Folding caramelized butternut squash and hearty chickpeas into a steamy bowlful of squidgy pearl couscous is one of my favorite cozy meals. This is one of those in-between recipes. It's not a couscous salad, nor is it a soup. It's not saucy, nor is it dry. You could eat it with a fork or a spoon. I like it with a glass of red wine, but it's equally good with a pint of beer. There are some deeply cozy forces at work here.
I'm not actually sure about the origins of this particular couscous with butternut squash recipe. It's based on something I was assigned for work in a past life, but... To be blunt, that company really sucks at proper attribution and citation so I'm mostly in the dark about where the food editor mined the concept. I think it's pulling from a Palestinian dish based around maftoul, which is very similar to pearl couscous. The flavor base of cumin and allspice certainly reminds me of some variations of mussakhan!
Couscous, Butternut Squash, Chickpeas
If my suspicions about the origins behind this recipe are correct, it would technically be made with maftoul, a relative to the more widely available (in the US) pearl couscous. In my somewhat limited experience, maftoul is less evenly shaped because it's hand-rolled. I've also seen it with a good bit of color variation, which leads me to believe that some brands pre-toast it. If you can find it, use it!
Nutty and lightly toothsome chickpeas are the main source of heft in this recipe. "Roughage" as we call it, taking the dish from carby side to full blown meal.
The nutty sweetness of caramelized butternut squash is the pillar of this couscous recipe. Everything seems to come together to lift up its flavors and make it shine. The nutty toasted couscous, the savory-sweetness of the spices, even the contrasting salty tang of the feta. It's one of my favorite ways of cooking butternut squash.
Cozy Cumin and Allspice
There are many spice combinations that radiate coziness, but one of the all-time best has to be cumin and allspice. It's savory and earthy from the toasty cumin, with a bit of subtle-sweet spice from the allspice. The warming glow of allspice is a marvelous complement to the natural sweetness of the butternut squash.
Fresh Dill, Zippy Lemon, Salty Feta
I think it's safe to say that one of my cardinal rules of cooking is to finish a dish with complementary contrasts. For a carb-forward couscous with butternut squash recipe like this one, that means incorporating a fresh element (dill) and something tangy (lemon) and/or salty (feta) to balance the natural sweetness of the butternut squash and richness of the spices.
The Coziness of a One Pot Meal
Simmering your couscous in water that's been spiked with onion, garlic, and spices really infuses each tiny nubbin with flavor. You could use stock or broth, but it's not really necessary because of how much flavor is already built into the dish.
As a cherry on top, simmering the couscous in the same pot that you cooked the squash and the alliums means that you have fewer pots to wash when all is said and done!
Can I use regular couscous?
In a word, no. There is a delicious dish hiding in that substitution, but it's not a straightforward swap. The ratios of pretty much everything would be off, so you'd have better luck hunting down a recipe specifically developed for regular couscous.
What if I hate dill?
This recipe would also be yummy with parsley, mint, or cilantro. You could also lean into the allium flavors and sub thinly sliced scallion or chives.
How do I make this couscous with butternut squash vegan?
Omit the feta and ta da! You might like some of the vegan feta alternatives that have been appearing on the market, or a dollop of vegan yogurt. But I happen to be the only hardcore feta-lover in my home, so I can confirm that this is a very inhale-able recipe even without the feta.
Looking for more recipes with bouncy pearl couscous?
Pearl Couscous with Butternut Squash and Chickpeas
- 4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, divided
- 1 cup pearl couscous
- 4 garlic cloves, chopped
- 1 medium yellow onion, chopped
- 1 pound butternut squash, peeled, seeds removed, and cut into ½-inch chunks
- Kosher salt and black pepper
- 1 tablespoon ground cumin
- ½ teaspoon ground allspice
- 2 bay leaves
- One 15-ounce can chickpeas, rinsed and drained, Or about 2 cups homemade
- 2 tablespoons chopped fresh dill, plus more to serve
- 1 tablespoon lemon juice, plus lemon wedges to serve
- Crumbled feta, to serve
- Step 1In a large Dutch oven over medium-high heat, heat 1 tablespoon of oil until shimmering. Add the couscous and cook, stirring, until golden brown, about 3 minutes. Transfer to a small bowl.
- Step 2In a medium bowl, toss the squash with 1 teaspoon salt and ½ teaspoon pepper. Return the Dutch oven to medium-high and heat 2 tablespoons oil until shimmering. Add the squash in an even layer and cook without disturbing until the squash is well-browned on the bottom, about 3 to 5 minutes. Stir and continue to cook until tender when pierced with a fork, 2 to 3 minutes longer. Return to the bowl and set aside.
- Step 3Return the pot to medium-high. Add the remaining 1 tablespoon oil, garlic, onion, and 1 teaspoon salt. Cook, stirring, often, until the onion is softened and the garlic is beginning to brown, 2 to 3 minutes. Add the cumin, allspice, and bay, and continue to stir until fragrant, 30 seconds. Stir in 2 cups of water and the couscous, then cover and let simmer until the couscous is tender but not mushy, about 7 minutes.
- Step 4Off heat, stir in the chickpeas, squash, lemon juice, and 2 tablespoons dill. Remove and discard the bay leaves, then taste and season with salt and pepper. Serve sprinkled with dill and feta, and with lemon wedges on the side.
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