Quinoa on the Half Shell

quinoa 4 12.29.12 By now, I guess we all know quinoa’s star qualities.

(And how it’s pronounced, but, just in case, keen-wa.)

It lures us with all nine of its essential amino acids, making it a complete protein. It excites us with its exotic ties to the ancient Incan tribes of the Andes Mountains. It pleases us with its variety of colors. And it wins our practical hearts with its quick cooking time.

This gem of a grain is actually a seed. It is the seed of the quinoa plant. It cooks like rice, in about 10-15 minutes. And, when it’s done, it expands from tiny little bird-seed-like spheres into slightly bigger translucent discs with a white ring around each. I always marvel at this transformation.

Wonderful on its own, with just a little oil, salt and pepper, it also mixes beautifully with herbs and vegetables for satisfying side dishes, pilafs and stir-fries. And it holds its own as a main dish, too. This came up in a conversation with a friend recently. Thinking of ways to use the quinoa she had at home, one obvious main dish was as a filling. And even if obvious, definitely not mundane, not with all the ingredients quinoa could be mixed with, and then the choices of ingredients it could fill. Bell peppers. Zucchini. Eggplant.

Acorn squash.

Because I happened to have that one.

What I didn’t have was quinoa. And there was even a variety of that when I stopped in at Trader Joe’s: plain, red, tricolor.

Tricolor.

This is what I did. I cut the acorn squash in half vertically and cleaned out its insides.  I rubbed it on the outside and inside with a light-bodied extra virgin olive oil (this was the oil I used throughout, but, really, any oil would be fine according to taste), then seasoned with salt and pepper. A little oil rubbed on the pan, too. And if the acorn halves aren’t flat on the pan, then trim a little off the outside to make a secure base. Slide the pan into a 400° oven, which is a good roasting temperature. What I was after was almost-black skin, the flesh golden to browning, and very tender when pierced with a knife, which I got after about 45 minutes to an hour.

In the meantime, I cooked the quinoa according to the package directions, and used vegetable stock instead of water for added flavor, two cups of stock to one cup of quinoa.

While that cooked, I sautéed, over medium-high heat, six thinly sliced mushrooms, to which I added three finely diced garlic cloves (about one tablespoon), Quinoa 1 12.29.12three-quarters of a red bell pepper (because that’s what I had left over from something else), and eight thinly sliced sage leaves. Salt and pepper. When everything had cooked down, I turned the heat off.

Then into the pan went two cups of the quinoa, three thinly sliced scallions, about four cups of thinly sliced baby spinach, one handful of thinly sliced parsley, and a good handful of grated cheese (about a quarter cup). Checked for seasoning again.

I turned the oven up to 425°, then scooped the filling generously into each of the two acorn squash halves, with enough left over that would’ve filled two more if I’d had them. (Something to keep in mind for the future, but this time, used some of that filling the next morning with two eggs for an omelet.)

I drizzled a little oil over the top of both squash halves, and then slid them into the oven to brown for about 10-15 minutes.

This was delicious. The fork-tender acorn squash pulled easily away from the skin, mixing with the filling. And the filling had both a depth from the longer sautéed ingredients and a lightness from the fresher ones added near the end. A light green salad on the side. Lovely dinner.

Parsnips, Meet Cocoa Nibs

cocoa nibs 1 12.22.12I was inspired by a photo of roasted parsnips in the November issue of the English/Australian food magazine Delicious. Beautifully golden on a well-worn baking sheet, the parsnips had simply been halved, tossed with olive oil and parmesan, and roasted, destined to be pureed in a soup.

I got a different idea. I imagined them roasted with cocoa nibs.

So often (though not in that particular Delicious. article), it’s the sweetness in root vegetables like carrots, parsnips, and sweet potatoes that’s played up by adding maple syrup or brown sugar. Though I can appreciate any of these vegetables prepared that way, I prefer not to intensify the natural sweetness, but to play to the savory. It was when a friend, years ago, served mashed sweet potatoes with butter, salt and pepper that I realized I actually liked sweet potatoes. Til then I’d politely eaten sweeter preparations.

Adding cocoa nibs seemed a great direction to take savory.

I preheated the oven to 375°.

I peeled six medium parsnips, about 1 1/4 pounds, and cut them in half. I cut a thicker one in quarters. On a baking sheet, I tossed them with one or two tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil, salt and pepper, and a good handful of cocoa nibs (about 1/8 cup), then spread them out across the sheet. I roasted them on one side for 30 minutes, then flipped them over and checked again after another 20 minutes, the kitchen filling with the smell of parsnips and cocoa cooking. Golden and fork-tender…done.

Every time I take a bite of parsnips, I’m reminded how much I like them, and this was no exception. Their light banana-like sweetness worked well with what were now crispier toasted nibs. I ate them as is, though they’d pair well with a sauteed green.

