My pearl couscous salad, or Israeli couscous salad, is made with toasted pearl couscous, cucumber, tomatoes, chickpeas, olives, red onion, and feta all coated in homemade tzatziki sauce.
You can make this any time of year, but it really shines towards the end of summer when you’re trying to hold onto the last vestiges of sunshine before the cold weather.
I’ll show you how to make it along with ideas for substitutions for the couscous. And if you like a good macaroni salad (which this sort of is), try my mom’s macaroni salad.
For ease of browsing, you can find all my side dish recipes in one place. Let’s get to it.
Why You Need to Make This Salad
There are tons of recipes for couscous salad out there, pearl/Israeli or otherwise.
What sets this one apart is that the dressing is basically a tzatziki sauce. Tzatziki, with its creamy-tart-cooling flavor profile is the perfect Mediterranean dressing for the nutty couscous, sharp red onions, sweet tomatoes, briny olives and feta, and earthy chickpeas.
Especially if you are a cucumber lover, you’re going to love the double impact cucumber has on this salad, both shredded in the dressing and cut into quarter moons for the salad.
If this sounds like your kind of salad, you can jump straight to the recipe and get cooking!
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How to Make
This salad is made in three parts: the couscous, the tzatziki, and the “mix-ins.”
It’s not hard to make at all. Here’s the run-down.
Ingredients and Substitutions
Here are all the ingredients you’ll need to make this salad. Under this photo, I’ll go over all of them, and provide substitutions for some ingredients that may be harder to find.
Also look for optional ingredients that I didn’t use but that would be excellent additions to this salad.
For the Tzatziki Sauce
- Greek yogurt: Strained yogurt is the base of all tzatziki sauce recipes I’ve ever seen. I use a thick, Greek yogurt that doesn’t need straining. This makes a nice, creamy and tart base for the dressing
- Red wine vinegar: Provides acidity to brighten the salad as well as thin the sauce to a nice consistency. Substitute your favorite light-colored vinegar such as rice, apple cider, or white wine vinegar if you don’t have red wine vinegar. I don’t recommend balsamic because it will make the sauce too sweet and also a very odd color that might not be appetizing
- Olive oil: Use a Greek olive oil if you can find it. You’ll use some olive oil to toast the couscous and more in the sauce. I used California Olive Ranch “global blend.”
- honey: Not traditionally found in tzatziki, I always like just a touch of sweetness in my pasta salad dressing. You could also use hot honey or a touch of sugar or leave it out entirely
- Lemon juice and zest: The juice provides more liquid to thin the tzatziki as well as sour notes while the zest provides floral lemon notes present in the essential oils in the outer skin. Lemon is a prevalent flavor in Mediterranean cooking
- Garlic: Use whole cloves and mince them yourself or use storebought minced garlic or paste. I will not judge you!
- Shredded English cucumber: I used one long cucumber and cut it in half-ish. Half I shredded and half I quartered length-wise and then cut into little quarter moons
- Greek seasoning: Your favorite Greek seasoning. I used some that came in a grinder container. Rather than grinding–which would have taken forever–I just unscrewed the lid, measured out about 2-3 teaspoons and ground it up roughly using my mortar and pestle. Any little dehydrated bits of onion or pepper that seem really hard will rehydrate once mixed into the dressing
- Dill: Lemony and lovely
- Basil: Peppery and cooling
- Mint: Minty! I used roughly equal parts of all three fresh herbs. No real need to measure. Other herbs to consider: Fresh oregano, fennel, tarragon, or even a little bit of sage and/or rosemary. use restraint with those last two, because they both have very assertive flavors
For the Rest
- Pearl Couscous: A small, extruded pasta that’s toasted before packaging. They really do look like little pearls. It’s not quite as similar to “regular” couscous as you’d think. Substitutions: regular/Moroccan couscous (tiny little granules of semolina dough), orzo, any other small pasta shape such as ditalini. You could even go larger with your pasta and use elbows, rotini, orecchiette, or radiatore. You may also substitute cooked and cooled short– or medium-grained rice. I don’t recommend using long-grained rice as it tends to be hard at refrigerator temperatures
- Water: for cooking the couscous. You can also use vegetable broth or chicken broth if you prefer
- English cucumber: See cucumber entry under ‘tzatziki sauce.” You’ll use about half of 1 English cucumber shredded and the other half quartered lengthwise and sliced into little quarter moons
- Feta Cheese: Use plain or flavored. I’ve used both plain feta as well as a black pepper feta. Both were excellent. If you’re not a fan of feta, you can substitute soft chevre, although that will tend to melt into the dressing. To make sure you still have discrete pieces of cheese, add some extra crumbles of goat cheese right before serving
- Red onion: Finely diced. You may substitute white onion or sweet onion
- Chickpeas: Either cooked from dried or canned, drained and rinsed
- Greek olives: Use your favorite olives. I used a jarred Greek olive medley from Divina which included several types of Greek olives
- Grape tomatoes: I love nice, sweet grape tomatoes. Feel free to use your favorites. If you use larger tomatoes, seed them and dice them into bite-sized pieces. Other small varieties to consider are pear tomatoes or cherry tomatoes
Optional Ingredients That Would Work Well in This Salad
Salads like these are very versatile, and your ingredient list should never be set in stone. Use what’s in season or what makes you happy.
