Israeli Couscous With Red Snapper and Preserved Lemon

Several months ago Tal Shofman-Schejter, a former pastry chef at Rialto now living in Israel, emailed me some questions about lenses and food photography.  Last week her musician husband passed through Boston and dropped off a thank-you basket of Israeli goodies.   And that’s how we ended up with this week’s dish, baked Israeli Coucous with Red Snapper and Preserved Lemon.

Israelis couscous, sometimes called “giant couscous,” is often mistaken for fregola, a different bb-sized pasta from Sardinia.  Although they appear similar, and are sometimes used interchangeably outside of Sardinia and Israel, poke below the surface and the likeness disappears.  Fregola almost certainly made the jump to Sardinia from North African Berber culture, the birthplace of couscous, and has been around for hundreds of years.  Israeli couscous was born in the middle of the last century, during a period of austerity shortly after the founding of the state of Israel, when Israel’s first prime minister David Ben Gurion asked Israeli food manufacturers to come up with a wheat-based product that could be used by Mizrahi immigrants in place of the rice, one of their dietary staples.  Although the first Israeli coucous resembled rice grains, it soon morphed into the bb-shape it has today.

Fregola is still an artisanal product made by rolling semolina grains between moistened palms until they form little balls.  Israeli couscous is extruded, which probably accounts for their difference in price.  Last of all, fregola is toasted, producing a rich, complex and–dare I say it?–adult flavor, while Israeli couscous is usually untoasted.  As Tal explained to me in an email, despite its culinary hipness elsewhere, in Israel the homegrown product is perceived primarily as children’s food.  Would you toast Mueller’s elbows before making macaroni and cheese?   

This week’s recipe is based on a traditional Sardinian dish of fregola with tomato sauce and clams. We thought it might be fun to try the same thing with red snapper.  Sun-dried tomatoes and two kinds of paprika lend the dish a rich, smoky flavor (and a deep red color).   To dispel any reservation concerning the complexity deficit, Jody also toasts the couscous.  Whether you choose to toast or not, the dish is, without a doubt, comfort food.  Enjoy.  Ken

CIGUATERA NOTE: Since our original publication of this post several readers have contacted us to express their concern regarding ciguatera, seafood-toxin poisoning caused by the consumption of predatory reef fish such as mahi-mahi, grouper and red snapper.  Ciguatera is estimated to be the most widely recurring source of seafood toxin poisoning in the world, although it is relatively rare in the continental United States, with the exception of Florida.  I am currently at work on a post explaining ciguatera in detail and the circumstances under which one ought to take care when eating reef fish.  The Centers for Disease Control, which monitors illnesses, and the Food and Drug Administration, which sets regulations for the handling and processing of seafood, take different, not entirely complimentary approaches to ciguatera.  I discuss them in my post.  When I finish, I’ll link the piece to this note.  For the moment, I would not recommend eating any predatory reef fish in Florida unless you know and trust the source of the fish, meaning that you believe a restaurant or retail seafood vendor only sources seafood from a HACCP certified wholesaler.  The likelihood of any fish carrying ciguatoxin varies according to species, geographic location, and size.  Barracuda, for example, the source of a 2010 New York outbreak of ciguatera, have proven to be such a regular carrier of ciguatoxin that it should probably never be eaten anywhere.  The Center for Disease Control currently recommends that in warm water source areas (e.g. Dominican Republic, Haiti, Virgin Islands) visitors consume no predatory reef fish at all.   Although I personally believe that reef fish sold in my region of the country, New England, is safe, everyone should make up his or her own mind regarding the consumption of mahi-mahi, grouper, red snapper and other predatory reef fish.  Ken

Boulangère Potatoes TGF-6

P.S. GARLIC ZOOM UPDATE: See Jody in action–“It’s adorable!”– here.

Israeli Couscous with Red Snapper and Preserved Lemon-1

Israeli Couscous with Red Snapper and Preserved lemon


  • ¼  cup + 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 small onion, minced
  • 6 cloves garlic, crushed
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 teaspoon caraway seeds
  • 1 teaspoon coriander seeds
  • 1 teaspoon cumin seeds
  • 2 tablespoons paprika
  • 2 teaspoons smoked paprika
  • 2 tablespoons tomato paste
  • 3 dried tomato halves, sliced and soaked in  ¾ cup warm water for 30 minutes
  • 2 cups warm fish, chicken, vegetable stock or water
  • 1 cup Israeli couscous, uncooked
  • 1 pound fish fillets, skin slashed with ½-inch cuts
  • ½ of a preserved lemon, pith removed and skin cut into ¼-inch dice
  • 12 large green olives, pitted and chopped
  • 1 small hot pepper, thinly sliced
  • 1/3 cup cilantro leaves


