20 February 2013

Quinoa Risotto with Zucchini and Dill

If I had to choose a meal that is date-night worthy, this quinoa risotto would be it. I made it for our Valentine's dinner because when I think of romantic food I immediately think of a delicately creamy dish elevated with fresh and bright citrus flavors. They say opposites attract, and it's certainly true of flavors and textures in cooking as well; here it is crème fraiche versus dill and citrus and creamy quinoa versus crunchy pistachios and just-cooked zucchini coins. These opposing teams in the spectrum of flavors and textures face off in the risotto, but in the end there's no competition. They compliment each other and ultimately work really well together. Appropriate metaphor for a special day celebrating couples, eh?

This is a risotto-style dish in terms of the similar cooking process: aromatics in first, then toast the grains, deglaze with wine, then add stock a little at a time. But the time and effort is half that of regular risotto. And the creaminess (if cooked properly and some liquid is left in the end) comes from the stock and the starch that cooks out of the quinoa and barley. Only a few spoonfulls of crème fraiche are added at the end to feel indulgent and give the illusion of more cream than there really is.

I wanted to top the risotto with scallops because it was a special occasion and scallops are special gifts from the sea that I don't buy often but absolutely love. They are mildly sweet, but otherwise neutral in flavor. When cooked properly (i.e. quickly over high heat) they develop a caramelized crust and the inside is silky with a pleasing chew. Need I say more?

Quinoa is a complete protein with all 9 essential amino acids. In other words, this dish is well-rounded without the scallops if you need a quicker dinner. Quinoa is sometimes mistaken for a grain but it is actually a seed and is closely related to the beet and spinach families. Like seeds, the red and black quinoa varieties have a slight bite left once cooked, but the white quinoa cooks up much softer. I could not resist the red quinoa for Valentine's Day, but to achieve something that more closely resembles the creaminess of a risotto, I highly recommend using white quinoa.

Quinoa Risotto with Zucchini and Dill
Serves 4-6

Notes: A mixture of quinoa and pearled barley are used because I like the additional texture barley provides. But all quinoa (for a gluten-free version) or all barley can be used instead. However, note that cooking times and amount of liquid needed may vary.
Cooking this dish is not an exact science. The end goal is to have a moist, loose quinoa dish with quinoa and barely that is cooked but not mushy. So use your instinct when deciding how much more broth and cooking time is needed in the last 10 minutes of cooking.

4 cups vegetable broth
2 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
1 medium onion (or 2 shallots)
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/4 tsp. red pepper flakes
1 1/2 cups quinoa (preferably white quinoa), rinsed well and drained
1/2 cup pearled barley, rinsed until water runs clear and drained
3/4 cup white wine
1/2 tsp. salt and pepper to taste
1 medium, firm zucchini (the narrower, the better), thinly sliced into coins
1/4 cup crème fraiche (or full-fat greek yogurt or sour cream)
1/2 cup roasted pistachios, chopped
Zest and juice from 1 lemon
1 bunch dill, chopped

Warm the stock in a small sauce pan over high heat, covered. Once hot (no need to bring to a boil), reduce heat to low to keep warm.

In a large, deep saute pan over medium heat, saute onions, garlic, and red pepper flakes until onion begin to soften (3-5 minutes). Add quinoa and barley and toast until they start to smell nutty (about 2-3 minutes). Deglaze the pan with white wine and stir for a minute picking up any brown bits from the bottom.

Stir in salt, pepper, and 2 cups of the broth, and cook for 10 minutes, covered, stirring once or twice. Most of the liquid should be absorbed after this. Stir in another 1 to 1 1/2 cups of broth and cook, covered for another 10-15 minutes, stirring once or twice. Most liquid should be absorbed after this but the mixture should be loose, not dry. Check quinoa for doneness at this point as well;  you want it to be cooked but with some texture left. If it is cooked lower heat, stir in zucchini coins, cover, and steam for 5 minutes. Otherwise keep the heat on medium when the zucchini coins are added and add the last 1/2 cup of broth only if all liquid has been absorbed. Cover and cook 5 more minutes.

