I’m not one for traditional Thanksgiving food. Turkey and stuffing are completely off the plate for me. So I’m always excited to find a dish that captures the flavors of the season but is refreshingly different and vegetarian. And you just can’t do fall without pumpkin.
My little brother went to Thanksgiving with his girlfriend’s family last year, and came home with some amazing leftovers. Since he knows I like “fancy vegetarian food”, he let me try this roasted pumpkin couscous that his girlfriend’s fabulous uncle, who is a chef and owns his own restaurant (The Row House in Topeka, KS) made for their Thanksgiving dinner. This side dish was the perfect mix of tangy and sweet, and when paired with a spinach salad, I knew would make a killer meal, holiday or not.
I emailed my soon to be sister-in-law to ask how to make it, but the “recipe” I got wasn’t so much a recipe, but a list of ingredients with the instructions “mix with love!”
Nevertheless, I was determined to recreate it. I’m a pretty savvy cook, and since I knew what all went in the dish, I figured I could wing it. Armed with my list, I went to my local coop to buy my weekly groceries.
It took me forever to find fennel. I had to ask the produce clerk (who happened to be a very cute hipster-hippie boy, so I was very embarrassed of my post-workout sweatiness, but I can’t help that my gym is in the same shopping center as the coop) and he pointed me toward the onion-y looking thing.
It cost $3.49, which gave me a bit of sticker shock, but I bought it anyway because Uncle Chef raves about it.
I had “regular” balsamic vinegar, but my list specified white balsamic vinegar, so I had to get a bottle of that, too. Then a pumpkin, of course (I got one of those cute little ones they call “pie” pumpkins) then I grabbed a couple of bunches of green onions before I left the produce department.
I picked up a block of parmesan before heading to the bulk foods section. Mister BS, my significant other, doesn’t actually like couscous (or, at least, he hates tabbouleh, which is mostly couscous) so I thought I’d try to make it with Israeli couscous (which has a silkier texture and much larger grains) because my fave lunch spot Wheatfield’s Bakery puts it on top of their house salad and I’m absolutely addicted to it.
I wasn’t sure whether I should get roasted or unsalted pistachios (which I thought were capers when I originally ate it…) so I went with roasted since I was going to be roasting the pumpkin. Once I figured out that the “craisins” on my list from Uncle Chef were just a trademarked Ocean Spray term for dried cranberries, I headed home, since I keep those on hand for scones.
Once home, pumpkin in hand, I contemplated how to “skin and roast it for 20 min” which was all my brief instructions said. So I cut the top off, pulled out all the icky insides, and chopped it into quarters before trying to peel it. First lesson learned: Peeling a pumpkin is HARD.
The instructions I could find online were all for making pumpkin pie from scratch (hello, people, they can it for a reason, and it still counts as homemade if it doesn’t come from a box and you bake it in your oven!) These directions wouldn’t work for producing the uniform diced chunks I’d sampled in little brother’s Thanksgiving leftovers, so I took out my trusty vegetable peeler and had at it. Mister BS pointed out going against the grain was only making it more difficult, so my only advice is to try it that way.
Once I had chopped up my pumpkin into bits and laid them out on my baking sheet, I had to go back to the fennel. I’ve never cooked with it before, and I wasn’t sure which parts to use. The base, which pretty much felt like a tougher onion, the stalks, which seemed like a cross between celery and green onions, or the fluffy tufts of greenery at the top, which seemed to be about the texture of fresh dill? I decided to go with “all of the above” and chopped it all up and tossed it with some olive oil on the pan, then cracked some sea salt over the top and put it in the oven at 425F (that’s roasting temperature, right?)
After chopping up the green onions and giving my vintage Saladmaster a good twirl with that hunk of parm, the only prep left to do was shell the nuts. Much like the peeling the pumpkin, this seemingly simple task was arduous and painful. My friend later told me they sell pre-shelled pistachios at regular grocery stores. But I like the Merc. It just smells better than Dillon’s.
Now I was ready for the easy part. While my roasted pumpkin cooled, cooked the couscous. 1 1/2 parts water to 1 part couscous. Pretty simple. I put it all in my Pyrex measuring cup and microwaved it until it boiled, this stirred, then drained the excess liquid (there wasn’t much).
Now it was just a matter of throwing it all together. In a big glass bowl, I threw in equal parts olive oil and white balsamic vinegar, a pinch of sugar and salt, the shredded parmesan, a big handful of dried cranberries, my chopped pistachios and green onions, and stirred it all up with my fennel and pumpkin.
I ended up with a delicious meal that even Mister BS liked, though he was skeptical at first.
Pumpkin Cranberry Couscous
- 1 small pie pumpkin, diced
- 1 bulb fennel, diced
- 1 T olive oil + 4-5 T for dressing
- 1/2 C shredded parmesan
- 1 bunch green onions, diced
- 1/2 C shelled pistachios, diced
- 1/4 C dried cranberries
- 1 C Israeli couscous
- 1/4 C white balsamic vinegar
- 1 T sugar
- 1 t salt
Roast chopped fennel and pumpkin with dash sea salt and tablespoon of olive oil at 450F for about 20 minutes. Prepare Israeli couscous per directions. Mix pumpkin and fennel with couscous. Add chopped pistachios, cranberries, and parmesan as well as additional oil and vinegar. Mix in sugar and salt, and chopped green onion. Serve at room temperature.