Cous Cous Salad with Pickled Onions

Food To Keep The Teenager Eating In

Here’s my Times Union story for January. You can also read it on their website here. This story goes along with Middle Eastern Spiced Beef Wraps, Cous Cous Salad with Pickled Onions and Crumbly Blueberry Muffins.

Cous Cous Salad with Pickled Onions

If I made a list of things I believe I’m good at, things I have excelled at in my lifetime, it would read something like this: planning parties and then partying at them (oh, how I love a good party); making salads; reading books for very long stretches (that must count, somewhere, as a skill); and, what I think is perhaps my greatest accomplishment, feeding children. In fact, I would put that at the top of the list. I’ve been doing it for what feels like ages. I fed babies and toddlers, pre-teens and hordes and gobs of teenagers. I’ve made them pancakes and lasagna, peanut noodles and tray after tray of chocolate chip cookies. 

But then here’s my youngest child, funny kid that he is, and I realized one day a few months ago that he was eating out more than in, wolfing down pizza and sandwiches and burritos and more egg, cheese and bacon sandwiches in a week than most people eat in a year. I tease him, and wonder out loud if, when he walks into the corner market – the place where all the kids go for egg sandwiches – they call his name and cheer? Do they have a sandwich waiting for him on the counter, every day? A special chair, maybe? He eats that many egg sandwiches. (A note about these egg sandwiches: they are very, very good. But how many take-out egg sandwiches should one seventeen-year-old eat in one week’s time? A couple? Four?) 

Add to this slices of pizza and giant burritos, french fries and milkshakes. It’s enough to make a mother—one who likes to cook and feed children—wring her hands. Fighting about it would do no good. He’s an almost-grown up, making his own decisions, even if they are bad ones, and spending his own money. The only thing I can think to do is roll up my sleeves and cook. I try to make food that’s more appealing to teenagers (think less beans and butternut squash, more meat and cheese) and bake up some sweets now and then, too. Here’s a little sample of a few things I cooked up for my take-out loving son, foods that check his boxes (breads, beef, sugar) and mine as well (vegetables, spice, flavor.)

I made juicy, flavorful, Middle Eastern-spiced beef sandwiches for dinner recently, and I always think of sandwich dinners as being kind of summer-y, so this was a nice change of pace on a night so dark and cold that even the dog wouldn’t go outside. The beef used here should be a tender cut, because the cooking time is quick. I found sirloin tips at the grocery store and those soaked up the flavor, were plenty juicy and nestled into the bread just right. For the best texture, season the meat and leave it on the counter for 30 minutes. It should all be room temperature before it goes into the pan; this way, it will cook evenly. Now, on to the fun part: The flavor. The spice mixture here is a simple combination of spices traditionally used for the Middle Eastern grill: cumin and black pepper. It gets interesting with a touch of cinnamon—it’s not enough to stand out as really cinnamon-y, but just enough to add a little warmth. Then, there’s Aleppo pepper. Aleppo pepper is not as spicy as chile flakes, and is beloved for its fruity undertones. If you don’t have it, or don’t feel like hunting around for it, no worries. See the recipe notes for substitutes. As Elliot likes to say, it’s all good. 

I made a salad to go with the beefy sandwiches, because, well, that’s what mothers do, right? And since I count salad as something I’m good at, I have to practice, a lot. This particular salad is good in many ways: it’s a combination of soft, warm grains, crunchy vegetables and bright, pickled onions. A secret to creating a good salad is to mix it up: different textures, lots of flavors, and a rainbow of color. Here, I opted for couscous, and you probably know this grain as one that sits under stews, particularly Moroccan meat and vegetable dishes. I like couscous for its unparalleled ability to soak up whatever food and flavors are laid upon it. In this recipe, it’s got a simple dressing – just a bit of extra virgin olive oil and lemon, making it fluffy and flavorful and a bedrock for herbs and cucumbers and really, whatever else you want to throw in. This is definitely a dinnertime salad that makes for a happy lunchbox the next afternoon. 

Lastly, I made muffins. Elliot, and everyone in our house, loves muffins. He currently isn’t getting takeout muffins, so I’ve got the market on these. This recipe calls for all-purpose flour and a small amount of cornmeal added in. It’s not enough to qualify them for corn muffins, but just enough to give each bite a bit of sweetness and a tender crumb. I buy bags of frozen Maine blueberries (and try to catch them on sale), as they’re small and sweet and perfect for muffins, cakes, oatmeal topping and any other place where a little fruit or color would brighten things up. These muffins are best straight from the oven, sliced in two, with a generous hunk of butter spread over both sides. The next day, I like to slice them in half and fry them up in a little butter in my cast-iron skillet. There’s no takeout muffin that can compare to that!

With Elliot leaving for college in this calendar year, the pleasure of cooking for a family will be something, I know, that I look upon fondly and remember as something that I once did for a husband and three children, every day. There’s something like six months and two weeks until my youngest leaves for college, and until he goes, it’s me against takeout. So I roll up my sleeves and keep making his beloved beefy foods, sandwiches, pastas and plenty of sugary baked goods. The egg sandwiches, though, I’ll leave to the experts at the corner market.

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