Turn heat off, stir in remaining ingredients, and adjust for seasoning if necessary. Serve immediately, and if using, top with sticky, seared scallops.

Sticky Seared Scallops
Serves 4-5

1 Tbsp. butter
15-18 medium scallops (450-500 grams)
1 red chili, thinly sliced
Splash white wine
1 Tbsp. red wine vinegar
Squeeze of honey

During the last 10 minutes the quinoa cooks, cook the scallops.

Pat scallops dry with paper towel or a clean kitchen towel to absorb excess moisture.

Heat butter in a cast-iron skillet or other heavy-bottomed, non-stick  skillet over medium to medium-high heat. Once oil is hot, places scallops in the pan (do not move them once placed in the pan or they will tear), sprinkle with salt, pepper and chili slices, and sear until the edges look like they are starting to brown (3-4 minutes). At this point the bottoms should be golden-brown in color and release easily from the pan. Flip to brown on the other side and finish cooking through (2-4 minutes, depending on the size of your scallops).

Deglaze the pan with wine, vinegar, and honey, stirring with a wooden spoon or spatula to pick up the brown bits at the bottom and to coat the scallops with the sauce. Liquid should be saucy and slightly thickened now. Remove from heat immediately and serve over quinoa on individual plates.

16 February 2013

Moroccan Dinner: Part II - Moroccan Tomato Sauce

This tomato sauce hits all the high notes; it is laced with cumin and cinnamon and studded with dried apricots, chickpeas, and preserved lemon. The zesty, sweet, and warmly spiced flavors are harmoniously pulled together in a rich tomato sauce.

For our Moroccan-inspired dinner party a few weeks ago, I baked lentil falafels separately and added them to the tomato sauce right at the end. Alongside was steamed couscous with toasted almonds and creamy tzatziki sauce.

The best part about this tomato sauce is that it is extremely versatile and can be used in many different ways. Here are some other ideas.

  • Omit the falafels, double the amount of chickpeas, and right before serving scatter around chopped pistachios or slivered almonds and feta. Serve over couscous, rice,      quinoa, or polenta.
  • Spoon the sauce into shallow bowls and top with baked fish, grilled shrimp, or scallops. Add a few dollops of Greek yogurt dressed with lemon and serve with warm naan or pita.
  • Make a flatbread pizza. Top grilled flatbread with sauce, sprinkle over crumbled feta or another cheese of your choice, and place under the broiler for a few minutes.

Ras el Hanout
I added a few teaspoons of Ras el Hanout because I like the complex and unique flavor it adds to the tomato sauce. It is a fragrant Moroccan spice blend that can be found in larger super markets or whole foods markets. Literally translated, the name means "head of the shop", and is customarily a blend of the best spices the seller can offer. Recipes may include dozens of spices, but common ones are cumin, cinnamon, coriander, cardamom, clove, ground chili pepper, and turmeric.

This is a fun spice mix to play around with. It works well in tagines and tomato-based soups and stews when you want to add flavor for minimal effort. If you have a well-stocked spice pantry you could make your own blend. I use this recipe

However, if you don't have the spice mix for this recipe, you shouldn't worry. Specific substitutions are mentioned in the notes below, but simply omitting the Ras el Hanout and using the remaining spices will still make a very flavorful Moroccan sauce. You can also be creative crafting together your own spice blend with the spices listed in the spice mix recipe that you do have on hand.