Here are a few more ingredients not called for but that would be wonderful in any couscous salad, pearl or otherwise:
- Sweet bell pepper (red, yellow, or orange)
- Fava beans
- Preserved lemons
- chopped jarred artichoke hearts
- Toasted nuts: walnuts, pistachios, or hazelnuts would be a great addition
- Bulk up the protein with some cooked and chilled (or canned) tuna
There’s no need to add every flavor known to man, so edit your ingredient list to reflect what you enjoy and what you have on hand.
A good rule of thumb is to use 5-6 mix-ins per batch.
This salad is made in three parts:
- Toast and cook the couscous
- Make the tzatziki sauce
- Chop/prep mix-ins as needed
Once you have those three components, all that’s left to do is mix everything together and chill the salad for at least 2 hours so the flavors can meld.
Here’s a closer look at each step:
1. Add some olive oil to a pan over medium-high heat.
2. Pour in the couscous and stir well to coat with the oil.
3. Continue to alternate letting the couscous sit to toast and stirring well every 30 seconds or so at the beginning and then almost continuously as the couscous toasts and darkens. It will smell nutty, and while some of the “bits” will get very dark brown and others will just have hints of golden brown, you don’t want any to actually burn.
4. Once the couscous is toasted, add water to cover by about 1/2″, bring to a boil, and put a lid on to cook.
Jenni Says: Toasting the couscous keeps the grains from sticking together in a big glob after cooking and during cooling. Plus it brings some additional, toasty flavor to the dish.
1. Greek yogurt, olive oil, red wine vinegar, lemon juice, lemon zest, salt, pepper, and Greek seasoning go in a bowl.
2. Picked herbs: I used basil, dill, and mint.
3. Chop the herbs finely.
4. Whisk the dressing together.
5. Stir in shredded cucumber.
Jenni Says: When making tzatziki, you’d normally squeeze out the liquid from the shredded cucumber. For this salad, I don’t bother since all the liquid will be absorbed by the couscous.
1. Put the cooling, cooked couscous in a large bowl. Add the mix-in ingredients on top.
2. Give it a quick mix, and then pour the tzatziki sauce over all.
3. Mix it up–don’t forget the red onions and feta like I almost did!
4. Stir everything well, cover, and refrigerate so the flavors have a chance to meld.
Equipment You May Need
This is the pan I use to cook almost all my rice and small pasta in unless I am making an enormous batch.
I love my OXO saucier very much. I use it when making most custards and curds as well as for smaller batches of soup. It's a very versatile pan.
If you use a Greek seasoning blend that has some larger pieces of dried peppers and whole peppercorns in it, you’ll save yourself some time if, rather than using the grinder it comes in, you unscrew the grinder, pour some into your mortar and pestle, and grind it up coarsely yourself.
- Small size yet heavyweight for easy grinding
- Perfect for grinding whole spices for home use
- Also great for grinding salt rather than wearing out a salt mill.
Pearl Couscous Salad Q & A
No. It is made from semolina, which is a wheat flour. If you need to make a gluten-free version of this salad, substitute short or medium-grained rice for the couscous.
This salad holds up surprisingly well in the fridge. It will be delicious for a good 5-6 days after making. I wouldn’t push it much farther than that, mainly because it will eventually get watery from the metric ton of cucumber that’s in it.
Store leftovers in a tightly-sealing container in the fridge. For best flavor, let the servings temper for about 30 minutes before enjoying.
It would also be lovely to serve as part of a “salads meal” where you get to enjoy a bit of this and a bit of that all in one meal.
