Pilaf Isn’t Just for Rice

This pilaf uses pearl couscous, toasted and simmered in a spice-infused stock for a glorious, golden side dish
October 5, 2020 Updated: October 5, 2020

Pilaf is a simple and delicious grain dish, traditionally composed of lightly toasted rice grains, which are simmered in an aromatic spice-infused stock. And while rice is frequently used in pilaf, it isn’t mandatory. Other grains, such as farro and freekah, can be used, as well as wheat ingredients, including orzo, bulgur, and couscous.

This recipe is for pearl couscous pilaf. Pearl couscous is also known as Israeli couscous (ptitim) and Italian couscous (fregola sarda). It differs from finely grained North African couscous, which is coarse with air-dried flecks of durum wheat semolina that are typically steamed and served with stews.

Pearl couscous is also made from wheat flour and semolina, but it’s rolled into tiny pearl-shaped pieces of pasta and then toasted until hardened. This process produces a nutty flavor, chewy bite, and slippery texture, which is incredibly satisfying to eat.

Not only that, but when you cook pearl couscous, the extra step of toasting the hardened pearls again before simmering in stock burnishes the couscous with a golden color and a nutty, toasted flavor.

This recipe method layers in the flavor and produces an understated yet glorious side dish. The grains simmer in chicken stock infused with butter and spices, rippling with golden saffron. Toasted pine nuts, currants, and fresh herbs complete the dish. It’s simple and sumptuous and a wonderful accompaniment to meat, fish, and vegetables.

Pearl Couscous Pilaf
This pearl couscous pilaf makes a wonderful accompaniment to meat, fish, and vegetables. (Lynda Balslev for TasteFood)

Pearl Couscous Pilaf

Active Time: 30 minutes
Total Time: 30 minutes

Serves 4 to 6 as a side dish

  • 1 3/4 cups chicken stock
  • 1 tablespoon unsalted butter
  • 1/2 teaspoon sea salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cardamom
  • 1/8 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • Generous pinch of saffron threads
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1/3 cup finely chopped yellow onion
  • 1 1/2 cups Israeli couscous
  • 3 tablespoons pine nuts, toasted until light golden
  • 2 to 3 tablespoons currants or finely chopped golden raisins
  • 2 tablespoons finely chopped mint
  • 2 tablespoon finely chopped Italian parsley

Warm the stock, butter, salt, cumin, cardamom, cinnamon, and saffron in a small saucepan until the butter melts. Keep warm over low heat.

Heat the oil in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add the onion and sauté until softened without coloring, 3 to 4 minutes. Add the couscous and cook until lightly toasted, about 2 minutes, stirring frequently.

Carefully add the stock to the pan and stir to combine. Cover the pan and simmer over medium-low heat until the liquid has been absorbed and the couscous is tender, about 10 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat, remove the lid, and fluff the couscous with a fork. Lay a clean dishtowel over the pan, without touching the couscous, and place the lid over the towel. Let stand for 5 minutes to allow the towel to absorb the steam.

Stir in the pine nuts, currants, mint, and parsley. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Lynda Balslev is a cookbook author, food and travel writer, and recipe developer based in the San Francisco Bay Area, where she lives with her Danish husband, two children, a cat, and a dog. Lynda studied cooking at Le Cordon Bleu Ecole de Cuisine in Paris and worked as a personal chef, culinary instructor, and food writer in Switzerland and Denmark. Copyright 2020 Lynda Balslev. Distributed by Andrew McMeel Syndication.