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Pasta on the Side

Move over, rice and potatoes—little pastas like orzo, Israeli couscous, and fregola make a delicious change of pace

Fine Cooking Issue 90
Photos: Scott Phillips
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Israeli Couscous with Saffron, Toasted Pine Nuts & Currants 

In my family, we’re big fans of starchy side dishes. I think of my mother standing at the kitchen sink, rattling off her plan for dinner: meat, vegetable, starch—always one of each. To this day, I have a hard time truly enjoying a meal that doesn’t have a starchy element. But one can eat only so much rice and potatoes, and I generally don’t like to serve standard pasta dishes on the side.

Luckily, I’ve recently developed an appreciation for little pastas—sort of a cross between rice and pasta, and the perfect side dish. My young son’s love of all things little prompted me to buy orzo, and I’ve learned that it can be as richly satisfying as risotto. Ever since, I’ve been experimenting with other little pastas; fregola sarda (Sardinian couscous) is my newfound favorite, but Israeli couscous is a close second.

Fregola with Wild Mushrooms, Sherry & Cream 
Orzo with Lemon, Garlic, Parmigiano & Herbs 

In general, cooking little pasta is like cooking any other pasta; just check frequently to avoid overcooking, as it can turn to mush if ignored. You’ll want to bring a large pot of water to a rolling boil and add a generous amount of salt before adding the pasta—the water should taste almost like seawater (the pasta absorbs only a small amount of the salt). The cooking time will vary depending on the type of pasta and the brand, but you can anticipate that it will cook in slightly less time than other pastas.

I’ve also discovered that some little pastas, such as Israeli couscous, can be cooked like rice pilaf—in a covered sauté pan with other ingredients. As with rice, you want to lightly toast the couscous in the pan, stirring constantly, before adding the liquid. This helps the couscous cook more evenly. After you’ve added the liquid, reduce the heat to a simmer and cook until the couscous is tender and has absorbed all of the liquid. Again, the cooking time will vary from brand to brand.


a pasta that’s similar in size and shape to rice, can resemble risotto in both flavor and richness when cooked and combined with broth and cheese. I like to toss orzo with buttery reduced chicken broth, fresh lemon juice, garlic, herbs, and Parmigiano. This pasta is also a great addition to soups and makes a wonderful pasta salad. Orzo is available in most supermarkets.

Israeli couscous

also known as maftoul, is shaped like small pearls and is much larger than traditional North African couscous. It’s lightly toasted in an open-flame oven, but if you’re preparing it like rice pilaf, as I do, it benefits from being toasted again so that it will absorb the cooking liquid and yet remain al dente. Israeli couscous is available online at ChefShop.com; you can also find it at many specialty stores.

Fregola sarda

or Sardinian couscous, is a type of pasta that’s made by rubbing semolina and water into tiny pearls and then toasting them. Fregola is similar to Israeli couscous, but it’s slightly larger. In Italy, it’s often added to brothy stews or cooked as baked pasta. You can find fregola at many specialty stores or order it online at ChefShop.com.

Little pastas are a great side for just about any dish. They’re particularly nice with rich braises, roasted meats and poultry, or anything with a pan sauce that can mingle with the pasta. Try one of the recipes here, or just cook the pasta simply and toss it with butter and herbs. Or try adding one of them to soup in place of rice or another pasta shape. (I like chicken and mushroom soup with fregola sarda.) I encourage you to experiment with other varieties of small pasta that you may find at the market—grocery stores carry some, but specialty markets tend to have a nice selection.


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