Israeli Couscous with Roasted Summer Vegetables & Toasted Seeds

A few days ago we were invited to our chef Elizabeth’s wedding celebration. Everyone brought a favorite food from home, and one of the dishes we most enjoyed was made by Jessie, a chef who has worked with us for many years. It was colorful, unusual, and delicious. This is our somewhat pared down version of hers: I have omitted the green apples, tomatoes, and a number of hard-to-find ingredients (culantro and aji dulce among them). The result is visually striking, vibrant in flavor, and very addictive thanks to the pop of the toasted sunflower and pumpkin seeds. If you like cilantro and happen to have a bunch with stems attached, chop the stems (not the leaves) and add them to the onion and garlic base when sautéing.

The salad keeps well for days in the refrigerator but needs to come to room temperature before serving for best flavor. The list looks daunting, but it is actually very easy to put together, as most of the work is hands-off. Be mindful of the fact that different brands of Israeli couscous absorb different amounts of liquid; the varieties imported from the Middle-East require almost double the amount of water to cook through, so adjust as needed.

Serves 2 as a main course, 4 as a side dish

For the beets:

  • 2 medium or 4 small beets, scrubbed
  • 1 teaspoon extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1/2 teaspoon sea salt

For the vegetables:

  • 1 small Japanese or Italian eggplant, cut into 1/2-inch dice
  • 1 yellow summer squash, cut into 1/2-inch dice
  • 1 zucchini, cut into 1/2-inch dice
  • 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1/2 teaspoon sea salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 1/2 teaspoon ancho chili powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon amarillo chili powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground turmeric
  • 1/16 teaspoon ground cinnamon

For the couscous:

  • 1 teaspoon extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1/2 small yellow onion, minced
  • 1 garlic clove, minced
  • 3/4 cup Israeli couscous
  • 1/2 teaspoon sea salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 cup boiling water, plus extra as needed

For the seeds:

  • 1 teaspoon extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1/4 cup raw pumpkin seeds
  • 1/4 cup raw sunflower seeds

To serve:

  • 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
  • sea salt to taste
  • freshly ground black pepper to taste

Make the beets: Preheat the oven to 350 degrees (preferably set on convection). Toss the beets with the olive oil and salt and wrap in aluminum foil. Place on a baking sheet and roast in the preheated oven until tender when pierced with a knife, about 1 hour for small beets and 2 hours for large beets. Unwrap, cool 5 minutes, then rub between paper towels to dislodge the skin. When the beets are cool enough to handle, cut into 1/2-inch dice and set aside in a large bowl.

Make the vegetables: Toss all the ingredients on a large baking sheet lined with parchment paper and roast in the preheated oven until browned lightly and tender, about 30 minutes. Be careful not to overcook the vegetables; they should still have some life to them. Add to the beets in the large bowl.

Make the couscous: Place the olive oil, onion, and garlic in a small saucepan with a tight-fitting lid. Sauté for 2 minutes over medium heat, or until aromatic. Add the couscous and sauté for 3 minutes, or until the couscous is lightly golden; this step intensifies the flavor of the couscous by lightly toasting it. Add the salt and pepper, and slowly pour in the boiling water (it may splutter, so stand back).

Cover with the lid and cook over low heat for 12 minutes, or until the water is absorbed and the couscous is tender. If the couscous has absorbed all the water but is still chewy, add more water as needed to finish cooking the couscous (different brands absorb different amounts of liquid, so do check for doneness and adjust as needed).

Add to the vegetables in the bowl.

Make the seeds: In a clean skillet, warm the olive oil over medium heat. Add the pumpkin and sunflower seeds, and cook 2 minutes, stirring often, or until golden and nutty-smelling. Watch that the seeds do not burn or they will taste bitter. Add to the couscous and vegetables in the bowl.

To serve: Cool the salad to room temperature, about 30 minutes to 1 hour. Stir in the olive oil, adjust the salt and pepper, and serve at room temperature.