Last week I attended a dinner at the busiest Los Angeles branch of Whole Foods, a gourmet natural foods market. This was a meal with a purpose - to introduce diners to interesting ingredients available at the market, which they could then use to cook at home. On the five-course menu designed by Chef Giulian Jones, each course came from a different continent.
The entree featured a food that is especially interesting to me - Israeli couscous (ptitim). Prepared as a pilaf with a French mirepoix of diced celery, onions and carrots, it was used to stuff curried baby hens set on a bed of shredded fresh hearty greens. The tasty couscous was tinted pale yellow, perhaps from some of the curry rub used on the baby chicken.
Ptitim are not the usual couscous you may know from meals at Moroccan restaurants. The pasta was shaped in small spheres that looked like tapioca. When I first experimented with different kinds of pasta in Israel in the 1970s, there were many types of ptitim, but I never encountered the label Israeli couscous. Ptitim can be roughly translated as crumbs or flakes. Some of the pastas did resemble large bread crumbs, but there were other shapes as well.
Someone had the idea to market these pasta pearls in the US as Israeli couscous, and they were a hit. The pieces are considerably larger than Moroccan and other North African couscous, and have a chewy rather than tender texture. Because of its pleasing consistency, this couscous has become a la mode on the menus of contemporary American chefs and is available in US gourmet markets.
The term "Israeli couscous" has caught on in Israel too. Osem calls its version "Ptitei couscous Yisraeli," thus combining both terms. Osem's ptitim are made from flour, in contrast to Moroccan couscous, which is made from semolina.
Actually, pearl-shaped pasta can also be found in other Middle Eastern countries. This large form of couscous, sometimes labeled mugrabiyeh or maftoul, is used in Lebanese and Palestinian cuisines. Often it accompanies braised chicken or lamb.
Ptitim are easier to handle than other pastas, both in restaurants and at home. Unlike many kinds of pasta, the pearls retain their shape and their texture even if kept warm for a while or reheated. In addition, unlike traditional tiny grains of North African couscous, they don't tend to clump together.
CURRY-ROASTED BABY CHICKENS WITH PTITIM PILAF
This recipe is inspired by Chef Giulian Jones's dish. You can use it for baby chickens (pargiyot) or ordinary chickens. The chef used his own Indian curry rub, which was quite peppery; you can use any curry powder or curry paste that you like.
For easier serving, instead of stuffing the birds, I roast them on their own and cook the ptitim pilaf separately, then heat the birds over the ptitim so they exchange flavors. Instead of poultry, you could top the ptitim with grilled curry-rubbed fish or tofu.
If you'd like to include shredded greens in the dish, serve it this way: Remove stems from spinach or chard and shred the leaves. Make a bed of the shredded greens on each plate, drizzle them lightly with olive oil and sprinkle them with salt and pepper. Set the roasted bird on top of the greens and serve the ptitim alongside. You can also garnish each plate with a bundle of fresh herb sprigs, such as basil, rosemary and sage, as the chef did.
four small baby chickens or a 1.6-kg.-1.8-kg. chicken
1 Tbsp. curry powder
2 to 3 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil or vegetable oil
1 onion, chopped
1 carrot, cut in small dice
1â„2 cup diced celery
11â„2 cups chicken broth
1 cup water
1 cup ptitim (pasta spheres)
salt and freshly ground pepper
Preheat oven to 200 . Pull out fat from inside birds. Mix curry powder and one tablespoon oil. Rub birds all over with mixture and set them in a roasting pan. Roast birds for about 45 minutes (or whole chicken about one hour) or until juices come out clear when a skewer is inserted into thickest part of thigh. If juices are pink, roast a few more minutes.
Meanwhile, prepare pilaf: Heat remaining oil in a saucepan. Add onion, carrot and celery and saute over medium heat until onion softens, about five minutes. Stir in broth and water and bring to a boil. Add ptitim and simmer uncovered for 10 to 15 minutes or until just tender, occasionally stirring gently and adding a few tablespoons hot water if necessary.
Remove birds from roasting pan and pour off fat from pan. Reduce oven temperature to 175 .
Spoon ptitim pilaf into roasting pan. Cut each baby chicken in two, or cut large chicken in four pieces. Set chicken pieces on top of pilaf. Cover with foil and heat in oven for about 10 minutes to meld the flavors. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve ptitim topped with chicken pieces.
Makes 4 servings.
Faye Levy is the author of Feast from the Mideast.