For a long time Israeli couscous was hard to find, and I only enjoyed it in restaurants, or by placing special orders online.  Now it’s available almost everywhere!   Even one store in our small town carries it in bulk, so I buy as little or as much as I want.  Heads up: when you  buy Israeli couscous in bulk, make sure to tie the plastic bag very well, and handle it with loving care.  Those cute little balls of semolina flour travel long distances when spilled on the floor. It’s amazing the lessons a cook learns! 😉

Israeli couscous has an interesting history. It indeed originated in Israel,  in the 50’s,  with the name of “ptitim.”  It was conceived in a time of austerity, as an attempt to deal with the scarcity of food, including the almost complete disappearance of rice.  Back in Israel it remains a popular food item for kids, available in all sorts of cute shapes, like stars and hearts, to please the young audience.  Abroad, Israeli couscous became a trendy gourmet ingredient, as we all know well.  It’s versatile and has less tendency to form lumps than regular couscous. It can be dressed up in countless ways and it’s equally tasty warm or cold, as in this delicious salad, adapted from a recent issue of Food and Wine.

(adapted from Food and Wine magazine)

6 cups packed arugula (6 ounces)
2 cups Israeli couscous (12 ounces)
2 Tbs extra-virgin olive oil
1/3 cup full fat yoghurt  (or low fat if you prefer)
1/4 cup pine nuts
1 garlic clove, chopped
1/4 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
Salt and freshly ground pepper
1 cup red cherry tomatoes, halved
1 English cucumber, peeled and diced

Bring a large saucepan of salted water to a boil. Add the 6 cups of arugula and blanch for 10 seconds. With a slotted spoon, transfer the arugula to a colander. Rinse under cold water to stop the cooking, drain well and reserve.

Add the couscous to the boiling water and cook over moderately high heat, stirring occasionally, until al dente, 8 to 10 minutes.  Taste to make sure you don’t overcook it.  Drain, and spread on a large baking sheet, drizzling with a very small amount of olive oil (use a spray bottle if you have it) to prevent the little balls from sticking. Let it cool to room temperature.

In a small skillet, toast the pine nuts over moderate heat, tossing, until golden brown, about 2 minutes. Let cool.

Squeeze the excess water from the arugula, coarsely chop it, and place it in the bowl of a food processor. Transfer the arugula to a food processor. Add the pine nuts, garlic, cheese and the 2 Tbs of olive oil, processing until the arugula and pine nuts are chopped. Immediately add the yogurt, process until smooth, and season with salt and pepper to taste.

Transfer the couscous to a large serving bowl and stir in some of the pesto, using as much or as little as you like.  Gently fold in the tomatoes and cucumber pieces.  Adjust seasoning, and….


to print the recipe, click here

Comments:  We loved this recipe!   And I’m especially happy about my modifications of the arugula pesto.  Purists may roll their eyes, but I reduced the fat content of this baby to levels previously unknown to mankind!  Imagine my audacity, going from 1/2 cup of olive oil in the original recipe to 2 Tbs  olive oil  + 1/3 cup of yogurt!  That, my friends, is a drop from 954 calories down to 175.   I am not a fat-o-phobe, but I’ve played with yogurt and buttermilk long enough to learn that they often substitute well for oil, as illustrated in this example: the acidity in the yogurt kept the arugula bright and it added an interesting sharpness to the pesto.   Of course, you may also ignore my adaptation and use the full amount of olive oil. As Emeril Lagasse says, “…you won’t hurt  my feelings.”   😉

Olive oil is one of the healthiest options among fats, but any fat packs a huge load of calories.  If you struggle with weight issues (who doesn’t?), then be attentive to the amount of olive oil in your recipes and restaurant foods.  Salads are deceptively high in calories. Consider asking for dressing on the side, and use it sparingly.  Another dangerous option that seems healthy and light:   buffet platters of grilled veggies, such as eggplant and zucchini. They are  prepared with a substantial amount of olive oil, and eggplant in particular soaks it up like a sponge.  Be aware, make the right choices, and exercise portion control.  When you’re cooking at home try my low-cal pesto and see what you think.  It’s good to splurge with the real thing sometimes, but it’s also wonderful to find an alternative that makes you feel good when you leave the table.  😉

ONE YEAR AGO:  Heavenly Home-made Fromage Blanc

TWO YEARS AGO:  Pasta with Fresh Tomato Sauce

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  1. Oh yes…little grains spilling all over the floor. I’ve been there (more than once). 😉 I like your healthy option here. We also try to reduce the amount of oil typically called for in recipes. I should try incorporating yogurt more too.


    • We go through many yogurt containers per week, as I have it for breakfast, little bowls as a snack, and cook with it quite a bit. I also make salad dressings with it, works well – should blog about it at some point.


  2. I really love the idea of yogurt in the pesto…the color is such a vibrant green. I have to harvest basil today and I’ll make pesto your way. Thank you!


  3. Sally, Wonderful adaptation to full fat version–I often use yogurt in salad dressings to replace mayo and/or sour cream. Never thought of using it to replace olive oil in pestos…off to the store I go!


    • Jim, I would not replace it completely, add just a little bit of olive oil to get things going, and add yogurt, tasting as you go.

      I think a little fat is important for the mouth feel, but I definitely prefer the lower-fat variation


    • I made arugula pesto (arugula only) once, but did not blanch the leaves. I thought the flavor was a little harsh, but this one is surprisingly mellow. I bet a mixture of basil and arugula as yo make would be perfect!


  4. I didn’t know the story of Israeli couscous, Sally, but I’ve often wondered at its size which pleases me. Thanks for the history along with your interesting and creative version of the recipe.


  5. My sister makes a pesto very similar to yours, I think she went down the same process of trying to reduce the fat levels. She often substitutes pumpkin seeds for the nuts… It’s good to highlight the calorie factor in oils. I was also surprised to be told that once olive oil is heated up, say for frying, it is no better for you than any other oil. I can’t remember who told me that, so don’t take it as gospel. Have you come across anything about this with your scientist hat on? I did enjoy this post Sally 🙂


    • Joanna, I seem to remember reading something along those lines too – the problem with all these nutritional remarks is that a lot of it gets propagated in the net as true, but the data behind it is shaky. This field is not even close to my area of research, but I’ll try to find out more about it and will let you know


    • Twenty minutes is not that bad, but on weeknights 10 minutes is better 😉
      Now I am curious to taste the moghrabieh – wonder if I can find it in this neck of the woods


    • Hi, Cindy
      no, I am not making yogurt at the present time – I’m going through a lot of yogurt right now, Phil likes low fat, I am using non-fat for me, so it gets too complicated to make my own. It is easier right now to just buy four large containers per week, sometimes not even that is enough, though 😉


  6. Pingback: The Accidental Recipe | Travels with a Culinary Artist

  7. Pingback: Recipe made: ISRAELI COUSCOUS SALAD WITH ARUGULA PESTO | Travels with a Culinary Artist

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