Friday, December 5, 2008

The Pine Is Mightier Than the Sword

One of my fondest memories of visiting Spain as a kid was visiting my great aunt and uncle in a small town about an hour and a half outside of Madrid, in the province of Valladolid. My father told great stories from the many summers he'd spent there as a kid, running on the plains with his cousins and reeking havoc on the town. My first experience there, when I was about six or seven years old, was somewhat different, perhaps because I'm a girl, or perhaps because I grew up in the United States. The area we were visiting was incredibly flat and dry. As a kid I remember thinking that it must be a desert, since we hadn't seen anything green for miles. The sun seemed brighter there than in America, and with no trees or tall buildings to offer protection, my little eyes watered even from behind the safety of my tiny pink sunglasses.

It turned out that of all the cousins, I was in fact not only the youngest, but the only girl. At the behest of their parents, the boys invited me to join them in a game of futbol with a few other kids from the neighborhood. But by the time we got to the dirt field, my eyes had begun to water uncontrollably under the sun's merciless rays, and I was forced to turn back for home. Left with no option but to hang out with the grown ups, I sat down in a chair at the kitchen table, rested my head on my arms, and settled in for a nap. Not a minute had passed before my great uncle came over and asked if I like pine nuts. "I don't know," I replied, my face still streaked with sticky, sun-induced tears, "I don't know what they are." Grabbing my little hand in his, he led me out to a large garden off of the patio. There he showed me a kind of pine tree I'd never seen before, and pulled a plump pine cone off a branch. Five minutes later I was pulling pine cones off trees and shelling pine nuts for an afternoon snack. It wasn't until I came waddling back into the house hours later that anyone asked what I'd been doing. "Tio Martin showed me how to get pine nuts," I said rubbing my belly, "I don't feel so good." Running outside, my mother saw the patio floor littered with shells and pine cones. I'd eaten every single pine nut off of every single pine cone in his garden.

According to my parents, the story ends with me having a week-long stomach ache and refusing to eat pine nuts for years. I have no such recollection and maintain that I have enjoyed pine nuts my entire life. I certainly do love them now, which is why I toasted off a big batch and added them to my Israeli couscous with pomegranate. I cooked the couscous in a saffron chicken broth, then mixed in the pine nuts for some nutty sweetness to contrast the juicy tartness of the pomegranate seeds. The dish came out really great, and would be a wonderful alternative to your average starchy side dish. Israeli couscous is larger, and more substantive than your traditional couscous, and is made up of pearl-sized bits of pasta, which makes for a lovely texture. It's great as a side to roast chicken, sautéed shrimp, or even as a vegetarian entrée with a few more veggies.

Israeli Couscous with Pomegranate and Toasted Pine Nuts

1 1/2 cups Israeli couscous
1 1/2 cups chicken or vegetable broth
1/8 tsp saffron threads
1/2 tsp chopped fresh thyme
1/4 tsp fennel seed, ground
1/4 tsp freshly ground black pepper
1 cup toasted pine nuts
1 cup pomegranate seeds

1. Bring broth to a boil and add saffron so it dissolves. Add couscous and half of the thyme and fennel seed, and simmer, uncovered, until cooked through, about 10 minutes.

2. Remove from heat. Stir in pine nuts, pomegranate, black pepper and remaining thyme and fennel seed. Taste for salt and serve. Enjoy!


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