25 November 2012

Offerings from Cinque Terre: Part I - Cauliflower and Leek Gratin

Combine the hominess of a really well-run B&B with incredibly generous and gracious hosts, who among other things served wonderful home-made meals, and you get this extraordinary agriturismo on Italy's Cinque Terre coast - Sostio A Levante. The property is tucked deep into the hills overlooking the Mediterranean and the car-free villages of Cinque Terre dotted along the coast below. 

The B&B's agriturismo label, popular throughout Italy, insures guests will have a slower-paced holiday off the beaten tracks with beautiful views of the surrounding landscape, insight into the local food culture, and at least one if not two exceptional home-made meals a day using local, seasonal, and many home-grown/locally-produced ingredients. Think lemon and kiwi trees scattered about the property, olives ripening in the backyard waiting to be cold-pressed into extra virgin olive oil, and grapes growing on the hill below the house for wine.

We stayed at this B&B for our fall holiday, and in between hikes through hills lined with vineyards that led down to the Cinque Terre villages and day trips to Lucca and Pisa, we were spoiled at mealtime by our hosts, Luca and Laura.

One of the evenings we joined them for dinner, a version of this cauliflower and leek gratin was served for our first course. It came out in individual gratin dishes, bubbling at the edges with browned, crispy bits on top. When it was served I thought it was pasta in a cream sauce. It was nowhere close. In fact, after the first spoonful I was still in question because it did not taste how I expected it to taste. It looked heavy and cheesy but it was refreshingly light and creamy. I detected the texture of pureed cauliflower and the subtle flavor of leek, but it was thinner than a cauliflower mash and thicker than a pureed leek-cauliflower soup. It was leaning towards a gratin with it's browned top, but it wasn't the type of gratin we often think of with sliced, layered vegetables baked in cream and cheese.

I could not place it in any one category, and I liked that it marched to the beat of its' own drum. A few more spoonfuls, and I was hooked by this delicate, uncategorizable dish.

I'm calling it a gratin here because frankly it needed a name and I don't think you would have been very impressed with me if I left this post blank. But even with a name, allow it to speak for itself if you try it. 

I took the base concept from that night of cauliflower and leeks blended into something between a mash and pureed soup and came up with this version. I knew I wanted it to have a bigger mouthful and a slightly more dynamic mélange of flavors, so pureeing the vegetables with soaked cashews added some unctuousness while the orange, lemon, and nutmeg added brightness and depth.

Suggestions: Make the puree a few days ahead, then all that is left to do at mealtime is placing it in ovenproof dish(es), sprinkling with cheese and olive oil, and browning under the broilerThis would also be great as a starter or side for a holiday meal. Serve it in individual ramekins or gratins, and your guests will feel festive and special eating it but will still feel good after eating it!

Cauliflower and Leek Gratin
Serves 4-6 as a side/starter

Notes: The desired consistency of this dish is more of a thinned out mash rather than a pureed soup. So when you puree the vegetables keep in mind you want just enough liquid to aid the blender but not too much so that the mash becomes soupy. Reserve any stock you remove from the pot before pureeing in case you need to add some later. Otherwise, leftover stock can be strained and kept in the refrigerator for another recipe.

1 head of cauliflower, divided into small florets and tender part of stem thinly sliced
2-3 cups good quality vegetable stock
2 leeks
1 pear, chopped
1 large garlic clove, halved
3/4 cup raw cashews, soaked in water for at least 4 hours
1/2 - 1 tsp. each salt and pepper
Pinch of nutmeg
Juice and zest of half a small orange, or to taste
Squeeze of lemon, or to taste
Small handful of flat-leaf parsley, chopped
1/4 cup Parmesan cheese, plus more for grating over top
Extra virgin olive oil for drizzling over top

Over medium-high heat, bring 2 cups vegetable stock to a simmer in a small soup pot or a large, deep sauce pan. Add cauliflower and make sure stock comes about halfway up the cauliflower but no more (add 1/2 cup more stock at a time if needed); you want the vegetables to partially boil and partially steam in the pot. Place the lid on and adjust the heat to simmer for 5 minutes, or until cauliflower is just beginning to soften.

