Famously invented as a substitute for rice during the State of Israel's early austerity years, ptitim—as they're called in Hebrew—or Israeli couscous, as they're known in English, is a true blue-and-white side dish and a big favorite of kids. Here's how to prepare it the Israeli way.
Similar to orzo, ptitim (Hebrew for "small crumbled bits") are small morsels of wheat pasta that have a delightfully textural mouthfeel thanks to their diminutive size. Israeli couscous or pearl couscous as it's variously called in English, is an ultimate Israeli comfort food. Kids gobble it down, as do nostalgic grown-ups. It's particularly at home next to schnitzel, but also great in any saucy dish where it'll soak up the flavors of the sauce. The classic Israeli preparation of Israeli couscous is to serve it as a side dish, toasted in oil along with chopped onion, then boiled in stock (obviously made with soup powder). An optional addition is a bit of tomato paste.
Israeli couscous comes in plain, whole wheat, or "tri-color," which, if you squint, you can see is what I've used here. It also comes in other shapes, notably stars, in case your kids need more incentive. It's most commonly sold bagged, and sometimes in a plastic container like the one pictured. The typical way it's prepared is often listed right there on the package label! Like the recipe printed on a bag of Tollhouse chocolate chips. Of course my family has its own optional twist, but basically the method is canon. You can use any kind of Israeli couscous you like, and, if you're feeling adventurous, you can make your own from-scratch ptitim, a.k.a. farfel, sort of.
The standard Israeli method for preparing ptitim goes like this: dice a small to medium onion and fry in a bit of olive oil. If you like, you can add in a tablespoon of tomato paste once the onion is golden (totally optional—it's a little different with or without, and good both ways). Then, toast the couscous pearls for a minute before adding the stock. You can use vegetable stock, chicken stock, or be super Israeli and mix in a tablespoon of (parve) chicken soup powder.
Of course, Israeli couscous can be prepared like pasta and served plain, the better to soak up whatever delicious sauce is available. However, it's even better with just a little extra prep, like proletariat risotto. (No fussy check-ins needed like with risotto, though: just cook it like pasta after adding the stock.)
A few ideas of what to serve with Israeli couscous
- Israeli Chicken Schnitzel - the one, the only, the classic.
- Israeli Homestyle Meatballs - um, also the classic.
- Ras el-Hanout Meatballs with Saucy Peas - this would be great with Israeli couscous.
Israeli Couscous (parve or meat)
- 1 cup Israeli (pearl) couscous
- 1 small to medium onion
- 2 Tbsp olive oil
- 1 Tbsp tomato paste - optional
- 1 ¼ cup vegetable or chicken stock, or boiling water plus 1 Tbsp chicken soup powder (bouillon)
- In a medium-sized pot, heat the oil over medium heat. Dice the onion and add to the oil. Fry until golden, 5 minutes or so.
- If using, add the tomato paste and stir well.
- Add the pearl couscous to the pot and toast along with the onion for an additional minute.
- Pour the stock or hot water over the couscous. Cook for 8-10 minutes, until tender and almost all of the water has been absorbed.