Summer Couscous Salad

Well, it’s officially summer now. Not only because it has FINALLY stopped raining, but because the produce I am getting from my garden and my CSA box tells me so.

No, I don’t actually hear little veggie voices telling me to start canning…

…well, not yet anyway. The season is young.

I was away at music camp last weekend learning to rock out on the ukulele (and taking classes from Väsen, a Swedish trio of remarkable talent – if you haven’t heard of them, have a listen – they’re AMAZING!) Judging by the calluses on my fingers, I seem to have at least succeeded in playing a lot, if not actually “rocking out”.

I came home to find that in my absence the garden has done some rocking out of its own: we have tons of zucchini and strawberries, the apricots are almost ripe, and there are artichokes galore! I even ate my very first blackberry of the season. Yum!

On top of that, I received my CSA box this morning, which was full of gypsy bell peppers, heirloom tomatoes, fresh herbs, corn, melons, red grapes, and peaches. Summer, indeed.

Tonight I’m heading out to a friend’s house to play some music and was told to bring something “snacky”. I suppose to some people this would mean “bring a bag of potato chips”, or possibly “bring more beer”, but I thought I’d make use of the gorgeous fresh produce sent to me and do a summer-inspired light pasta salad.

I stole this salad dressing recipe from my mother, who in turn “borrowed” it from a little tea-and-brunch shop down in my home town of Santa Cruz. The tea room served it on an asian-style chicken salad, but at home my mother always tossed it over cold couscous, and it has become a staple for potlucks, dinner parties, and picnics over the years.

Summer Couscous Salad

for the salad:
1 1/2 c dry couscous
2 1/2 c water
1 medium (or 2 small) gypsy or lipstick bell peppers
1 medium red onion
1 large bunch red grapes (they should be crisp, not soft)
1 heirloom tomato
1-2 sprigs fresh basil
1 c fresh spinach, loosely packed

for the dressing:
1/2 c seasoned rice wine vinegar (I use this)
1/4 c sunflower oil (or light olive oil)
2 Tbsp granulated sugar or evaporated cane juice
3 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
sea salt and fresh ground pepper to taste

To make the couscous, follow the directions provided. A good general rule is to use about twice as much water as dry pasta, but depending on the size and preparation of the couscous, these amounts may vary. To cook, you’ll need to bring the water to a rapid boil, add in the couscous, and remove the pan from the heat. Cover with a tight-fitting lid, and let the dry couscous steam and soak up all the liquid. Do not stir the pasta while it’s steaming or it will become gummy and dense. Once all the liquid has been absorbed, you can fluff the cooked couscous with a fork. Allow this to sit until cooled (it can be made ahead of time and stored in the refrigerator for several days).

To assemble the salad, slice the peppers, onion, spinach, and basil into thin strips. Dice the tomato, and slice the grapes in half (or quarters, depending on their size). Toss all the veggies into the cooled couscous.

The dressing is very simple, and I usually make it in a mason jar with a lid. Basically, just pour all the ingredients (rice vinegar, oil, garlic, sugar) into a jar, and shake until the sugar is dissolved and the oil and vinegar are emulsified (they will separate; it’s just the reality of a vinegar-heavy dressing. Shake it up before serving).

We go through this dressing very quickly at the house (it’s awesome on a spinach salad with feta, or drizzled over slices of fresh avocado/cucumber/tomato), so I often make it in larger quantities and keep it in the refrigerator. Kept cold, it will last a VERY long time without going bad.

To serve, place a scoop of the salad onto a large leaf of lettuce or spinach and drizzle with the vinegar dressing. Alternately, you can toss the dressing in with the couscous, but be aware that the pasta will soak up the dressing and you may wish to re-dress right before it’s eaten.

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