Try it alongside my coronation chicken salad for a bit of Indian-inspired and Greek-inspired food on one plate.
Other Side Dish and Salad Recipes
Israeli couscous salad is basically a pasta salad. I do love a good pasta salad!
A Note About Measurements
Don't let its small price and small size fool you. The Escali Primo is an accurate and easy-to-use food scale that I have used for years. It's easy to store, easy to use, has a tare function, and easily switches between grams and ounces/pounds for accurate measurements.
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Pearl Couscous Salad
For the Tzatziki
- ¾ cup plain Greek yogurt
- ¼ cup red wine vinegar
- ¼ cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
- ¼ cup fruity olive oil
- 1 Tablespoon honey
- 3 cloves garlic minced
- salt & pepper to taste
- zest of 2 lemons
- 2-3 teaspoons Greek seasoning bruised or roughly ground in a mortar and pestle
- A big handful of basil mint, and dill, washed and minced
- ½ English cucumber grated
For the Couscous
- 2 cups pearl couscous
- 2 Tablespoon olive oil
- about 3 cups water chicken broth or vegetable broth
- salt & pepper to taste
To Finish the Salad
- ½ English cucumber split lengthwise into quarter and then cut into quarter-moons about 1/4″ thick
- 6-8 oz grape tomatoes halved
- ½ large red onion finely diced
- 1 15 oz can chickpeas rinsed and drained
- ½ cup Greek olives drained and minced (or cut into rings if you like larger pieces of olives)
- 4 oz crumbled feta cheese
For the Tzatziki Sauce
- In a medium bowl, combine the Greek yogurt, red wine vinegar, lemon juice, olive oil, honey, garlic, salt, pepper, lemon zest, and Greek seasoning. Whisk until smooth.
- Thoroughly stir in the herbs and shredded cucumber. Taste and adjust seasonings as needed, and refrigerate until needed.
To Toast and Cook the Couscous
- Heat a pan over medium-high heat and add the olive oil, tilting to coat.
- Add the dry couscous to the pan and stir well to coat it with the oil.
- Alternate between allowing the couscous to toast/fry in the oil for about 30 seconds and stirring with a wooden spoon until the couscous starts to take on a golden color.
- As the couscous begins to color, stir more frequently as the browning will accelerate.
- Keep an eye on it, stirring almost constantly as the couscous gets to a medium golden brown.
- Add the water or broth to cover the couscous by about 1/2-3/4", bring it to a boil, and then reduce to a simmer.
- Put a lid on the pan and allow the couscous to cook for about 7 minutes on medium-low heat.
- If using an electric stove, turn off the heat and let the couscous steam in the hot pan for 5 minutes. If you have a gas stove, turn the flame down to the lowest possible setting for 5 minutes.
- If there is any water/broth left in the pan, carefully drain it all off and then stir the couscous with a fork to fluff it up a bit. Transfer to a large bowl, and stir it occasionally to help it cool down evenly as you finish the rest of the salad.
To Finish the Salad
- Add the sliced cucumber, halved cherry tomatoes, diced red onion, rinsed and drained chickpeas and the crumbled feta to the bowl of couscous. Season with a bit of salt and pepper.
- Pour the tzatziki dressing evenly over the salad and gently but thoroughly fold everything together until evenly combined.
- Taste the salad and, if needed, adjust the seasonings to your liking.
- Cover and refrigerate for at least 2 hours or up to several days. Stir well before serving.
- Store leftovers in the fridge.
Did You Make Any Changes?
Toasting the CouscousYou may be tempted to skip toasting the couscous. Don't skip it. Not only does the toasting add more flavor, but it also keeps the couscous from clumping together in one big mass as it cools down.
Q & A
Is couscous gluten-free?No. It is made from semolina, which is a wheat flour. If you need to make a gluten-free version of this salad, substitute short or medium-grained rice for the couscous.
How long will this salad last?This salad holds up surprisingly well in the fridge. It will be delicious for a good 5-6 days after making. I wouldn’t push it much farther than that, mainly because it will eventually get watery from the metric ton of cucumber that’s in it.
What’s the best way to store it?Store leftovers in a tightly-sealing container in the fridge. For best flavor, let the servings temper for about 30 minutes before enjoying.
Thanks so much for spending some time with me today.
I hope you enjoy the couscous salad, friends.
Take care, and have a lovely day.
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