Middle Eastern people love stuffing vegetables with a tantalizing combination of rice, meat and herbs such as parsley and mint. They stuff everything from zucchini and eggplant to potatoes, tomatoes and even carrots. Imagine the effort it takes to core out a carrot in order to stuff it with rice – but somehow, many a Middle Eastern grandmother has done the deed.
One vegetable “vessel” underutilized in the Middle East is butternut squash, which is not indigenous to the region. This deep-orange-fleshed gourd originated in Central and South America, then moved north to the United States. Butternut squash has a sweet and nutty taste with a tan-yellow outer skin. This vegetable is also a great source of fiber, magnesium and potassium, along with a good dose of vitamins C and A.
I saw an East-meets-West opportunity to combine one of my favorite American vegetables with a Middle Eastern filling using couscous, mint, chickpeas and a hint of citrus. Couscous makes a great vegan or vegetarian filling, as it cooks quickly, absorbs additional dressings or sauces, and tastes great with any addition of herbs, vegetables, fruits, nuts or legumes. There are different types of couscous that vary in size. The smallest kind is the traditional, quick-cooking couscous you find in most supermarket aisles. But once you visit a Middle Eastern market, you will find other varieties like the medium-sized maftoul or the larger-sized moghrabieh. Maftoul is a Palestinian hand-rolled couscous made with a combination of whole wheat and bulgur, which yields a nutty flavor and rustic texture.
Originating from Morocco, couscous moghrabieh, the largest variety, has a chewier mouthfeel. Whatever grain size you decide to use, couscous provides an exotic change from everyday rice and pasta, with a mild flavor that pleases even picky palates.
Blanche Shaheen is a food blogger and journalist who lives in Los Altos. For more of her recipes with a Middle Eastern twist, visit feastinthemiddleeast.com.
Stuffed Butternut Squash
• 2 butternut squash
• Olive oil for brushing on squash
• Salt and pepper to taste
• 1/2 cup couscous (maftoul)
• 1 cup vegetable broth
• 2 cloves minced garlic
• 1 tablespoon olive oil
• Large bunch Swiss chard, chopped
• Dash cumin
• Onion salt
• 1 tablespoon fresh mint, finely chopped
• 1/3 cup chickpeas
• 1/4 cup cranberries
• 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
• 1 tablespoon orange or other fruit juice
Cut butternut squash in half lengthwise, core out seeds and pulp and place on baking sheet. Brush with olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Bake at 425 F for 50 minutes. The interior should be soft enough to scoop and lightly browned on top.
Hollow out a bit of squash so that you have more room for filling. Put maftoul in saucepan and pour vegetable broth on top. Season with dash of onion salt and cumin. Let boil, then cover and simmer for approximately 7 minutes (cooking time may vary depending on grade of couscous).
In skillet, heat 1 tablespoon olive oil, then add minced garlic. Saute for 1 minute, then add Swiss chard and continue sauteeing until wilted. Add chickpeas, mint and cranberries, and stir until warmed through. In small bowl, whisk together 2 tablespoons olive oil and 1 tablespoon orange juice. Pour over couscous mixture.
Scoop couscous mixture into hollowed-out part of butternut squash and serve.
To watch Shaheen prepare this recipe, visit her “Feast in the Middle East” cooking channel on YouTube.