Food & Drink

Taking comfort in couscous

Couscous with feta and chickpeas. The tiny orbs of pasta, blanketed in feta and mixed with roasted tomatoes and chickpeas, are a brighter take on creamy comfort food.
Couscous with feta and chickpeas. The tiny orbs of pasta, blanketed in feta and mixed with roasted tomatoes and chickpeas, are a brighter take on creamy comfort food. New York Times

This time of year, much of the bowl food that’s written about consists of virtuous whole grains and crisp vegetables, perfect to fuel those post-resolution workouts we’ve all been thinking about.

But what’s to be said for another type of bowl food, the cozy, cheesy variety that doesn’t require too much effort in the way of chewing? Polenta, macaroni and cheese, risotto, even savory oatmeal: They’re meals you can take to the sofa and balance in your lap, spoon in one hand, remote control in the other.

This recipe for pearl couscous with feta, tomatoes and herbs is decidedly of the couch-nestling kind. When baked until tender and bound with cheese, the tiny rounds of toasted pasta turn silky, absorbing all the flavors around them.

A good stock provides much of that flavor, and adding vegetable stock makes this a vegetarian one-pan meal. But if keeping things vegetarian isn’t the goal and you have chicken or beef broth on hand, stir that into the pan instead. Chopped fresh herbs, lemon zest and cumin deepen the character of the stock, making it bright and lively, as well as complex.

Chickpeas give the dish a boost of protein. Feta cheese adds creaminess and tang, though how much tang will depend on the kind of feta you buy. Greek tends to be the saltiest and most intense in taste, while cheeses imported from Bulgaria and France are generally milder. Taste a bit before you add it to the pan. If it seems very salty, give the cheese a quick rinse. And if it seems too bland, add an extra pinch of salt and dash of balsamic vinegar to the pan to perk things up.

Every one-pan meal needs a vegetable and here, roasted sturdy grape tomatoes – a winter staple in my kitchen – get the job done. Cooked along with balsamic vinegar, garlic and scallions, they turn both savory and sweet, their juices condensing in their brief stint in a very hot oven.

They do not, however, provide any kind of textural contrast. (This is not a dish for anyone looking for crunch.) Soft, cheese-filled and warming, this meal is as gently comforting as that spot on the couch.

And to drink

While pearl couscous gives this dish the weight and texture to satisfy in cold weather, the herbs and flavorings bring to mind a Mediterranean summer. For that reason, it’s a great opportunity to indulge in a winter rosé. But don’t reach for the last bottle from the past summer’s $50 case. Those cheap rosés have a fleeting life span. You need a sturdier bottle, like a Bandol rosé or a few others that not only survive a few years aging but actually improve. If you find a winter rosé is too jarring – though I don’t know why it should be – this dish will go well with any dry Mediterranean white. Try something from Greece, like an assyrtiko, a moschofilero, maybe even a retsina.

Pearl Couscous With Creamy Feta and Chickpeas

Yield: 4 servings

Total time: 50 minutes

1 pint grape tomatoes, halved

1/4 cup sliced scallions

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling

1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar, plus more for serving

2 fat garlic cloves, finely grated or minced

1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt, plus more as needed

1/2 teaspoon black pepper, plus more for serving

3 oregano, rosemary or sage sprigs

2 cups vegetable stock or water

1/3 cup chopped cilantro, dill or parsley, plus more for serving

1/2 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest (from 1/2 lemon)

3/4 teaspoon ground cumin

8 ounces pearl couscous (1 1/2 cups)

1 (15-ounce) can chickpeas, drained and rinsed

1 cup feta, crumbled (about 4 ounces)

1/3 cup freshly grated Parmesan (1 1/2 ounces)

Heat oven to 450 degrees. In a 9-inch baking dish, cake pan or gratin dish, toss together tomatoes, scallions, 2 tablespoons oil, 1 tablespoon vinegar, garlic, 1/2 teaspoon salt, pepper and oregano sprigs. Roast until tomatoes are tender, about 15 minutes.

While tomatoes roast, heat the stock until it boils, then stir in remaining 1 teaspoon salt, adding more to taste. (You want a well-seasoned broth here to flavor the couscous.) Stir in cilantro, lemon zest and cumin.

Remove tomatoes from oven and fold in couscous, chickpeas and hot stock mixture. Cover pan tightly with foil, and return to oven for 20 minutes.

Remove foil and fold in about 3/4ths of the feta (save the rest for garnish) and Parmesan. Bake uncovered until feta starts to melt, another 5 minutes.

To serve, pull out and discard herb sprigs if you like, and spoon couscous into bowls. Top with remaining feta, lots more herbs, pepper and a drizzle of olive oil and balsamic vinegar.

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