While the cauliflower cooks, prep the leeks. Discard the green root end and keep the white and light green stalk. Remove outer layer of stalk, halve stalk lengthwise, and slice. (Size does not matter as it will all get pureed at the end.) Swish the slices around in a big bowl filled with water to allow any dirt between the layers to sink to the bottom.

Stir in leeks, pear, and garlic, cover and simmer for 10-15 minutes until vegetables are very soft. The vegetables will release water as they cook, so you should not have to add more stock, but check once while they cook to make sure the pot is not dry.

Remove from heat, drain extra liquid (see note above), add drained cashews and puree with a hand blender. Stir in salt and pepper, nutmeg and the next 4 ingredients (through parmesan). Taste and adjust seasoning to your liking. If you want the puree to have a richer mouthful, you can stir in a little butter or cream. Spoon puree into any kind of shallow dish(s) that will go under the broiler (individual gratins or ramekins, pie dish, etc). Sprinkle over a generous amount of parmesan and a drizzle of olive oil. Place under the broiler for 3-5 minutes until cheese has browned. Serve with parsley sprinkled on top, if desired.

20 November 2012

Muhammara Stew

I love nuts. I have always liked nuts, but as an adult I have come to crave their crunch and deep, buttery flavor brought out from toasting. As a child I remember watching my mom enjoy a spoonful of peanut butter after dinner sometimes, but at the time I didn't understand what was so great about it. Now, I cook with nuts all of the time. I rarely make a salad without them, they are never excluded from my granola or oatmeal, I love using almond flour when baking and often experiment with nut bases for sauces, stews, and dips. With their healthy fats, gorgeous flavor, and versatility in the kitchen, what's not to love.

Walnuts are front and center today. They are combined with roasted red peppers and a few other important ingredients* to make Muhammara, a sauce that provides smoky, sweet, and nutty base notes for this stew. Muhammara is a traditional Middle Eastern dip for pita but is now used in various ways throughout the Middle East. I first made Muhammara for Aari's pasta dish which inspired me to turn the sauce into a stew.

By the way, you are really getting two recipes for one here. Muhammara is excellent on its' own tossed with pasta, used as a dip for vegetables and pita, or spooned over grilled fish. But when it is combined with red lentils, chunky vegetables, and chickpeas it becomes a very satisfying and cozy winter meal. If you make the Muhammara a day ahead, the meal will come together even quicker.

*Pomegranate molasses is a really special ingredient in the Muhammara. In fact it's a special ingredient period. It is made by boiling down juice from a tart variety of pomegranates until a thick syrup is formed. It can be found in whole foods stores and Middle Eastern markets, and a few teaspoons in a dish give a unique sweet-tart flavor that just cannot be replicated by anything else.  It is also highly versatile and among other things it can be used in vinaigrettes,  stirred into rich soups, and drizzled over ice cream.

Muhammara Stew

Serves 6-8

Notes: Unfortunately you cannot see the red lentils in the dish, but they still serve a purpose in my opinion by adding a bit of texture (provided they are not overcooked) and heft to the sauce as well as additional protein and fiber. However, a nice variation would be to swap out the lentils for 1 cup of cooked yellow split peas, stirred in at the last minute.

2 Tbsp. walnut oil (or olive oil)
1 red onion, chopped
3 garlic cloves, chopped
1 red chili (sometimes called Fresno), chopped
1 Tbsp. cumin
2 tsp. coriander
1/4 tsp. chili powder
4 medium carrots, sliced thinly on a diagonal
4 cups vegetable stock, divided (or half water, half stock)
3/4 cup red lentils
1oz can chickpeas, rinsed and drained
2 small-medium sized zucchini, halved lengthwise, then halved again and chopped into large bite size pieces
1 head of cauliflower, florets separated into bite size pieces
1 recipe of Muhamarra (see recipe below)
Juice of 1 lemon
Big handful cilantro, chopped

In the largest high-sided saute pan that you own (I love this one), saute onions and chili in oil over medium heat until onions begin to soften, 2-3 minutes. Add the three spices, garlic, and carrots and cook for several minutes until  the spices are fragrant (add a little more oil at this point if the pan looks dry). Season with salt and pepper, then add two cups vegetable stock and lentils, turn heat to medium-high, cover with lid, and cook for 10-15 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the lentils have soaked up most of the stock  and the carrots have softened slightly. 

