World Foods' Spring Vegetable Couscous

Portland’s first family of Lebanese cuisine brings their pantry to the Pearl District.

By Benjamin Tepler April 2, 2014 Published in the April 2014 issue of Portland Monthly

Image: Nomad

Nicholas Dibe journeyed from Lebanon to Portland in the late 1980s with a bold dream: to open the city’s first Middle Eastern restaurant. He succeeded, bringing a massive wrought-iron wood-fired oven (to bake fresh pita) along with his tenacity, handing out samples of thyme-dusted za’atar flatbread on  SE Grand Avenue to leery locals whose knowledge of world cuisine dead-ended at olive oil. 

Three decades later, Dibe’s namesake Nicholas Restaurant is a Portland institution, and his children have gone on to become the city’s Eastern Mediterranean food dignitaries. In Montavilla his eldest daughter, Mirna, opened Ya Hala, widely considered one of the city’s best Middle Eastern restaurants. A younger daughter, Hoda, set up her own homey Lebanese-eats outpost on SE Belmont Street. Mirna’s husband, John Attar, launched both International Food Supply (next door to Ya Hala) and Southwest Portland’s Barbur World Foods, a culinary conduit for Middle Eastern families and savvy international cooks.

This February, the Attars opened a second World Foods on the corner of NW Ninth Avenue and Everett Street. The new digs are sleeker and, with a fresh juice bar and a Stumptown coffee station, a bit more “Portland” than the original.

Thankfully, Mirna’s Lebanese vision remains the same: traditional flavors from the family vault and fresh produce from local farms. 

Mirna’s Couscous with Green Almonds and Spring Vegetables*

(Serves 8)

  • 1 cup large “pearl” couscous (Israeli or Lebanese)
  • 1 tsp Mirna’s 7-Spice Mix (or substitute equal parts ground cumin, cilantro powder, and allspice)
  • 3 cups vegetable broth
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1½ cups sugar snap peas, strings removed
  • 1½ cups fresh okra, stems removed
  • 1½ cups whole fresh fava beans, shelled and peeled
  • ½ cup fresh green almonds, halved, or whole dried almonds, 
  • soaked in hot water for 15 minutes and dried
  • ½ cup cilantro, roughly chopped
  • ¼ cup parsley, roughly chopped 
  • ½ cup mint, roughly chopped
  • 2 tsp Aleppo pepper
  • 1 lemon 
  • Olive oil

Cook the Couscous: Heat 1 tbsp olive oil in a large pot over high heat until shimmering, add couscous, and toast for 1 minute. Reduce heat to medium-low, add spice mix, and cook 3 minutes longer, stirring occasionally. Add broth and ½ tsp salt. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to low, and simmer, covered, until couscous is cooked through but not mushy (10 to 20 minutes, depending on the couscous variety). Remove from heat, drain remaining liquid,
and let sit.

Sauté the Vegetables: Heat 1 tbsp oil in a skillet over medium-high heat, and sauté peas until tender, 2 to 3 minutes. Put peas in a bowl. Repeat with okra and fava beans, sautéing each for 2 to 3 minutes, adding more oil as needed. Add 2 tbsp olive oil to the skillet and cook almonds, covered, for 8 to 10 minutes, or until tender. 

Combine & Serve: Mix couscous with vegetables and nuts and add cilantro, parsley, mint, pepper, and remaining ½ tsp salt. Squeeze lemon juice over the top, and toss. 

*All ingredients available at both locations of World Foods 

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