A fun twist, now I see roasted cocoa nibs in the future of carrots, onions, eggplant…

A small note on cocoa nibs: The brand I used is Vintage Plantations, and they are Rainforest-Alliance-certified, which means they work within certain guidelines regarding ethical and sustainable environment and farming standards, as do cocoa and chocolate products which are fair-trade-certified.

Banana Cookies to the Rescue

cocoa nibs 12.15.12I say “to the rescue,” because they were the perfect vehicle for two ingredients I wanted to put to use—frozen bananas and my current focus ingredient, cocoa nibs—all in a tasty package that I could contribute to my friends’ second annual holiday cookie and beer swap. Yup, a fun twist. You go home with lots of great cookies and a lively assortment of beer.

I happened to have a lot of bananas in the freezer (I’m happy to say, quite a few less now), so I did a quick Google search for banana cookies and went with the first one I saw. It had all the right stuff: bananas, holiday spices, and nuts. The recipe suggested pecans, or walnuts and chocolate chips as alternatives. But I knew right away I’d be using hazelnuts (because they also go great with bananas, and I had plenty of them, too!) and cocoa nibs.

These turned out to be a really nice cookie. They rose nicely, and had a light, cakey texture. The cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves complemented without overpowering the smell and taste of banana, all rounded out by a little crunch from nuts and nibs.

A nice addition to the overripe-and-frozen-bananas repertoire of recipes.

  • 1/2 cup unsalted butter, room temperature
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 egg, room temperature
  • 1 cup mashed bananas (about 2 1/2 large bananas) (Note about using frozen bananas: I thawed my bananas, then, in a bowl, stirred the banana pulp with the liquid that had separated from each other, recombining them. Worked great.)
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 2 cups flour
  • pinch salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
  • 1/2 cup finely chopped hazelnuts
  • 1/2 cup cocoa nibs

1. Preheat the oven to 350°. Cream the butter and sugar. Add the egg and continue to beat until the mixture is light and fluffy.

2. In a bowl, mix the mashed bananas and baking soda, let sit for 2 minutes. The baking soda will react with the acid in the bananas, giving the cookies their lift and rise.

3. Mix the banana mixture into the butter mixture. When I mixed these, I got what looked like egg curds, the reaction of the acid, baking soda, and eggs. Just combine. It’s fine, and all evens out as the rest of the ingredients are added.

4. Combine flour, salt and spices. You can sift to distribute the salt and spices throughout the flour, and remove any little lumps, or use a whisk, which is what I usually do, and what I did this time. Add this into the butter and banana mixture and stir just til combined.

5. Fold the chopped hazelnuts and cocoa nibs into the batter. I rounded one small spoon with batter and used another to shape and help drop onto a parchment-lined baking sheet, and baked for 11-15 minutes. When bottoms are browning, and the tops are starting to, that’s a good time to take them out. Give them a couple minutes to set. Then transfer to a rack to finish cooling.

I made two batches of this recipe, and got 41 cookies one time, and 38 the next, the cookies about 2 to 3 inches round.

Enjoy.

A Cocoa Hit

Cocoa nibs 4 12.8.12Cocoa nibs came into my circle several years ago when I saw them in a magazine, a chocolate touch for a Valentine’s Day salad. I was intrigued. I found a source online, ordered them and got them just in time to make that same salad to bring to my book group for our monthly wine-sharing, potluck-dinner book discussion.

These sliver-shaped nuggets are the broken pieces of roasted and shelled cocoa beans that you can toss into salads, over ice cream, on your cereal, or grind into a powder and allow to infuse a stew or chili. In fact, my husband has done that often when he’s made chili. Because they’re cocoa, they’re not sweet, so instead you get, well, the deeper, darker taste of cocoa…in tiny bursts.

Outside of making that salad and using the nibs over ice cream, or something similar, I don’t remember using them too much more, mostly my husband grinding them to add to chili from time to time. Yet, oddly enough, I continue to keep cocoa nibs stocked in the house.

Then along came this week, and once again a salad to be made as my contribution to the upcoming book group get-together. Casually flipping through a food magazine, I was hoping something would strike me that would serve as an ingredient to play with in this blog for the next three weeks, and that would also lead to a salad idea. Inspiration came in the form of a beautiful chocolate cake. It’s not the cake that registered in my brain, but the chocolate part, which made some quick internal connections, and led to my mind clearly stating, “Cocoa nibs.”

Very quickly, the salad mentally grew to include red and green leafy lettuce, grapefruit, pomegranate seeds, and maybe cheese if I could find the right one. So I headed to Trader Joe’s.

I picked up a package of their red and green oak leaf lettuce. I got an organic pomegranate and an organic red grapefruit. And, then, in their cheese section, I found a cheese I thought could do the job, one of Trader Joe’s more recent additions, a parmesan-gouda blend. I liked the idea of a little sharpness and a little creaminess, so into the cart that went, too.

