This pearled couscous salad is a bright and fresh side dish or meatless main dish that’s perfect for a light weeknight dinner or a picnic. Ready in 30 minutes!
Late last summer, I came home from a long day of appointments had no clue what I was going to make for dinner. I hadn’t made the grocery stop I’d planned and found myself staring down a whole bunch of nothing in the dinner department when I opened the fridge.
Bordering on “hangry,” I decided to make a bowl of my favorite Chickpea and Feta Salad for a quick meal. With no bread on hand for dipping (I was batting zero, I tell you!), I spied a box of pearled couscous in the pantry and decided to throw it into the salad.
Rummaging around my refrigerator, one thing led to another, and in went the leftover cherry tomatoes and Kalamata olives from a mezze platter I’d made for friends over the weekend, a few leaves of basil, a shallot, and a handful of baby arugula.
Tender, peppery arugula leaves make everything better in my book!
Before I knew it, I was sitting down to a beautiful and filling Pearled Couscous Salad that I’ve made at least ten times since. Don’t you love when off-the-cuff meals become favorites?
What is Pearled Couscous?
Pearled couscous, also called “Israeli couscous” is such a versatile ingredient. It’s one of my favorites for quick-fix, satisfying dishes, like this salad and my stuffed peppers.
Like the smaller couscous grains, pearled couscous is made from crushed durum wheat semolina.
While most commercial couscous today is machine-made, it is traditionally made by dampening one’s hands and rubbing the semolina between them to create tiny granules, which are then dried. Israeli couscous is shaped into pearl-sized spheres and toasted.
Read more about the different types of couscous and their origins in, “Couscous – So Good They Named It Twice” from The Reluctant Gourmet.
Pearled couscous cooks fast (8-10 minutes) and easily absorbs whatever flavors you choose to pair with it. While I do love the small grains of regular couscous, pearled couscous salad is my favorite. I find the larger shape more filling and I like its slightly chewy texture and nutty flavor.
Like many, I lightly brown my pearled couscous in a little bit of olive oil before simmering to bring out its toasty flavor. This contrasts the lemon-garlic vinaigrette and sweet tomatoes in this couscous salad recipe nicely.
Making and Adapting Pearled Couscous Salad
This mediterranean couscous salad is ready in 30 minutes. All you have to do is whisk up your vinaigrette and prep the add-ins while the couscous is cooking. Perfect for busy nights.
What I might love most about this salad is how endlessly customizable it is.
No cherry tomatoes on hand? Toss in some sun-dried tomatoes, chopped bell peppers, or roasted red peppers. Don’t like Feta? Give it a try with crumbled goat cheese or bocconcini.
You can easily substitute torn baby spinach leaves for arugula. I also sometimes like to roast the tomatoes in the oven with a little extra virgin olive oil, salt, and pepper, if you have the time and prefer a deeper flavor and softer texture.
I’ve added artichoke hearts to this salad on a few occasions, and even grilled shrimp. It’s easy to take the base of the couscous and vinaigrette and add whatever herbs and vegetables you have and love.
Serving Israeli Couscous Salad
We most often enjoy this couscous salad recipe on its own as a light weeknight dinner with a few slices of grilled Italian bread and a crisp glass of wine.
Mediterranean couscous is also a wonderful side dish to grilled steaks, chicken, and seafood, and is great to serve at picnics and barbecues. It’s something a little different from the usual pasta salad fare.
With the gorgeous, vibrant colors of the tomatoes and arugula against the couscous, this salad just looks like summer on a plate, doesn’t it?
Mediterranean Pearled Couscous Salad
- 1 cup pearled (Israeli) couscous
- 5 tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil , divided
- 1 -1/4 cups water
- 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
- 1 tablespoon lemon zest
- 1 clove garlic , minced
- 1 large shallot , chopped (about 1/4 cup)
- 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt , plus additional, to taste
- 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper , plus additional, to taste
- 15 ounce can chickpeas , rinsed and drained (or equivalent amount dried chickpeas, cooked)
- 1 cup quartered cherry tomatoes
- 1/3 cup halved Kalamata olives
- 1/2 cup roughly chopped baby arugula
- 1/4 cup chopped fresh basil
- 1/2 cup crumbled Feta (I use French), plus additional for serving
- Heat 2 teaspoons oil in a saucepan over medium-high heat. Add couscous and cook, stirring, until toasted, about 4 minutes. Add water and a pinch of salt and bring to a boil. Cover, lower heat, and simmer until water is absorbed and couscous is al dente, about 8-10 minutes.
- While couscous is cooking, whisk together remaining 5 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, lemon juice and zest, garlic, shallot, 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt, and 1/2 teaspoon pepper in a large bowl.
- Add warm, cooked couscous and stir to coat. Stir in chickpeas and tomatoes. Let stand 10 minutes.
- Add olives, baby arugula, and basil. Gently fold in crumbled Feta and season to taste with salt and pepper.
- Serve with a little additional Feta crumbled over the salad on the platter, if desired. Salad is best enjoyed at room temperature.
Make Ahead:The salad is easily made a day in advance of serving, through addition of the olives, and stored, covered, in the refrigerator. If making ahead, the flavors of the vinaigrette will really have a chance to soak into the couscous. For best results, return to room temperature and hold arugula, basil, and Feta to add shortly before serving.
A note on pearled couscous:Almost all pearled couscous brands I've used cook in the time indicated in this recipe. BUT, I recently bought a box that called for 15-20 minutes of simmering. I was surprised, but this particular brand really did need the extra time. If your package directions differ significantly in terms of cooking time, follow those guidelines and proceed with the recipe to assemble the salad as written.
Originally published Jun 18, 2016.