One of my favorite flavor profiles is the Italian agrodolce, a sweet and sour sauce that makes any dish more exciting.
Made simply by reducing vinegar with honey, agrodolce can be created on its own and added to dishes later, but I often prepare this sticky and sweet sauce in a pan after sautéing chicken, roasting meats, or, like in this couscous dish, caramelizing vegetables. It is impossibly easy, and can be made without a recipe by simply tasting as you go. Once it tastes good to you, it's ready.
I especially love agrodolce paired with sweet bell peppers, and I will often "melt" sliced peppers and garlic over low heat before adding vinegar and honey. I use that mixture to top grilled chicken, in place of tomato sauce on a simple pizza, or as the topper on a low-and-slow roasted pork sandwich.
Last night, in addition to peppers, I lightly caramelized some fennel and shallots, then tossed the whole mixture with Isreali couscous for a room temperature salad that I served with my all-time favorite freezer staple, quickly sautéed frozen shrimp. We have plenty leftover for lunches or to toss over tender greens for a self-dressing salad.
This recipe makes 8 to 10 servings.
- 8 oz (about 1 1/2 cups) Isreali couscous -- This is what I happened to have on hand, but you can use smaller couscous, any other small pasta, quinoa, wheat berries, or any other grain. The cooking liquid and time will vary.
- 2 to 3 tablespoons olive oil, divided use -- Any other neutral oil is fine.
- 1 fennel bulb, diced -- If you don't love fennel, you can leave it out, though the flavor is very mild in this dish.
- 1 medium shallot, minced -- Any variety of onion can be used in place of the shallot.
- Kosher salt, to taste
- Ground black pepper, to taste
- 3 bell peppers, diced -- I wish I had a red one for color, but I didn't. It doesn't matter what color you use.
- 2 to 3 cloves garlic, minced
- Red pepper flakes, to taste (optional)
- 3/4 cups red wine vinegar -- If I didn't have red wine vinegar, I would opt for cider or balsamic, though white wine vinegar would be fine, too.
- 2 tablespoons honey, plus more to taste -- use sugar or brown sugar, if that's all you have. I love honey and use it almost exclusively in savory recipes.
- In a medium saucepan, combine the couscous with about 2 cups water. Bring to a simmer, cover, and cook until tender and the water is absorbed, about 8 minutes. Drain any excess water, if needed, and set aside.
- Meanwhile, heat 2 tablespoons of the oil in a skillet over medium heat. Add the fennel and shallot. Season with salt and pepper, and cook, stirring occasionally, until the shallot is cooked through and just beginning to brown around the edges, about 12 minutes. Lower the heat if needed to keep the shallot from burning.
- Increase the heat to medium-high and add the bell peppers and the remaining 1 tablespoon oil. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the peppers are just cooked through and lightly browned, about 8 minutes.
- Reduce the heat to low and add the garlic and red pepper flakes, if using, and cook until aromatic, about 1 minute.
- Add the vinegar and cook until it reduces by about half, about 3 minutes. Add the honey and stir to combine. Simmer for about a minute, then taste and adjust with additional vinegar or honey, as needed, for a sauce that is a slightly tart and slightly sweet (it should taste good to you!).
- Remove from the heat and combine with the couscous. Stir to coat, and adjust the seasoning with salt and pepper before serving.
- Eagle-eyed folks might notice that my cooked couscous is brown-ish. This is because I take the completely unnecessary step of toasting my couscous before boiling it, to give it a slightly nutty, probably completely imperceptible flavor. To do this, put the couscous in a dry skillet and toast over medium-low heat, stirring often, until it browns. Then add the water.
- If you spotted my brown couscous, you probably also saw in the ingredient photo that my honey was super, super crystalized. That's thanks to the big piece of beautiful honeycomb that is stuck in the jar, but it is still usable and delicious. You can use the solid, crystal-y honey as is (it will dissolve when cooked), or let the jar sit in a bowl of warm water for a little while before measuring.
- Turn this dish into a full meal by adding some browned sausage and tossing the mixture with rigatoni or topping pizza dough.
- Don't get hung up on the quantity of ingredients here. This recipe is very forgiving. Less veggies (or more!) is fine, and adjust the vinegar and honey until it's perfect for you. You may like it a little bit sweeter or tangier than I do.
- If you're substituting or adding softer vegetables like zucchini or eggplant, brown them first, then remove them before preparing the agrodolce. Stir them back in at the end to help keep them from getting mushy.