For someone whose music and movie consumption is almost entirely dominated by the increasingly distant past (as a quick scan through the “music lately” section of these blog posts and my Letterboxd diary will corroborate) I am not particularly nostalgic nor am I interested in dwelling on the past. As Logan Roy succinctly stated: it’s just there’s so much of it. However, nothing makes me quite so heart-wrenchingly, Dorothy-watching-the-Wizard-fly-off-in-a-balloon desolate for days gone by as being unable to truly, accurately re-experience the key food product moments of my childhood. Squiggles biscuits aren’t the same, cheap chocolate tastes cheaper but costs more, the sweet, pillowy, sesame-studded special occasion treat that was Country Split bread disappeared into the ether, and Kango biscuits, Boomys and Fruju Tropical Snow were cruelly discontinued. The jury is still out on mock cream buns and Vienettas but while the odds aren’t positive, I’ll keep an open mind. And, perhaps most egregious of all, Wattie’s did something capricious and unforgivable to their canned spaghetti — a staple childhood food group for me, frequently cold, straight from the tin — and now their pasta has no structural integrity and their sauce tastes dim and milquetoast.
So, upon realising I’d accidentally reverse-engineered the flavour of the canned spaghetti of my childhood memories in this Oven-baked Pearl Couscous with Pumpkin, Sundried Tomatoes, and Feta I entered a kind of haunted culinary trance, and once the dust settled and clarity resumed, I realised my dad may have been not entirely in the grips of a conspiracy theory when he’d always insist they padded out their spaghetti sauce with pumpkin in the factory.
If you’re reading this from outside of New Zealand or if you were not someone whose young blood ran orange with canned spaghetti, let me offer some more relevant descriptive context for this dish. Being a food blogger (of terminally Charlotte Lucas means and prospects) in the midst of this avaricious and unceasing cost of living crisis feels rather like being the dog in that meme where the room is on fire and they say “this is fine“. There’s no method of economically cooking your way out of this because everything that used to cost one dollar now costs ten dollars and everything that used to cost ten dollars is now forty dollars and I’m not going to pretend that my recipes are budget-friendly or a way to make something out of nothing. Budgeting is irrelevant when broccoli costs $7 on a good day, to try and budget in this cost of living crisis is like trying to play chess with a football or planting pencil shavings in the ground and hoping a tree will grow from them. That being said! This recipe came about because I was weary of the overpriced, wilted, and often mouldy fresh produce in the chain supermarkets and wanted a recipe that relied on shelf-stable, long-lasting ingredients. The couscous, condensed pumpkin soup, and sundried tomatoes will last indefinitely, unopened packaged cheese generally keeps for ages in the fridge, and the lemon juice comes from a bottle. The herbs are fresh, but the dish won’t suffer much without them (and rosemary lasts hardily and staunchly in the fridge — the stuff in the photos is about three weeks old.)
Sure, this evokes the poignant memory of back-in-the-day spaghetti that has tormented me like a tomato sauce stain on a plastic storage container, but it’s elegant with it — the Rothko-esque red and white of the sundried tomatoes and feta and their bolstering salty richness, the softly bulging beads of couscous bathed in the sweet mellow pumpkin, the coppice-y fragrance of rosemary. The toppings galvanise the dish. But the couscous below, the titular pearls of pasta in miniature, is confidently compelling and gives comfort food without compromising on aesthetics or structure. As well as this, you get a foolproof way of cooking pearl couscous without having to pay much attention to anything other than your clock timer — you can dial this method back to just the pearl couscous and stock in the oven and then use it as a base or stir in anything else you like. Having primarily made pearl couscous on the stove top, I honestly think the oven is the superior way as far as taste, texture, and hands-off ease goes.
And if you’re after ways of using up the rest of that jar of sundried tomatoes, you might consider my Vegan Spaghetti Bolognese or Creamy Gochujang Tomato Pasta. I had it in my head that I had way more recipes featuring sundried tomatoes, clearly I have some making up to do.