  1. Preheat the oven to 350°.
  2. Heat ¼ cup extra virgin olive oil in a large saute pan over medium heat.  Add the onions and garlic, season with salt and pepper, cover with parchment or a lid, and cook 8 minutes, or until tender.
  3. Pulverize the caraway, coriander and cumin seeds with a mortar and pestle or spice grinder.  If you’re opted for powdered versions of the seeds, use a scant teaspoon of each.  Stir the spice mixture and both paprikas into the onions and cook 1 minute.  Add the tomato paste, the sun-dried tomato halves and their soaking liquid, and then cook until everything has reduced to a loose chunky paste,  about 10 minutes. (See the photos.)  Puree in a food processor or blender.  
  4. Meanwhile, toss the couscous in an ovenproof dish with 1 teaspoon oil and bake in the oven until toasty, about 5 minutes.    
  5. Mix half the pepper puree into the warm stock or water.  Pour over the couscous, season with salt and mix well.  Cover with a circle of parchment and bake 25 minutes.  The couscous should be done and the mixture a little soupy.  Remove from the oven.  
  6. Turn the oven to broil. 
  7. Mix the preserved lemon, olives and sliced hot pepper in a small bowl with the remaining olive oil.  Sprinkle half this mixture over the couscous.
  8. Season the fish with salt.  Divide the remaining pepper puree in half.  Brush the flesh side of the snapper with one half of the pepper puree.  Place the fish skin-side up over the couscous (the side with the pepper puree faces down).  Brush the exposed skin side with the rest of the pepper puree.  Sprinkle with remaining olive mixture.
  9. Broil on a rack in the center of the oven–not close to the broiler or the surface of the fish will cook too fast, burning before the interior finishes.  Cook until the  skin is crispy and the fish is slightly under done, about 6 minutes.  (Pull it out and poke inside, if you’re in doubt.)  Let rest 5 minutes.
  10. Serve topped with cilantro leaves.

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Israeli Couscous with Red Snapper 2x-1

Israeli Couscous 3-1-2

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Israeli Couscous with Red Snapper and Preserved Lemon-19

Israeli Couscous with Red Snapper and Preserved Lemon-22

Jody Notes:  

Izhar, husband of my good friend and former Rialto pastry chef Tal Schetjer, arrived at the Rialto doorstep last week with a bag of treats–Israeli couscous or ptitim, a big box of Medjoul dates, and  date-honey syrup that I haven’t tried yet.  He’s a musician who used to teach at Berekley School of Music and is touring and performing around the country.  They now lives in Israel with their girls.  Tal is a talented pastry chef with a huge warm heart.  I’m delighted that they have remained in our lives from the other side of the world.  

I only used half the onion shown in the picture since it was so big, and in the end I added more olives to the recipe–I thought it needed it.   I added more olives.  As you can see in the photos, I put the pepper puree directly on the couscous and then added the stock rather than mixing the puree and stock together as I recommend in the recipe before pouring them over the couscous.  I was using a homemade fish stock and I wanted to make sure no stray pieces of fish bone made it into the couscous.  The advantage of doing it the way I suggest (and not as I do) is that it doesn’t splatter all over the place as you try to stir it evenly into the couscous.  

Click on something to see it with a little more detail.  Left and right arrow keys will move you through the photos.

47 thoughts

  1. That looks indescribably delicious. Maybe someone will make it for me for Mother’s Day. Better yet, I’ll enjoy the fun of concocting it the day after and will “toast” you both when I do so.

    • Alison–That’s sweet. I should have figured that this one would appeal to you. I think the couscous in this dish tastes even better the next day, although the fish suffers a bit from nuking. Still, after the initial blog dinner it was great to have for a couple of lunches. Hope the college quest continues favorably. Ken

      • Not college, it was high school (long story). All resolved favorably. We just have to get through the end-of-year doldrums and hope the sun stays out.
        The unexpected afternoon appearance of your blog inspired me to finish writing mine, after a long hiatus. And of course, thanks to you, I am inspired to cook.

  2. WOW Jody and Ken, it is so exciting to see that the Israeli couscous has made it into your blog. Looks delicious!!! I can’t wait to try it… hopefully one day we can make it together here in my kitchen… Thank you so much for your dear friendship and kind words! xoxo Tal, Izhar and the girls

    • We do make our own, then we run out, then we buy some, then we make our own, then we run out… It’s in our book, but we haven’t put it on the blog yet. I suppose we just ought to do it, and call it a post. :-) Anyway, if you’re so inclined, you might use our friend Sally’s recipe: Full disclosure: lots of people put cinnamon or bay leaves or hot red pepper flakes in their lemons. We’re purists: lemons + juice + salt. Follow Sally’s instructions and just dump everything into one big jar. Ready to roll in 3 – 4 weeks. Ken

  3. Have never heard of toasting couscous before. Good idea. Love it when I read a post with lengthy ingredient lists – not that that’s an inference of any sort. Some recipes work well with only five. Still, I love those spices. Yet, shy away from using a lot of paprika.
    Yet another wonderful post with great photos.