After rinsing and spinning the lettuce, I tore it into bite-sized pieces and abundantly filled a rectangular white serving platter.

I thinly shaved pieces of about half of the parmesan-gouda wedge with a vegetable peeler, tucking into the greens.

I segmented the grapefruit over a strainer sitting on a bowl to catch the juices. I used the method where you cut away all the skin and pith, and then slice between the membrane and fruit to release the fruit and leave the membrane, then squeezed the remaining juices from the membrane. I further sliced the segments into three or four thin slices, and draped those on and in among the greens and cheese slices.

I sprinkled the seeds of half a pomegranate over top. (See last week’s post regarding freeing pomegranate seeds and juice from skin and membranes.)

And over all that, I sprinkled a couple tablespoons of cocoa nibs.

To a quarter cup of extra virgin olive oil, I added two tablespoons of the fresh grapefruit juice (actually a little more than that, to use it all up), two tablespoons of pomegranate juice, a couple grinds of pepper, and salt to taste.

About half that dressing was enough for the salad, and I added it right before serving.

Lush, light, a little tartness, a little creaminess, some crunch, and then, every bite or so, that deeper, dark flavor of cocoa.

A Winter Tabbouleh

winter tabbouleh 12.1.12First things first.

Parsley.

Into the bowl it went. Thinly sliced, including a good three inches of stem for each sprig. And then each ingredient that followed added in proportion to the parsley, which has been, after all, the star of the past few weeks.

This parsley focus led me to think tabbouleh. That wonderful parsley-laden Middle Eastern salad where the freshness of parsley, along with mint and lemon, melds with bulgur wheat, diced tomatoes and maybe even cucumber for something refreshing and satisfying on a hot summer day.

But it’s December now.

So…how to translate that freshness and lightness while playing with a winter palette.

I did this. I used the sweeter orange instead of lemon. I used the tart juiciness of pomegranate seeds instead of tomatoes or cucumbers. I didn’t use mint. I added the bite of red onion and garlic, the richness of a swirl of extra virgin olive oil, and a floral back note with orange flower water. This turned out to be one of those combinations that is more than the sum of its parts.

I kept approximate measurements along the way so I could offer a guideline. Of course, as is so often true in cooking, proportions can be tweaked to personal taste.

Here are the ingredients I tumbled in, one after the other.

  • One bunch of parsley, trimmed to include three inches of stems. Finely sliced, the stems minced. About 1 1/2 cups loosely packed.
  • 2 cups cooked cracked wheat at room temperature (Bulgur wheat is the usual grain in tabbouleh, I know, and the differences could be the topic of a post at a later date, but, for now, well, cracked wheat is what I had on hand.)
  • 3-4 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1/4 cup minced red onion
  • Zest of one orange
  • Seeds from one pomegranate (reserve the juice) (Instructions and videos abound online on how to do this. I have followed instructions to cut them in half, hitting them with a wooden spoon to release the seeds into a bowl, and once used a technique that required submerging them in water. This time, I just cut it in half horizontally, set a strainer over a bowl, and squeezed each half over it. Simple. Juice traveled through to the bowl, the seeds stayed in the strainer. I turned the skin inside out to poke at and release what didn’t come out in the squeezing. Any of the pulp I removed.)
  • About a tablespoon of extra virgin olive oil to stir through and coat
  • About a tablespoon of orange flower water. It was one of those serendipitous things that I happened to have, which is why I even thought to try it. I think if I hadn’t had it, I would simply have upped the orange zest some.
  • Salt and pepper to taste, but you don’t need much, and might even choose to forego both. I might next time I do these, the other flavors being substantial on their own.

Toss lightly. Done. This is wonderful right here, as is.

But…if you want to take it one step further, and I suggest you do, then…

Heat oil in a pan over medium heat. A canola oil, or some other flavorless oil.  While that’s heating, mix one egg and about 1/4 cup or so of plain breadcrumbs into the tabbouleh, enough so that it holds together when you form them into small balls. Set them in the pan to fry, turning them as each side browns. When they’re done, drain them on a rack.

dip and tabbouleh balls 12.1.12In the meantime, you can make a nice little dip for them. Keeping with the Middle Eastern idea, I chose a plain yogurt. To six ounces of yogurt, I added two tablespoons of the fresh pomegranate juice and one teaspoon of orange flower water. It turns a beautiful pale fuchsia color. And if you hold back a smidgen of the chopped parsley and a few pomegranate seeds from earlier, they look festive tossed on top.

The slightly crisp, browned outside of these balls mixed with the light and bright flavors on the inside made them fun to eat. And a little dip into the fuchsia yogurt took them over the top.