Recipe: Israeli Couscous with Calamari, Spring Peas, and Saffron
When The da Fiore Cookbook came out, in 2003, I was eager to get a copy. I’ve still never managed to eat at the now very famous restaurant, in Venice, one of Marcella Hazan’s favorites, but I liked the idea of it from word one. Venice, water, a lady chef, plus gentle flavors for fish, pasta, risotto, and vegetables, all quite different from the Southern Italian palate I was then exclusively working with. I especially liked the way Mara Martin, the chef and owner, treated pasta. A little butter, leeks, white wine, carrots, an occasional drizzle of cream, saffron, sweet spices like nutmeg and cinnamon, Parmigiano Reggiano with seafood—just a sprinkling. No hot chilies, barely a tomato, no oregano, rosemary used as a gentle undertone.
Venetian cooking, especially when offered by da Fiore, is complex but remains gentle to both eye and palate. It’s about both the sea and seasonal vegetables. Like Southern Italian, my hometown cooking, it never gets tired for me. I’ll always love anchovies, garlic, and pecorino, but I also welcome lightness. Da Fiore’s food seems to me a touch angelic.
Here’s a recipe inspired by Signora Martin’s “Fusilli with Squid and Peas.” She adds pancetta, a bit of cinnamon, thyme, and Parmigiano. I chose saffron, another favorite spice of hers but not one she used in her fusilli recipe. Saffron and butter make an amazing pairing, sweet, opulent, but weightless on the tongue. And butter with peas you really can’t beat.
I make a little spice broth with saffron and a few other things, and add it at the end, gently coaxing all the ingredients together. No cheese in my version. It didn’t blend well with the saffron.
Israeli Couscous with Calamari, Spring Peas, and Saffron
(Serves 4 as a first course)
1 cup chicken broth
¼ teaspoon ground allspice
A pinch of ground cinnamon
A large pinch of saffron threads, dried and ground
A big pinch of sugar
1½ cups Israeli couscous
Extra-virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons butter
1 small white onion, finely chopped
1 stem young garlic, chopped
5 sprigs thyme, the leaves chopped
1 cup freshly shucked peas, briefly blanched, then cooled under cold water, then drained
A splash of semi-dry white wine
1 pound small calamari, sliced into rings
A handful of flat-leaf parsley, the leaves lightly chopped
Pour the chicken broth into a small pot. Add the cinnamon, allspice, sugar, and saffron. Turn on the heat, and let boil gently for about 4 minutes. Add a pinch of salt, and turn off the heat. Let sit.
Set up a medium pot with water, add salt, and bring it to a boil. Add the couscous.
In a large sauté pan, heat about a tablespoon of olive oil and 1 tablespoon of butter. Sauté the onion over medium heat until softened. Add the garlic and the thyme. Add the blanched peas and a bit of salt, and sauté about a minute. Add a splash of wine, and let it boil off. Add the spice broth, and simmer about 4 minutes, just until the peas are tender. Turn off the heat.
When the couscous is al dente, drain it, and place it in a large serving bowl. Add a drizzle of olive oil and a few turns of black pepper. Toss.
Dry off the calamari. Put a large skillet on high heat. Add the remaining butter and a drizzle of olive oil. When hot, add the calamari, seasoning with salt and black pepper, and sauté very quickly, just until it loses its transparency. Tip the calamari into the couscous. Add the peas with all their broth. Add the parsley. Toss. Taste for seasoning.