Saturday, June 11, 2016

Recipe of the Month: Couscous Salad

Last month, our local library had its annual book sale, and one of the volumes we picked up was Dean Ornish's Eat More, Weigh Less. I wasn't really interested in it for the health advice, since I was already familiar with the benefits and the drawbacks of Dr. Ornish's ultra-low-fat vegetarian diet; what attracted me was that about half the book was recipes contributed by professional chefs (including such luminaries as Wolfgang Puck). I flipped through it at the sale and spotted several right away that looked intriguing—Eggplant Caponata, Tandoori Potato and Onion Casserole, Tofu with Black Bean Sauce—and I thought it was worth spending a buck on purely as a cookbook. One advantage of it was that I knew everything in it would be vegetarian, so I wouldn't have to pick through it looking for the recipes I could use; everything in it was sure to be edible, if not necessarily delicious.

So I figured, having this new book on hand, I might as well dip into it to select my Recipe of the Month for June. I selected two likely-looking candidates, Couscous Salad and Japanese Noodle Soup (both contributed by Jean-Mark Fullsack), and we ended up settling on the former mostly because it seemed appropriate for the hot weather.

Now, as it happens, Brian and I already have a couscous salad recipe that we make fairly often in the summertime. It's from our go-to vegetarian cookbook, The Clueless Vegetarian, and it's both very simple and very tasty. All you have to do is cook up the couscous, chop the veggies, shake up a batch of lemon vinaigrette with a touch of cumin, and mix everything together. It calls for canned beans, cucumbers, bell peppers, scallions, and fresh parsley, but it says you can also add "really, whatever else you like"; we often throw in halved Sun Gold tomatoes when they're in season.

Fullsack's recipe was similar in many ways: it also called for chopped tomato and cucumber, fresh parsley and lemon juice, cumin, and a bit of onion in place of the scallions. But it's much leaner than the Clueless Vegetarian version, with no beans and no oil at all in the dressing. It also says to cook the couscous in broth to give it more flavor and adds several more seasonings: garlic, which I like a lot; coriander, which I like somewhat; and a whopping 3/4 cup of chopped mint, which I like, but not that much. My usual practice when making a dish for the first time is to follow the recipe absolutely straight, and then adapt it if necessary, but Brian and I jointly decided that 3/4 cup of mint on top of 1/2 cup of parsley was just way too much greenery, and we cut it down to 1/2 cup.

As it turned out, that was still way too much. As you can see from the picture, the green stuff makes up a fair percentage of what's in the bowl, making this salad similar in flavor and texture to tabouli, which I don't care for all that much. I felt bad having such an incredibly healthy meal in front of me and not eating my fill, but it was already a struggle just to make it through the half-full bowl I'd dished out for myself. I ended up going to the fridge for some string cheese and bread to eke out the meal, which seems to kind of defeat the purpose of having something so ultra-lean as a main course.

Brian, seeing that I wasn't that enthusiastic about the salad, generously offered to take care of the leftovers for me, and he took them to work over the next two days. But by the third day, he had to admit it was starting to pall on him too. As he put it, there's a fine line between a dish you can eat all you want of and not gain weight, and one you can eat all you can stand of and still be hungry—and this dish was definitely treading that line.

Given that we already have a couscous salad recipe we like, I can't see any good reason to make this one again. But perhaps we could pick up a couple of ideas from this recipe to modify our old one, such as cooking the couscous in broth (which did indeed boost its flavor) and maybe cutting down, but not cutting out, the olive oil in the dressing. But I definitely don't think we should cut out the beans, which make the Clueless Vegetarian salad much heartier and more satisfying than Fullsack's—and I can see no good reason to add all that mint, or indeed, any mint at all.

So all in all, this first recipe selection from our new book was a bust. I'll try and be a little more choosy in picking my next one. Perhaps Pasta with Red Peppers, Greens, White Beans, Garlic, and Lemon Zest might work for July.
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