemonade, of course), salads (cut up a little and add for summery lemon bite in winter!), sauces, or on fish, chicken, lamb, beans, lentils or any vegetable. Of course, any lemon dessert would only be enhanced with their use.

The lemons should be rinsed well before use – people use the rind most frequently, cutting off the pulp. How does the rind taste? – more lemony, perhaps a bit salty but not at all acidic. (Pulp is fine for use but is quite a bit saltier - in a Bloody Mary maybe?)  As the lemons age, the color intensifies, turning almost a deep amber. 

Other ideas: finely dice preserved lemons and mix them with sautéed vegetables, such as green beans, fava beans, or to elevate lowly rounds of carrots into something interesting and exotic, perhaps tossing in a few cumin seeds as well. They are also good mashed into butter with some fresh herbs, then smeared on top of grilled fish or a nice chunk of caramelized roasted winter squash. You could sneak some into a batch of tapenade, as well as adding some finely chopped little pieces to a batch of lemon ice cream, too! Preserved lemons are more flexible than you might think. A few other ideas, some more traditional than others - all highly recommended: thin-crust wood fire oven pizzas (as a garnish/topping), in various slow-cooked tagines, in couscous and a few other whole grain salads, and as an accent in a tomato based panzanella.
Any place you would use salt and lemon flavor is fair game – just expect it to be better! If my house were on fire, I’d grab my jar of preserved lemons on my way out.  They are that great – and so much better homemade. Give it a try!


  1. I have a bumper crop of butternut squash this year and am running out of ideas for ways to prepare it so I'm happy to have a creative new option to try!

  2. Me too!! Am working on more for butternut and acorn squash...greatfully, they last quite awhile in the garden and in your kitchen...Larue

  3. We preserved some of the Meyer lemons you brought us! Going to use them in our next batch of limoncello, yum! Thanks for showing us how to do it!