Moroccan Tomato Sauce
Serves 6

Notes: If you do not have Ras el Hanout, add an extra 1/4 teaspoon to the additional spices in the recipe plus 1/4 teaspoon each allspice and cardamom.
Preserved lemons are a special flavor. But in a pinch you can instead add the zest of 1 lemon while the sauce cooks and squeeze the juice of the lemon in at the end of the cooking process. If you have some briny, green olives on hand, throw them in as well.
Like spaghetti sauce, the longer this sauce cooks the richer the flavor will be. If you have the time you can simmer this for 45-60 minutes, covered, periodically stirring and making sure the bottom is not sticking. Add an additional 1/2 cup of water if the sauce gets too thick.

3 Tbsp. olive oil
1 medium red onion, chopped
3 garlic cloves, minced
1 red chili, sliced (or couple big pinches red pepper flakes)
Spice mix
1 tsp. tomato paste
1-2 tsp. Harissa paste, depending on level of spiciness (optional)
2 tsp. preserved lemon, flesh and skin finely chopped (~wedge the size of 1/4 lemon)
1 15 oz. can stewed tomatoes
2 15 oz. cans chopped tomatoes (use 3 cans chopped tomatoes if you cannot find stewed)
1 1/4 cups water (fill up empty tomato can)
1 15 oz. can chickpeas, rinsed and drained
Handful dried apricots, thinly sliced (~8-10 apricots)
3/4 tsp. salt + pepper to taste
Handful fresh cilantro, chopped

Spice Mix
1 1/2 tsp. Ras el Hanout
1 1/2 tsp. cumin
1/4 tsp. cinnamon
1 tsp. paprika
1/2 tsp. turmeric
1 small cinnamon stick (~2-3 inches long)

Mix spices together in a small bowl. Heat olive oil in a large, deep saute pan over medium to medium-high heat. Add onions, garlic, chili, and spice mix. Stir to combine and saute for 2-3 minutes, or until onions begin to soften and spices are fragrant, taking care not to burn the spices.

Mix in tomato paste and harissa, if using, then stir in the next 5 ingredients (through chickpeas). Let the  sauce come to a low boil, reduce heat to simmer, cover and cook for 15 minutes. Taste sauce and adjust for seasoning, then add apricots and simmer, covered, for another 15 minutes.

Take the dish to the table and sprinkle cilantro all around.

Baked Lentil Falafels
Adapted from Sprouted Kitchen

Serves approximately 16-20 small falafels

2 cups cooked lentils (~1 cup uncooked)
1 large clove garlic
Small handful fresh cilantro
2 eggs
3/4 cup ricotta
2 tsp. Harissa paste
1 tsp. preserved lemon, chopped
1 tsp. each salt and Pepper
2/3 cup breadcrumbs (fresh or panko, preferably)

In a food processor, process the lentils, cilantro, and garlic into a mush. In the bottom of a large mixing bowl, lightly beat the eggs, then stir in the remaining ingredients. Add the lentil mixture and mix all together. Let the mixture sit for 20 minutes to firm up.

Preheat the oven to 400', set the rack in the top 1/3 of the oven, and line a baking sheet with parchment paper. With wet hands, roll the mix into small balls and press down slightly with the palm of your hand to make round disks. If the first falafel does not hold together stir in a few extra tablespoons of breadcrumbs. Line the falafels up on a baking sheet and brush the tops with olive oil so the outside will get crispy.

Bake in the top 1/3 of your oven for 15-20 minutes until the tops are golden brown. Turn the falafels over halfway through baking. If the outside is not crispy enough after cooking, run them under the broiler for a few minutes. Remove from oven, let cool slightly and add to the tomato sauce right before serving. 

08 February 2013

Raw Chocolate Tart with Cardamom

My wonderful sister-in-law gave me a very cool book called The Flavor Thesaurus. Equipped with a flavor wheel for reference, this book runs through the spectrum of flavors making suggestions on pairings. I am reading it cover to cover but I also frequently reference it when I am creating recipes and need guidance on knowing whether an unusual pairing would actually work.

