Pumpkin (or squash) is not a fad

Lately, folks are writing about the whole Pumpkin Spice Latte flavoring craze and I want to make it clear that I have loved pumpkin flavor long before it was a fad. As a kid, whenever my mom made pumpkin pie (as she often did for Friday night dessert in the fall), I’d have the leftovers for breakfast.

Actually, I don’t just like the pie flavor; my true passion is pumpkin and squash in all its forms. One of my all time favorites is a traditional couscous with chunks of pumpkin or squash which can be used interchangeably (in fact, I think the Israeli pumpkin is more like what we call squash in the U.S.). When I worked at the Israeli Ministry of Health in the mid 1990s, Wednesday was couscous day at the office cafeteria. My colleagues and I would start gathering each other at 11:45 a.m. because we couldn’t wait a moment longer for the terrific vegetarian couscous. When it was my turn to be served, I prayed that the lunch lady would give me a large chunk of pumpkin and then I would ration my piece so that most of my bites would include  some pumpkin.

Make sure every one gets lots of all the goodies (especially squash!) in their serving. Photo by REG

Make sure every one gets lots of all the goodies (especially squash!) in each serving.
Photo by REG

As much as I loved those couscous lunches, I gave it all up to marry the man I love. It was a hard to leave the job and the couscous that I loved, but that professional experience gave me the confidence   to have the courage to give it all up and join Mr. Dot in California, a place with all sorts of cuisines and fresh produce—but I never found a couscous with pumpkin (or squash, which is what we use in the US) like the one in the humble cafeteria of a certain Jerusalem government office.

Recently, I have started to make a couscous with squash and chicken that may not have the je ne sais quoi of the Ministry’s dish but is, IMHO, pretty delicious. It’s my own recipe so it can’t be called authentic (but I have a feeling that the folks in the Ministry used Osem Imitation Chicken Soup Powder).  I use some short cuts, liked canned chickpeas (and sometimes pre-cut squash). It’s quick, but to be honest, it does require a number of pans so the washing up may not be as efficient as the prep. I like this dish because I can put in lots of squash and, best of all, I get to both have my squash couscous and eat it with Mr. Dot.

 Squash Couscous with Chicken Thighs

1 large leek sliced thinly

6 tablespoons olive oil

½ cup dried apricots

around 1 lb butternut squash, peeled, seeded and cut into ¾ inch cubes (you can do it yourself or buy it cubed)

½ cup canned chickpeas

1 lb. boneless skinless chicken thighs—cut up into 2 inch pieces (no need to make these uniform)

1 ½ cups couscous

1 2/3 cups chicken or vegetable stock

2 tablespoons chopped mint

1 tablespoon chopped cilantro

½ teaspoon ground allspice

1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon

salt and pepper

Preheat oven to 350. Mix squash with 1 tablespoon olive oil and some salt and pepper, to taste and place on a baking sheet (I line it with parchment paper to prevent sticking). Bake for about 25 minutes – you can check on it a couple of times while baking and move it around so that it all roasts more or less evenly.  You can’t really mess this up. If some of it gets a little brown, that’s fine.

Soak apricots in enough hot water from the tap to cover them. Drain after 10 minutes and cut them into strips.

Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil and add leeks and a pinch of salt. Saute over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until it begins to brown. Remove leeks, and add chicken and sauté. Add salt, pepper,  allspice, and cinnamon.  Let it brown on both sides and cook a few minutes longer so that the chicken is cooked through.

Once you have the squash, apricots, leeks, and chicken in process, heat up the stock. Place couscous in a large, heatproof bowl and pour in the boiling stock along with the remaining olive oil. Cover with plastic wrap and leave for about 10 minutes. All the liquid will be absorbed.

Heat up the chickpeas—you can pop them in the microwave for a couple of minutes.

When ready to serve (in other words, once the chicken and the squash are done), it’s time to assemble the components on a large platter. First spread out the couscous, fluffing it up with a fork so that it’s light and not clumpy. Then add the leek, squash, chicken, apricots, mint, cilantro and chickpeas.

Make sure that every serving includes all the components, especially enough squash so that every bite includes some squash.

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