There was a lot of cake last weekend – did I mention the cake? – and a bit more this week, too, of the banana-chocolate-almond variety. This has left me craving vegetables and green tea in vast quantities. We’ve actually decided to go vegan for the month of June (for the most part; there’s a wedding in there next weekend for which I’m baking the cake and I have to taste it, right?) just for fun (?), so happily I will be getting my produce requirement absolutely fulfilled. I also have a few vegan baking projects I’ve been itching to try, so it’s a good excuse (though — pardon me whilst I mourn my lack of cheese for an entire! month!).
In the spirit of the Vegan Experiment, it seems appropriate to mention today a recipe for pearl couscous with roasted tomatoes. I’ve been making it since my DC days for various lunches, dinners, and just becauses, and it has never failed me. I typically include feta cheese, but it is quite delicious without, especially if you add in a can of chickpeas or a handful of toasted pine nuts. The real wonder of the thing is the dressing – slow-roasted tomatoes are blended with olive oil, garlic, lemon juice, a little salt and pepper. There’s not many combinations finer.
It’s also one of those recipes that takes just a small amount of prep work that can be done simultaneously: while the tomatoes roast make the couscous and chop the mint — that sort of thing. Pearl/Israeli couscous shouldn’t be too difficult to find (I usually buy mine in bulk from the organic market up the street) and though I don’t make it too often I love it for its smooth, rich texture. It’s definitely quite different than ordinary couscous, and provides the perfect backdrop for the pungent mint and salty feta in this dish.
But probably another reason I love pearl couscous, especially with tomatoes and feta, is because it reminds me of Greece. (When does feta not remind me of Greece, though, hmm?) Six summers ago I met Simon in Thessaloniki and he took me straight to lunch with his mom at an outdoor restaurant in the heat. We drank retsina and cokes on dusty balcony from which you could see a scrap of sea, and watched other people drink whatever they were drinking on their own dusty balconies from which they may or may not have been able to see the water. It was hot. It was dry. It was so Greece, the way only Greece is in August. The weight of the sun presses you down, down and you sweat through your shirts and then you leave the city for the true coast because to stay any longer in a place bound by concrete and tall buildings seems absolutely impossible.
We fled as soon as we were able – the airline had lost my bag for two days, and so we waited for it, me wearing a once-favorite skirt three days in a row and washing my underthings nightly and hanging them outside; they dried within about a half-hour – to the Halkidiki Peninsula where (har har) we were going to camp for almost a week. We lasted one night (no comment) before fleeing yet again for nicer environs. Somehow we ended up in a little beach town steps from the Mediterranean and found a little house to rent with a little patio and a little orange cat and a little single-pot burner we used to boil water for coffee and other things.
At the tiny store down the road we bought pearl couscous and red peppers in a jar, a block of feta cheese, pre-made tziki sauce, ouzo, bread (pita), milk, beer, chocolate probably. The essentials. One of us bought cigarettes while the other one scolded. We ate couscous and red peppers and drank wine and listened the ocean and I tried to get the orange cat to sit on my lap. The couscous was so simple but it was so good and went down so easily. I couldn’t wait to go for a swim.
I wrote in my journal, the very little bit that I did write during that trip: is it possible that an ocean can be such a color? so clear? so changeable? thunderstorms at night and sweet sun and water during the day. moped-riding all around yesterday for hours.
One afternoon I had to myself on the beach; the German tourists nearby went very Euro (by that I mean the ladies slipped off their bikini tops) and I remember thinking when in Greece … because I’d never. Another afternoon we went for a run along the narrow asphalt roads after the mid-day heat let up a bit, the drivers of any cars or motos that passed by looking at us in jeering astonishment. My itb ached awfully and I doubted I would be able to do the marathon that was waiting for me a few months in the future — shades of today, when I wonder the same thing, though now it’s my left rather than my right — and clouds gathered offshore. One night we hiked along those same roads over to another town and ate pizza while it poured and poured.
Today San Francisco shines in the summer-like sun, preening itself after the morning fog burned away. The Golden Gate Bridge is 75 years old and I wonder where I will be when it turns 100. In California? In Greece? Eating feta cheese under the light of a super moon? I wonder if I will still be making this couscous salad; I wonder how, if at all, I will make it differently. There is a strange melancholy in the not-knowing and I am feeling it strongly today, the first day of the month that brings us into true summer, another season, another turn around the sun.
June: the year spins on. The farmers’ market awaits me tomorrow. And other things.
Other shades of a former life, from June 1, 2003: i am homesick. i want to go to the beach where the river flows into the ocean and seals birth their babies along its banks, where pelicans wheel and dive into the muddy seawater. i want to sit downtown and drink italian sodas and eat scones before going to the little library, waiting patiently by the fountain. i want to sit in my backyard with my old cats and dog around me. they are all ghosts, now, along with the vanished rabbits. i want sunshine and the smell of salt air and the redwood forest and bay leaves.
i do not want to wait until august to have all these things; i am impatient for summer mornings and hummingbirds and a garden and the mountains and the bay and the sound and swell of the sea and i will only have them for two short weeks and it is not enough, it is not enough.
(California, always. Greece, too.)
Pearl Couscous with Tomatoes and Feta, adapted from Gourmet
Simple and true, this is one of my favorite recipes to combat any form of homesickness, or the summer doldrums. Make it when cherry tomatoes are at their zenith; you can even add more to the roasting pan to incorporate into the finished dish. Vegans, omit the feta and try adding a can of rinsed and drained chickpeas (non-vegans, you can do this, too) or a 1/2 cup of lightly toasted pine nuts, or both.
For roasted tomatoes and dressing
2 pints red grape or cherry tomatoes (1 1/2 pound)
3 large garlic cloves, left unpeeled
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1/4 cup warm water
1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
2 3/4 cups veg broth
2 1/4 cups pearl (Israeli) couscous
1 tablespoon olive oil
1/4 cup chopped fresh mint
1 cup crumbled feta
1 can chickpeas, drained and rinsed
1/2 cup toasted pine nuts
Roast tomatoes and make dressing:
Preheat oven to 250°F.
Halve tomatoes through stem ends and arrange, cut sides up, in 1 layer in a large shallow (1-inch-deep) baking pan. Add garlic to pan and roast in middle of oven until tomatoes are slightly shriveled around edges, about 1 hour. Cool in pan on a rack 30 minutes.
Peel garlic and purée with oil, water, lemon juice, salt, pepper, and 1/2 cup roasted tomatoes in a blender until dressing is very smooth.
Bring broth to a boil in a 3-quart heavy saucepan and stir in couscous, then simmer, uncovered, 6 minutes. Cover pan and remove from heat. Let stand 10 minutes.
Spread couscous in 1 layer on a baking sheet and cool 15 minutes.
Transfer couscous to a bowl and stir in remaining ingredients, dressing, roasted tomatoes, and salt and pepper to taste.