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I dig couscous. There are few starches that can be prepared as quickly. Traditional couscous, the coarse yellow stuff that is most often thought of as couscous, is made of semolina that is formed into little balls and is traditionally steamed to be served with stews. What you find on shelves in The States is an instant kind that can be cooked in about 5 minutes with some hot stock & butter. Couscous is a very neutral thing and can be dressed up with sauces, vinaigrettes, vegetables, meat…pretty much whatever blows your hair back, and is good hot or cold. I love the versatility and the quickness.

Israeli couscous is a different variety of couscous. Conceptually it is the same, toasted semolina balls, but they are much bigger and have more texture. They need to be cooked, not steeped like their smaller counterpart, but are still wicked fast compared to pasta, rice or potatoes. Israeli couscous was created many, many moons ago during a rice shortage in Israel and that is exactly how it tends to be used there; here it has become a kind of trendy starch that pops up on fun restaurant menus. Its unique because it has a very toothsome quality that rice and pasta do not have, stands up better to heating and reheating and works in a bazillion different ways. Generally I have always tended toward acid based warm or cold salad-y kinds of dishes, it lends itself very well to bright, herby vinaigrettes with crunchy vegetables (there will definitely be some of those recipes as the weather warms), but warm, earthy flavors also work well with its texture and is where we are headed with this recipe.

I couldn’t bring myself to type the word “risotto” up there in the title, this is definitely NOT risotto….but it’s the closest I could get to an accurate name. A traditional risotto takes time and attention, slowly adding warm stock to simmering rice and working out all the starches to make a creamy sauce with bits of al dente arborio in the mix, it is delicious but there is much room for error; faux-sotto is no where near as complex and there are almost no errors to make outside of burning it, so don’t so that. With ease comes some sacrifices, of a sort – the end result is not a creamy, saucy decadent dish – but the flavors are rich, the couscous texture is very reminiscent of risotto rice and it is so much lighter. Don’t get me wrong, I love risotto, but it is heavy and starchy and takes 40 minutes of me standing over a stove JUST watching it, far from convenient. This version is quite convenient, takes about 10 minutes to prep, about 10 to simmer and less than 10 to sit with a lid on it before you serve. When the urge for a creamy risotto strikes I will totally make the real deal, but when I want an interesting side dish for dinner this is a nice go-to.

My version of this recipe is not vegetarian or vegan, but it can be very easily adapted to both with no problems at all. I used chicken stock to cook the couscous – sub a vegetable stock instead for vegetarian and I added butter to saute the mushrooms & some parmesan – don’t do that for vegan.

I used it this time as a side dish, but it could be very easily beefed up with more vegetables or proteins to make a delicious main course. I am thinking a version with grilled asparagus & chicken will be making an appearance at my table sooner rather than later.

Note: If you are adding more veggies cut them small add after the liquid cooks off, they will steam in the hot couscous while it sits lidded so their color & texture will still be great. If you add them with the stock they will be mushy & colorless.

Wild Mushroom Israeli Couscous Faux-sotto makes about 5-6 cups-ish

  • 2 Tbsp Extra Virgin Olive Oil
  • 2 Tbsp Butter
  • 1/2 Sweet Onion, small dice
  • 2 cloves Garlic, minced
  • 1# Wild Mushrooms, sliced (I used crimini & oyster)
  • 2 cups Israeli Couscous
  • 3 cups Stock (chicken or vegetable)
  • pinch Dried Thyme
  • 2 Bay Leaves
  • to taste Salt & Fresh Ground Black Pepper
  • 1/4 cup Fresh Grated Parmesan Cheese
  • 2 Tbsp Soy Sauce

Heat a saute pan over medium high heat and add the butter & olive oil until the butter is foamy. Add the onions & garlic, reduce the heat to medium and sweat until tender and translucent. Turn the heat back up and let the pan get hot. Add the mushroom, season with salt & pepper and saute until they are tender and starting to take on some color. Add the couscous and continue to saute until the couscous is heated up and everything is all mixed up.

Add the stock, thyme and bay leaves, stir to combine and bring to a simmer. Reduce heat to medium, cover and simmer until almost all of the liquid has been absorbed. Check on it a couple times, it takes about 10 minutes to cook out and will need some stirs toward the end to make sure it isn’t sticking at all. Add the grated parmesan & soy sauce and stir it in. Give it a taste and adjust the seasoning as needed. Cover with the lid and let it sit for 5-10 minutes, stir up before serving.

The end result shouldn’t be a creamy mess, but more gently held together with a light parmesan sauce. Also I know this seems an odd place to add soy, it isn’t, I promise. Soy sauce is magic with mushrooms, helps deepen their flavor, another ingredient that you wouldn’t know it was in there but would miss it if it wasn’t. The leftovers heat back up really well, too!