My Favorite Summer Recipe
My go-to meals nine months of the year usually involve a Dutch oven and a bowl of something steamy. Not so great in July.
I don't mind living off of grilled vegetables and burgers for most of the summer, but not everybody has a grill or the interest in standing in straight sunlight over a metal box generating 500 degree heat.
That's why this is my favorite summer recipe. It's easy to prepare, can be made quickly indoors, uses some of the best produce summer has to offer, and is just as good cold as it is warm. My kids still think I'm trying to kill them with the zucchini (BUT, MOM, IT'S GREEEEN), but all in all, this meal goes over well with the whole family.
(While I am offering the actual recipe, it's a method that can be used a million ways. It's simply Israeli couscous tossed with flavorful ingredients. The sky's the limit, so do your thing, man.)
Israeli Couscous with Chicken, Tomato, and Zucchini
INGREDIENTS (serves 4)
2 cups of Israeli couscous (sometimes called pearl couscous... you could also use any kind of tiny pasta like orzo or tiny shells)
2 boneless skinless chicken breasts, cut into bite-sized pieces
1 small onion, diced fairly small (any onion is great, but I prefer red)
2 medium zucchini, cut in quarters long-ways and then 1/2-inch diced
2-3 cloves of garlic, chopped or sliced (I love the bite of sliced)
1-2 cups of diced tomatoes from one small can (drain the juice) or from 1-2 farm-fresh tomatoes
a few leaves of mint and/or basil, loosely chopped
olive oil, salt, and pepper are essential
lemon juice and goat/feta cheese are optional but lovely
A quick note: you can do all of these steps separately throughout the day or even a day ahead. Cook your chicken, cook the couscous, saute the vegetables... all of it. So do it all at once, or space it out as the day requires.
SEASON THE CHICKEN.
Chicken tastes remarkably better when it's salted a few minutes and even several hours before cooking. As soon as you dice your chicken, season it liberally with salt to give it all kinds of flavor. It feels weird, but trust me. Let it sit in the fridge until you're ready to cook it. If you want to go an extra step, marinate in a little olive oil and lemon juice or a few glugs of your favorite Italian dressing along with the salt.
COOK THE COUSCOUS.
Israeli couscous is the best summer pasta because it takes very little water. For every cup of couscous, you need 1 1/4 cups of water. That's way easier than a giant stockpot of steam. So for our 2 cups of couscous, you'll want to bring about 2 1/2 cups of water to a boil. I usually do just shy of three to allow for water that evaporates and because it doesn't hurt it to ensure the couscous stays moist. It cooks like rice where there's no liquid leftover, but unlike rice, you can drain out extra liquid if you need. So bring about 3 cups of water to a boil, when you see rolling bubbles, add a healthy pinch of salt, and then drop in 2 cups of couscous. Turn down the heat to a simmer (the starches overflow otherwise), and let it cook for 6-8 minutes, stirring once or twice, until the liquid is absorbed. Feel free to leave a lid halfway on if you feel like your water is absorbing too quickly or it's bubbling too rapidly and you're freaking out. Once the couscous is done (just like pasta), drizzle in some olive oil to keep it from sticking. It sticks like whoa, y'all. Stir it every few minutes while you get everything else together so it doesn't become a huge clump, or pour the freshly cooked couscous straight into your already prepared chicken and vegetables from the next step.
COOK THE CHICKEN AND VEGETABLES.
While your couscous water is coming to a boil, put a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add a few drizzles of olive oil to the pan, and wait half a second for it to heat up. Next add your chicken, and make sure the pieces aren't touching if you can help it. They brown better that way. Let the chicken cook maybe four minutes on each side, and don't move the pieces around except for the flipping; you lose your pretty golden color that way. Once the chicken is cooked, remove it to a plate or to the serving bowl you'll use for dinner.
Next, add the zucchini and onions to the skillet, and season well with salt and pepper. Give it a quick stir and then don't move it around for a bit; the less you touch them, the prettier the color. Cook for 5-7 minutes, stirring three or four times, until the vegetables are beautifully golden brown and soft. Then add the garlic, and stir for another minute. Finally add in the tomatoes, season again with a little salt, and let the tomatoes cook for barely a minute or two. This is especially true of canned tomatoes; if you're using fresh, don't feel the need to cook them at all.
TOSS IT ALL TOGETHER.
In the skillet or a large bowl, combine the chicken, couscous, sautéed vegetables, and fresh herbs. Now you need to taste it, and here's what you're looking for. If it tastes bland, you need more salt. If after more salt it tastes a little heavy, add a squeeze of lemon juice. If after lemon juice, it tastes good but needs a punch, throw in some heat with red pepper flake or sharpness with goat or feta cheese.
This dish is best warm and then best again cold out of the fridge for lunch the next day. It's just delicious - simple ingredients, a simple preparation, and beautifully fresh. You get great texture from the firm but not mushy zucchini, the chicken, and the smooth couscous. If you want to add a little crunch, go crazy with some toasted pine nuts. It comes together in less than 20 minutes and tastes like summer. I love it so much.
Bonus points if you make this exact recipe with shrimp. TO DIE FOR, Y'ALL. I'm the only one in my family who likes shrimp so it seems cruel to force it on them, but I mourn the loss constantly. If you do go with shrimp, skip the cheese.
Need more help with summer cooking? Try these podcast episodes...
... and this recipe for Easy Oven Ribs.