Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Couscous and Chickpea Salad

When I was a kid, I hated school lunches. I vividly remember the exotic food my friend Marion used to bring to high school: leftover pasta, jaffles filled with beans, doorstop sandwiches made with sourdough, and other interesting food. I'd sit beside her on the cold concrete step chewing on a flabby pressed chicken sandwich and look on enviously while she opened little tubs with interesting smells and attacked them with spoon or fork.

Now I have schoolkids of my own, I want them to have the Marion lunch experience – but bizarrely, they are reluctant. Despite my efforts, the philistines insist on nothing more than a Vegemite sandwich or perhaps ham with, as my seven year old says, 'just the barest scraping of mustard'. Good grief.

This salad is one of the delicious things that I can't quite believe my daughters disdain. One eats only the chickpeas, picking them out individually; while another eats only the couscous, leaving the chickpeas for the first – at least, like the Sprats, between the two of them they lick the platter clean. As for my four year old, she won't eat it at all without tears; 'I hate the texture,' she says.

A good judge of texture she is not. Perfect grains of couscous cling to grilled vegetables; the chickpeas are deliciously mealy; spinach adds a gentle crunch. Normal children would like it – adults certainly do. It's one of those perfectly satisfying meals in a bowl. We eat it warm for dinner, and cold the next day for lunch, either by itself or tucked into a pita wrap. Yesterday I staggered in from the gym, a little woozy; collapsed into a chair with a container of leftover salad; demolished it in minutes; and felt instantly restored in body and soul. So I at least got a good lunch out of it, even if nobody else did.

The recipe builds on a suggestion by Jamie Oliver to soak couscous in cold water and use it as the base of a vegetable salad. This week, I added a couple of zucchini; other weeks, depending on what's in season, I might add or substitute grilled eggplant, grilled red peppers or even grilled asparagus. The herbs, too, can be played around with; for much of the year I make it with mint and parsley so that it resembles a tabbouli made with couscous not burghul; but when we have an abundance of basil I make it with that, instead. Use whatever's fresh and tastes good to you.

Couscous and Chickpea Salad

- 1 cup dried chickpeas (canned chickpeas taste like glue, but use them if you must)
- 250g couscous
- 280ml water
- juice of 1 or 2 lemons
- 2 tbs olive oil
- 2 or 3 moderately sized zucchini (I had one yellow, one green, very pretty)
- 1 generous handful mint
- 1 generous handful basil
- 2 or 3 handfuls baby spinach leaves

Boil the kettle. Place the chickpeas into a large bowl, and cover them with a generous quantity of boiling water. Leave to soak for several hours.

Drain and rinse the chickpeas, and place them into a large pot. Cover them generously with cold water this time, and bring to the boil. Turn down to a simmer, and let cook for 45 minutes or until they are soft but haven't lost their shape. Throw in 1 to 2 tsp salt, and leave to simmer for another 15 or so minutes. Turn off the heat. Drain just before adding to the salad.

Place the couscous into a large serving bowl. Cover with 280ml water, and leave for 15 to 20 minutes.

While the couscous is soaking, slice the zucchini crossways into thin discs. Grill or sauté the discs with a bit of olive oil until they are soft. Finely chop the herbs.

Using a fork, separate the couscous into individual grains. Add the juice of 1 to 2 lemons (I like it sharp), and drizzle in the olive oil. Mix well. Add the herbs, the zucchini, the spinach and the chickpeas, and stir to combine.

Serve immediately while the chickpeas are still warm; it's also tasty cold.

Adapted from a recipe in The Naked Chef by Jamie Oliver.

(Local: zucchini, mint, basil, olive oil, lemon juice. Not local: chickpeas, couscous, salt. No idea, but I live in hope that it's local: spinach.)


  1. Doorstop sandwiches! Love your writing, Alison.

    And this salad looks fantastic. Will try it soon.

  2. Hi Martin, To qualify as a doortstop the sandwich has to be at least three inches thick! Enjoy the salad. alison.