Oven-baked Pearl Couscous with Pumpkin, Sundried Tomatoes, and Feta
Near-effortless elegant comfort food made using long-life pantry items and only a couple of dishes. You can use this oven-baked cooking method to cook the couscous on its own and springboard off to other creations. Recipe by myself.
- 3/4 cup pearl couscous
- 1 and 1/2 cups boiling water
- 1 chicken stock cube, or flavour of your choice
- 1 x 400g tin condensed pumpkin soup
- 1/3 cup sundried tomatoes
- 2 tablespoons tomato paste
- 2 teaspoons lemon juice
- 1/2 teaspoon smoked paprika
- 3 tablespoons olive oil
- 100g feta (vegan feta recipe here)
- The leaves from two stems of rosemary
1: Set your oven to 180C/350F. Place the 3/4 cup pearl couscous and 1 and 1/2 cups boiling water in a roasting dish (the one I used has a capacity of 1 litre/4 cups, anything smaller and it won’t fit). Crumble in the stock cube, give the couscous a stir, then cover the dish tightly with foil and bake for 25 to 30 minutes, by which point the couscous grains should be tender and swollen with all the water absorbed.
2: Gently stir the tin of condensed pumpkin soup into the couscous and return the roasting dish, uncovered, to the oven for another five minutes. While this is happening, blitz the 1/3 cup sundried tomatoes, the two tablespoons of tomato paste, two teaspoons lemon juice, half teaspoon of smoked paprika, and three tablespoons of olive oil in a blender to form a richly-red puree. Depending on the size and speed of your blender this may be super smooth or significantly textured (like mine was), either is fine so no need to stress about it.
3: To serve, drop spoonfuls of the sundried tomato puree onto the couscous and crumble over the 100g feta, and finally scatter over the rosemary leaves from the two stems.
Serves two heartily as a main, or three to four people as a side dish on a well-laden table.
- You can replace the condensed pumpkin soup with about 1 and 1/2 cups leftover pumpkin puree or mash, bearing in mind that you might need additional seasoning.
- The condensed nature of the soup is important, texturally, so if you can only find the non-condensed variety that’s more liquidy, you may need to bake it for another ten or so minutes.
- If you don’t have rosemary, I’d sub basil or fresh thyme leaves instead — both have a similar resiny, fragrant quality. And if you don’t have any fresh herbs then it’ll still taste fine without them, or you could use a slight dusting of dried herbs.
- You can easily boost this up to 1 cup couscous/2 cups boiling water without changing any of the other quantities (except you’ll need a slightly bigger roasting dish to cook it in, of course.)
- For the record, my 1/3 cup of sundried tomatoes were pre-chopped in the jar, if you’re using whole sundried tomatoes you might want to make that 1/3 cup a generous one to account for the space.
Railwayed by Kitchens of Distinction, kind of tugs on the heart and makes you feel miserable and soaring of spirit at the same time (with an agreeable, and I’m guessing unintentional, hint of The Stairs by INXS.)
What’s Golden by Jurassic 5, a song so excellent and immediately classic-sounding that it could have easily been made five to seven years earlier than its release date.
They Can’t Take That Away From Me, performed by Maureen McGovern — something in that soft, jazzy piano and those drum brushes and that Gershwin cadence is so hypnotic, as though it’s nearing Christmas and Norah Ephron is frantically writing every word that’s about to come out of my mouth in real time. Impossible to mention Ms McGovern and her immense talent without also bringing up Little Jazz Bird where she impeccably harmonises with the flute.
Spik and Span by The Gordons. My brother and I were discussing what the best local album of all time was, of course I immediately said the 1994 New Zealand Cast Recording of Jesus Christ Superstar and he said The Gordons’ first album, and since our tastes tend to overlap (in one direction, no one else I know is listening to this Jesus Christ Superstar album) I took him at his word and as per usual he was correct, this is just the kind of crashingly downcast post-punk type noise that I am always willing to become obsessed with.
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