Thursday, 21 June 2012

Israeli couscous with roasted summer vegetables

I have not always been adventurous in the food department. I grew up eating very standard foods like chicken and steak and potatoes and spaghetti and simple salads made with lettuce, tomatoes and carrots. I complained when something unrecognizable was placed on the dinner table and I detested things like broccoli, mushrooms and brussel sprouts.

When I was a teenager, all that I cared about eating was french fries, submarine sandwiches and nachos with cheese. I probably ate one of those things everyday leading me to fall victim to the typical "freshman 15". It wasn't that I was really picky, I just didn't care to eat something that I did not already love. Thus, anything that was unusual to me was usually avoided.

I started working at a coffee shop called Milanos, my first job, when I was 15 which was managed by my best friends' mother, Rose. Milanos was more than just a coffee shop however. There was a large convection oven behind the counter which was used by the in-house baker to make things like muffins and cakes and cookies right there in the coffee shop. 

At Milanos we also served various lunch items which I had never even heard of before working there. We served things like tabbouleh, spanikopita and grilled paninis stuffed with exotic ingredients like Genoa salami, marinated eggplant and red pepper spread. We also served a fusilli pasta salad, a spinach salad with orange segments and pot pies. Needless to say, working a Milanos opened my mind to a whole new world of food items and taste sensations.

I still have very fond memories of that place and think that one day, if I am able to retire with a little extra money in the bank, I will open a coffee shop of my own while instilling many of the qualities that Rose injected into Milanos. People did not just come to Milanos for the coffee. They came to see Rose who is a wonderful friend to everyone she meets and for the dependably jovial atmosphere.

The coffee was pretty good too, but I think it was the food that set Milanos apart from many other coffee joints that served premade sandwiches which sat in the display fridge all day collecting dust. Our paninis were made to order, the salads were made fresh almost daily and we went through the food so quickly that everything was always turned over regularly.

When I started to develop an interest in cooking I would think back to the things I ate at Milanos and try to replicate them. Since I often had to make the food there, I knew what went into most of the dishes we served. Pasta salad was one of the first things I ever started to cook for myself all on my own.  

I started at home by replicating the Milanos recipes exactly but eventually I was brave enough to experiment with new vegetable combinations and dressings. Living on my own, away from home, during university, I would make giant batches of pasta salad and keep them in the fridge to snack on in the evenings. That was my first attempt to be healthy; to eat a "salad" (even though there was probably half of a bottle of dressing in there) instead of chips or chocolate. I tried.

Today's recipe post is for a glorified pasta salad. Israeli couscous it turns out, is just little balls of pasta with a fancy name. These pasta balls tossed with roasted summer vegetables makes for a wonderful post-run or post-hot yoga snack. The flavour comes from the roasted vegetables, meyer lemon zest and tarragon, plus the vegetable stock used to cook the pasta. No oily dressing is required so this is something to fill you up that you do not have to feel guilty about eating.

Israeli couscous with roasted summer vegetables
Summer seasonal: tomatoes and peppers
You can replace the Israeli couscous with just about anything; use quinoa or wheat berries to turn this into a super healthy meal or just sub in your favorite small pasta shape.

1 pint cherry tomatoes, cut into halves
1 yellow (or orange or red) pepper, cut into 2 cm squares
1 small eggplant, cut into 2 cm cubes
2 shallots, roughly chopped
2 cloves garlic, crushed
Extra virgin olive oil
Sea salt
1 vegetable bouillon
1 cup Israeli couscous
Fresh tarragon, chopped
Zest from a meyer lemon
Goat cheese (optional; omit for vegans)

1. Preheat oven to 400F.
2. Toss chopped tomatoes, eggplant, pepper and shallot with olive oil, garlic and sea salt.
3. Spread in a single layer on a baking sheet covered with parchment paper
4. Roast 25 minutes, tossing once half way through cooking (caution, a lot of steam will be generated from the tomatoes so watch your face!)
5. Bring 3 cups of water to boil in a pot and add a vegetable bouillon cube; stir to dissolve.
6. Add Israeli couscous and simmer 20 minutes or until tender. Drain extra broth from the couscous.
7. Remove vegetables from oven and let cool slightly before tossing with the cooked couscous.
8. Mix in the meyer lemon zest and chopped fresh tarragon.
9. If desired, serve topped with fresh goat cheese and a slice of meyer lemon.

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