  4. Looks delicious! How interesting about the origins of Israeli couscous. I had no idea. I do wholeheartedly agree with the toasting. I think it really improves the other sort of couscous, too.

    • Hi, Michelle–I didn’t want to belabor the point in the post, but toasting really takes pasta up a notch. I remember the first time I saw Jody throw some dry spaghetti into a saute pan to make Mexican fideus. Complete bafflement on my part, but it sure didn’t taste like spaghetti when she finished. Come to think of it, we haven’t done a post on fideus. Thanks for the idea! Ken

  5. I agree with the Israelis–there is something very nursery-like and consoling about the texture of Israeli couscous. But here it is elevated to a sublimely adult dish. You simply can’t grill everything all summer long, and this fits in nicely with a rainy-day plan–lots of good spices and flavors to keep the appetite interested. (And nice photos, Ken!)

  6. A wonderful pos!. Red snapper was a frequent main course when I was a boy. It was Dad’s favorite and he loved to grill it. Just seeing those 2 fillets brought back some great memories. Thank you for that and for the lesson on the origins of Israeli couscous. I’d no idea. I can only imagine how flavorful this dish was. That final photo of its serving couldn’t be more enticing.

    • Thanks, John. Working on the post has had a double effect on us–it taught us that we probably ought to be thinking about Israeli couscous for soup in the future, and also, that it had been awhile since we’d eaten any fregola, so that’s coming back into our lives soon–fregola with grilled swordfish and preserved lemon is incredibly good.

      In the interests of space I didn’t include the fact that is indeed another variation on giant couscous, although it’s rarely written about and its origins are less clear. Called mohgrabieh, it’s eaten in Syria and Lebanon, and I since I couldn’t find out by press time whether it was 1) indigenous or an Israeli migrant 2) artisanal or industrial and 3) toasted or not I decided not to mention it. If I find out more I’ll let you know. Ken

  7. A friend of mine from high school just finished a story on her blog about Ciguatera Fish Poisoning. She was on vacation in the Caribbean, ate red snapper, and now suffers the severe consequences. She lost her sense of taste, had horrible muscle cramps and her skin burns when she is cold and when she sweats. She compared it to the affect of cooking with raw jalapeño peppers. I recommend reading it both for her writing and as a cautionary tale.

    • Thank you, Sophie. We keep stumbling into these arcane niches of culinary history despite our best efforts to keep things mainstream. Anyway, the couscous is also good with swordfish and bluefish. Ken

  8. I feel badly. I didn’t mean to put down your recipe. I just had no earthly idea that anybody could have something that serious happen from a fish. It is extremely, extremely rare. Sorry. That was kind of like yelling rat in a restaurant. It just worried me.

    • It’s okay. Ciguatera is a legitimate concern, quite rare, but not non-existant. I’ll address it in a special post. Don’t worry about it – I’ll wander over to your blog and yell rat when you’re least expecting it. :-) Ken

      • Honestly guys I am not sure how rare Ciguatera is. I think it is geographically centered. We don’t ever eat fresh fish in the Caribbean for the reasons Christine wrote. It does have a large variety of reactions from one night of sickness to a chronic condition. It is something like Lyme disease in that respect with an enormous range of severity.

      • Quite rare in New England. Funny that you should comment now. I just got off the phone with a toxicologist I was interviewing for a post I’m planning on ciguatera. Stayed tuned. Ken

  9. Tal is amazingly talented and so kind. I profiled her a million years ago for a paper I haven’t worked at in years. The best part of the interview was getting to sit at a table at Rialto and indulge in her craft. If she ever does come back to town — or her husband for that matter — please let me know. I’d love to showcase her amazing talents to a new set of readers.

    I’m really happy you talked about the Ben Gurion origin of Israeli cous cous. That’s some story, eh?

    And let’s talk about the Garlic Zoom. I’ve taken to wearing latex-free gloves in the kitchen when chopping hot chiles and garlic because there’s always a bottle that needs washing around the same time, or maybe a diaper that needs changing. This product just calls out to the new parent who’s worried about strong smells and fresh baby skin.

    • Tal is a sweetie. We still have unfinished photography business to discuss if she ever gets here. She reads our blog, so I’m sure she’ll see your comment, but I’ll give her a heads up. Clever idea about the garlic zoom – I used it a lot for ginger, just because I like ginger but find it a pain in the neck to prepare, unlike garlic. Ken

  10. I finally got around to making this last night. What a delicious meal and a lot of fun to prepare. The places here never carry Red Snapper so I went to my default, Cod, and the Smoked Paprika is MIA, but the meal was great. I look forward to serving it to company and no doubt adding a few more folks to your mailing list. I put a bit of the leftover tomato spice paste in some cocktail sauce for some foodies coming over tonight. We think it is a nice change though we’ll see how the critics like it! I’m using it with my line caught shrimp! : )

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