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Summer salads are a staple in my house. They’re simple to throw together, and make grand use of the plethora of herbs growing on my patio.
I already know there are days ahead when it’s going to be too hot to cook, and having some quick meal ideas up your sleeve is a requirement for those of us who don’t have access to A/C. The recipe I’m sharing below features couscous, which is the underdog of the pasta world. Due to its rice-like appearance, many think couscous is a grain, but it’s actually a pasta made of semolina and wheat flour that is moistened and tossed together until it forms tiny balls. A staple in North African cuisine, couscous has also gained global popularity due to its adaptability to various flavours and ingredients. Couscous is also quick to cook, which makes it a handy pantry staple in busy kitchens.
I admit that before this salad was in my repertoire, I didn’t cook couscous all that often. The jar of tiny pasta would just stare back at me when I asked, “What am I going to do with you?” Happy to report it never answered me back, but I did eventually garner inspiration from a bounty of summer herbs and fresh cucumbers from my kitchen garden. I added heaps of Mediterranean flavour with sun-dried tomatoes and olives, but the pan-seared halloumi is what makes me giddy with joy.
Traditionally prepared from goat’s and/or sheep’s milk on the Eastern Mediterranean island of Cyprus, Halloumi is a white, layered cheese with properties similar to mozzarella. It’s a semi hard, unripened and brined cheese with a spongy texture. Tangy and salty, it has no rind, and due to its high melting point, it is an ideal cheese for frying or grilling. I love it when I get a little bite of melty, squeaky cheese with the herbaceous couscous salad. While you can eat halloumi raw, it will be plain, salty and rubbery – not super appealing at all. BUT, when halloumi is crisped in a pan with a slick of olive oil or grilled, this cheese becomes beautifully crispy and savoury on the outside while the inside has a sensuous centre.
This salad comes together for a quick and light summertime meal. Feel free to add cooked chicken, shrimp, or chickpeas for extra protein. If you don’t want to use halloumi, crumbled feta cheese or goat cheese works great, too. Of course, in addition to the cucumbers you can pump up the vegetables. Great options here are tomatoes, peppers, as well as roasted zucchini, eggplant, or corn. And, hot tip: always save the oil from the jar of sun-dried tomatoes. Packed with flavour, it’s great in place of olive oil in a salad like this, or as a base for pesto, marinades or salad dressings.
Herby Couscous and Cucumbers with Pan-Seared Halloumi
1 3/4 cups vegetable broth
1 1/2 cups couscous
grated zest and juice of 1 1/2 lemons, divided (you need 6 Tbsp total of juice)
6 Tbsp extra-virgin olive oil (or oil from sun-dried tomatoes jar), divided
Salt and pepper
5 mini cucumbers, chopped
1/3 cup chopped basil
1/3 cup chopped mint
1/3 cup chopped parsley (flat-leaf or curly)
1/3 cup oil-packed sundried tomatoes, sliced
1/3 cup whole green olives
2 Tbsp chopped chives or green onions
1 package (8 oz/250 g) halloumi cheese, sliced into 1/4-inch pieces
1. Place the broth in a medium saucepan and bring it to a boil over medium-high heat. Turn off the heat and stir in the couscous. Cover with a lid and let it stand for 6–7 minutes to cook. Fluff with a fork and transfer to a large bowl. If the couscous is clumpy, you can break it up with your hands. While the couscous is warm, stir in the lemon zest, juice of 1 lemon (about 1/4 cup of juice), and 4 Tbsp of the oil. Season with generous pinches of salt and pepper.
2. When the couscous has cooled to room temperature, stir in the chopped cucumbers, herbs, sun-dried tomatoes, olives, chives, and remaining 2 Tbsp of lemon juice. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Refrigerate the salad, uncovered, for 30 minutes so the flavours have a chance to mingle.
3. Place a non-stick skillet over medium heat. Pour in the remaining 2 Tbsp oil. When it has warmed, add the slices of halloumi to the skillet and cook on each side until golden brown, about 2 minutes per side.
4. Divide the salad into bowls and top each with golden brown halloumi. Eat immediately. Makes enough for 3 to 4 main dishes or 6 to 8 sides.
Recipe from Vegetables: A Love Story by Renee Kohlman (TouchWood Editions, 2021).
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