One flavor I happen to love is cardamom, so when it was suggested to pair chocolate and cardamom I jumped on the idea and incorporated it into this raw chocolate tart. Cardamom has spicy citrus and floral notes and is quite strong, so a little goes a long way. Just enough is added to the tart to suggest a subtle brightness, though you won't be able to place the flavor. It blends in nicely because, like coffee or vanilla, cardamom also adds depth to the chocolate. Though by all means, if you don't have cardamom the tart will still delicious.

This tart is not for the faint at heart. In fact, it is a dark-chocolate lover's dream; intensely rich and decadent, almost ganache-like, but not too sweet. Though you can of course tweak the sweetness to your liking. The walnut base is buttery, slightly salty, and with a hint of coconut, flavors which meld together nicely on their own (I would have actually eaten this by the spoonful if I hadn't pressed it into the tart shell!) but also offset the rich chocolate filling beautifully. And this is subjective, but I thought the sweet and tangy kiwi sauce was a welcome fresh counterpart to cut through the richness of the chocolate. I could also see a mango puree with mango chunks stirred in at the end or mashed blackberries going well with this.

I served this tart recently when I had girlfriends over for an afternoon. It's harder to meet and develop friendships with the Swiss, but there is quite a nice group of us expats forming now. I am very happy to find fellow foreigners with whom I can laugh over shared experiences struggling to understand the culture and learn the language. And I hope this tart enticed them to come back for another get-together soon!

Raw Food
Yes, raw food can be trendy but it is also smart. Many nutrients and enzymes are compromised during the cooking process, so raw food gives you more nutritional bang for your buck and is an incredibly creative and enlightening way of cooking and eating. But there are a few techniques that maximize the nutritional value of raw food, one of which is soaking nuts and grains. Soaking breaks down the phytic acid coating, making it easier to digest and the nutrients more available for absorption. For this recipe soaked nuts should also be dehydrated so the crust is not soggy. However, if you're simply looking for a tasty treat, soaking and dehydrating are not essential steps for making this recipe successfully. Either way, make sure you buy raw nuts (not roasted or salted).

Raw Chocolate Tart with Cardamom 
Serves a lot!

Notes: This filled two shallow tart pans. Because it's so rich the portions are smaller, so this recipe goes a long way. Next time I will make it in a deeper spring form pan (no larger than 10 inches in diameter) so there is enough depth to have a thicker crust while also holding all of the filling.

Walnut Coconut Crust
3 cups (300 g) raw walnuts
Scant 1 tsp. fine sea salt
1/2 cup coconut flakes, unsweetened
1 cup (200 g, weighed with pits) medjool dates

Chocolate Filling
Adapted from Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall (River Cottage)

4 medium sized ripe avocados (have a few extra on hand in case some are not good)
Scant 3/4 cup (150 g) virgin coconut oil (just melted over very low heat)
1 tsp. vanilla paste or extract
1 1/2 cups (200 g) raw cacao powder (or good-quality unsweetened cocoa powder if you cannot find cacao)
1/2 tsp. ground cardamom
Pinch of fine salt
2/3 cup - 1 cup (200-300 g) agave nectar, coconut blossom sugar, or a combination (if you have extra dates leftover, you could add a handful in to replace some of the other sweeteners)

Walnut Coconut Crust
In a food processor, blend the walnuts for a few seconds to break them up. Add the remaining ingredients and blend until the mixture begins to stick together and form a ball.
Press this mixture into the bottom of a springform pan or tart pan(s). Cover in plastic wrap and let set in the freezer until the filling is ready to pour in.
Blend all ingredients in a food processor until smooth. Taste and adjust sweetness. Then pour onto the base, re-cover with plastic, and freeze for 1 hour before serving. It can be kept in the freezer for up to a one week.

Remove the tart from the freezer 10 minutes before slicing. It will still be firm but easier to cut.

Serve with kiwi sauce or other fruit sauce, if desired.

Kiwi Sauce
In a medium bowl, use a fork to mash 5-6 peeled, ripe kiwis with a squeeze of agave or honey to taste.