Add remaining two more cups stock along with the chickpeascauliflower, zucchini, and Muhamarra. Cover and cook another 10-15 minutes, depending on how big you cut the vegetables. You want the vegetables to still have a little bite to them when you are finished cooking.

Remove from heat, stir in the lemon juice and cilantro, and adjust seasoning if needed. Serve with cooked quinoa or rice. And if you are so inclined, pass pomegranate molasses and/or chopped walnuts at the table.

*You may need to have a heavier hand when seasoning if using water only.

Adapted from Aari's Muhammara Pasta recipe

Notes: If you make this as a stand alone sauce for pasta or a dip, add a few tablespoons of walnut oil or extra virgin olive oil to the mixture before blending.

6 jarred, roasted red peppers
1 cup toasted walnuts
1/4 cup sun-dried tomatoes, packed in olive oil
2 tsp. pomegranate molasses
2 tsp. cumin powder
1/4 tsp. smoked paprika
Juice of half a juicy lemon
2 garlic cloves

Blend all ingredients together in a food processor until smooth. Store in an airtight container in the fridge for up to two days if making ahead of time. 

18 November 2012

Puffed Quinoa Granola

I didn't plan to write a post about granola because it seems so mainstream now, and I was afraid of sounding like a broken record in the blog world. But I tweaked my usual recipe a bit this weekend  to dress it up for guests we had, and I enjoyed the result so much that I wanted to share it with you.

I recently found puffed quinoa at my local Reformhaus (the German equivalent to a health food store). I bought a bag, already having in mind wanting to increase the nutrient level, and in particular the protein level, in my normal granola. With a few exceptions, I usually choose whole grains/oats rather than their processed, quick-cooking counterparts since the nutritional quality diminishes during the processing. But from what I have read, the puffed quinoa retains much of the nutrients and complete protein quality that quinoa is so famous for. So eat up! 

Home-made granola is a frequent visitor in our kitchen. I make it once or twice a month to add variety to my weekday breakfast rotation of bircher muesli and steel cut oatmeal. I serve myself a generous helping and mix in full-fat plain yogurt, some berries, and I'm good to go. This is perfect as is, and I will continue to have granola this way. But for our friend I made a granola parfait. For little additional effort creating a parfait made it feel so much more special, and I have to admit it was really fun to eat. Just layer yogurt, mashed berries with a little honey (or good quality jam), granola, and repeat.

Granola is a blank canvas. You should make sure you have enough liquid (oil and liquid sweeteners) for the amount of dry ingredients, but other than that, the mix and proportion of nuts, seeds, grains, and dried fruit can be tweaked to your liking. So if there are certain ingredients in this recipe that would otherwise deter you from making this, please don't let it. This just happens to be my favorite mix.

Puffed Quinoa Granola
Serves 6-8

2 cups (195 g) rolled oats
2 cups (68 g) puffed quinoa
1 cup (75 g) unsweetened coconut flakes (optional)
1 cup (120 g) slivered almonds
1/4 cup (34 g) sunflower seeds
1 Tbsp ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp. cardamom
Big pinch salt
4 Tbsp. coconut oil (or a neutral flavored oil)
3 Tbsp honey
2 Tbsp pure maple syrup
3 Tbsp. unsweetened applesauce
2 tsp. pure almond extract
2/3 cup (80 gr) dried cranberries (or other dried fruit of your choice)

Preheat oven to 350°F (176°C).

Mix all dry ingredients in a large bowl. In a small saucepan over medium-low heat warm oil and the next 3 ingredients (through applesauce). Whisk together to incorporate, remove from heat, and mix in almond extract. Pour liquid over oat mixture and stir well to combine.

Spread mixture evenly on a large cookie sheet lined with a silpat, foil, or parchment paper. Bake in the middle of the oven for 15 minutes, until starting to brown. Remove from oven, flip granola over with a spatula and cook for 1-2 more 10 minute intervals, depending on how toasted you like your granola. After each 10 minutes, remove from oven and stir around so all sides are browned. 

Once cooked, remove from oven and let cool before stirring around so some clumps will form. Stir in dried fruit and transfer to an airtight container to store. This granola will last for a good week.