If we remove from the list of "Israeli foods" all the delicacies we adopted from our neighbors, and eliminate as well those recipes that immigrated with Jews from the Diaspora, we wouldn't be left with much to eat. Bamba (a peanut snack) and ptitim are more or less the only unique culinary contribution Israel has made to the world. On second thought, relative to the short time we have existed as a state, even this may be better than it sounds, at least judging by the world's respectful attitude toward our ptitim, which esteemed chefs refer to as "Israeli couscous."
Ptitim in fact made their first appearance as a substitute for rice during the early days of the state. As is true today, then, too, there was not enough rice for everyone. Prime minister David Ben-Gurion turned to Ivgen Propper (one of the seven founders of the Osem company and the father of Dan Propper, who eventually became the company's CEO), asking him to come up with a wheat-based substitute for rice - and quickly.
The company accepted the challenge and developed baked ptitim, made of hard wheat flour and roasted in an oven, a process that affords them a characteristic flavor and aroma. The success was instant and soon ptitim in the shape of small, dense balls (which the company dubbed "couscous") were added to the original rice-shaped ptitim (known as "Ben-Gurion rice").
Today, ptitim are generally considered food for children, who are crazy to eat them plain, but might even agree to have them with a bit of fried onion, tomato paste, a dash of spices and even vegetables, on condition that most of the plate is full of ptitim. About a decade ago, the juvenile target audience led to the production of ptitim in the shapes of rings and stars as well (and from time to time special limited-time "editions" hit the market - for example, heart-shaped ptitim). The craze for healthful food means health stores now sell ptitim made of whole-wheat flour and even spelt flour.
While here in Israel ptitim are a side dish served to children along with schnitzel in the shape of a dinosaur, elsewhere they are treated as an ingredient for trendy delicacies. Here, for example, is what Charlie Trotter, one of the foremost chefs in the United States, writes alongside his recipe for ptitim with spinach, artichoke and Calamata olives: "Israeli couscous (sometimes called Middle Eastern couscous) is much larger than regular couscous and has a chewier texture. It lends itself well to use in cold salads because it retains its texture even when mixed with vinaigrettes or sauces. Look for it in gourmet markets or health stores."
Like pasta, ptitim are a filling, flexible and neutral ingredient that can easily be integrated into a large variety of dishes - hot and cold, savory and sweet. Their small shape affords them an advantage over regular pasta: They require less cooking time, about six minutes. The large surface area of the ptitim is also significant, since it can take on a relatively large amount of sauce.
One of the most common ways of preparing ptitim is to begin by sauteing some onion or garlic (vegetables, meat, chicken or sausages are additional possibilities) and then add the ptitim, frying for a short time before adding the water (which many people season, to avoid having to prepare a sauce or seasoning in a separate pot). Ptitim can be added to many dishes, as a substitute for pasta or rice. They can also go into soup, be baked and served as a pie, cooked up as a risotto (without even having to stir while cooking) and more. To prevent the ptitim from turning into a lump as they cool, they can be rinsed lightly after cooking and lubricated with a bit of butter or olive oil, for the greater glory of the State of Israel.
Ptitim salad with artichoke, spinach and olives
A variation on a recipe by Charlie Trotter, who pays his respects to "Israeli couscous" in his book "Charlie Trotter Cooks at Home."
Ingredients (for 6 to 8 portions):
400 grams artichoke hearts (about 10), frozen acceptable
1 tablespoon vinegar (or lemon juice)
a pinch of salt
500 grams baked ptitim of whatever shape is desired
250 grams fresh, young spinach leaves
1 cup olives (Calamata, in the original recipe), pitted and chopped
For the sauce:
1/2 cup lemon juice
1/2 cup olive oil
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
Boil the artichoke hearts in water with the vinegar and salt until they are cooked through but still maintain their shape (8 to 10 minutes for frozen artichoke hearts, about 20 minutes for fresh artichokes).
Cool. Cut each artichoke heart in half and then into thin strips.
Cook the ptitim according to the manufacturer's instructions until they are al dente (half a minute or a minute less than what is stated on the package). Remove from the flame and rinse well in cold water until the ptitim feel cool. Drain. In a large bowl, mix the ptitim, the artichokes, the spinach and the olives. Use a small bowl to mix together the ingredients for the sauce, then pour it over the salad and toss. Chill in the refrigerator for at least one hour before serving.
Ptitim with meat and vegetables
A whole meal in one pot. Of course it is possible to vary the vegetables and the seasoning or to replace the meat with pieces of chicken.
Ingredients (for 6 portions):
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 large onion, peeled and finely chopped
2 carrots, peeled and finely diced
2 celery stalks, finely diced
1/2 hot green chili pepper, minced (or to taste)
500 grams ground beef
1 tablespoon good curry powder
1 cup peas (possibly frozen)
1/2 cup black raisins
2 cups ptitim of whatever shape is desired
salt and pepper
1 bunch parsley or coriander (or both), finely chopped
In a wide pot, heat the oil and saute the onion, carrots, celery and the chili pepper for about five minutes. Then push the vegetables to the sides of the pot and add the ground beef. Saute while stirring, in order to separate the crumbs of the meat until its color changes from red to gray. Add one cup of water, cover, and cook until most of the water evaporates (about 15 minutes).
Add the curry, peas, raisins and ptitim to the pot, along with another two and a half cups of water. Season with salt and pepper. Bring to a boil, cover and simmer on the lowest possible flame for about five minutes. Add the herbs, stir, and serve hot or lukewarm.
Chicken stuffed with ptitim
Don't throw food away, especially not leftover ptitim. Stuff a chicken with them.
Ingredients (for stuffing 1 large chicken):
1 1/2 cups cooked ptitim
3 slices of lemon, each about 3 millimeters thick, with the rind, without the pits, diced
3 tablespoons olive oil
5 sage leaves, minced (or thyme or rosemary)
1/4 small hot green chili pepper, minced (for those who are fond of heat)
salt and pepper
Mix together all the stuffing ingredients in a bowl. Taste and adjust seasoning. Fill the chicken's abdominal cavity with the mixture and tie with kitchen string so the filling does not escape from the chicken as it roasts. (It is a good idea to rub the chicken with a bit of olive oil and season it with salt and pepper.) The stuffing will season the chicken from the inside and it will be very tasty thanks to the chicken juices it will be roasting in.
Sweet ptitim with walnuts and cinnamon
A Hungarian-Israeli co- production.
Ingredients (for 4 portions):
2 cups ptitim in whatever shape is desired
75 grams butter
1 cup walnuts, chopped coarsely
1/3 cup breadcrumbs
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon (or a bit more for those who love it)
peel of one lemon, finely grated
2 tablespoons sugar (or more, to taste)
Cook the ptitim according to the instructions on the package. In a frying pan or saucepan, melt the butter and lightly saute the walnuts until they turn golden (a minute or two - careful not to scorch them).
Add the breadcrumbs and saute until they become golden and crisp (about a minute). Add the cooked ptitim and the rest of the ingredients and stir until the ptitim are well-coated. Taste and add more cinnamon and/or sugar, to taste. Serve hot.