Monday, September 24, 2012

Israeli Couscous with Roasted Butternut Squash and Preserved Lemon

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Israeli Couscous with Roasted Butternut Squash and Preserved Lemon
Israeli Couscous with Roasted Butternut Squash and Preserved Lemon

I first made this recipe in New Orleans while visiting my vegetarian daughter. I often cook when visiting and freeze the food for her later use. She is a busy medicine resident and never seems to have time to cook from scratch. I thought this would freeze well – and it has. Of course, I too had to sample – the flavor was amazing!! There is a reason that squash is called butternut! The flavor is nutty, sweet and moist.

Israeli couscous can be found in health food stores and many traditional grocers. Called pearl couscous or Ptitim in Israel, they are small round pasta-like granules made from semolina and wheat flour. Unlike the familiar small, yellow semolina-based North African couscous, Israeli couscous is twice as big and is toasted rather than dried. This provides a nutty flavor and sturdy composition that makes it a bit chewy bit and allows it to stand  up well to this preparation. One possible substitute would be acini di pepe pasta.
Israeli couscous
Preserved lemons can be found readily made in Mediterranean section of grocers or online.  However, it is very easy to make your own (see recipe at the end) but you would need to plan well in advance as it takes several weeks to a month “to cure”.  I always have a jar on hand in the refrigerator – it keeps for at least one year – and can be used in any recipe that calls for both lemons and salt.

  • 3-pound butternut squash
  • 1½ preserved lemon (recipe for making preserved lemons below)
  • 5 Tb extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 large onion, chopped
  • 3 Tb butter
  • ¾ C pine nuts
  • 1¾ C Israeli couscous (about 1 lb.)
  • 1 3-inch cinnamon stick
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 2 C vegetable or chicken broth
  • ¾ C chopped parsley
  • ½ C golden raisins
  • ¼ tsp ground cinnamon
  • Salt and Freshly ground pepper
  • ¼ C dried cherries or cranberries - optional
Preheat your oven to 475 degree F. Begin with a 3-pound butternut squash – select one that is rock solid and heavy for size. Although traditionally a winter squash, it is readily available year round. Look for the large pear shaped squash with a matte skin – a shiny one is a sign that the squash was picked prematurely. It can be stored in a cool, dry place (not a refrigerator) for a month making it useful to have on hand for impromptu meals. 
If you dont' want to buy the squash, you can always grow it! From our garden....
Split it lengthwise and remove the seeds. Simply scraping them out with the edge of a spoon most easily does this. Peel squash and cut into ¼ - ½ inch dice – they should be uniform in size in order to assure they roast uniformly.
Scooping out the seeds of the squash

Diced butternut squash
Toss squash with 1 Tb olive oil and salt in a large shallow baking pan/sheet. Spread out into one layer. Roast in upper third of oven for 15 minutes or until squash is tender. Transfer to a large bowl.
Cooking the diced squash
 Quarter 1½ preserved lemons, rinse thoroughly to remove excess salt, remove flesh, reserving only peel. Dry thoroughly and finely chop. Set aside.
Chopped perserved lemons
 Cook 1 chopped large onion in 1 Tb olive oil in a heavy skillet over medium high heat, stirring occasionally, until just beginning to turn golden. Add to bowl with squash.

Put 1 Tb butter in a saucepan over medium-low heat. Add ¾ C pine nuts, stir until golden brown, about 5-8 minutes.  Watch carefully because pine nuts burn quickly. Add to bowl with preserved lemon. Using the same pan, melt 2 Tb butter over medium heat.  Add 1¾ C Israeli couscous, 1 3-inch cinnamon stick and 1 Bay leaf and stir until couscous browns slightly, stirring often, about 3 minutes. Add 2 C vegetable or chicken broth and 1 tsp salt – bring mixture to a boil. Lower heat, cover, and simmer slowly about 10 minutes until the couscous is tender and liquid is absorbed. Drain; remove cinnamon stick and bay leaf. Do not rinse the couscous.
Cooked Israeli couscous
Add couscous to vegetables and toss with 2 Tb olive oil to coat. Add preserved lemon peel, ¾ C chopped parsley, pine nuts, ½ C golden raisins, ¼ tsp ground cinnamon and salt to taste. For additional sweetness and color, you could add ¼ C dried cherries or cranberries.

Toss to mix well.  Just before serving, sprinkle with final 1 Tb of olive oil over top of dish. Serve to accolades!  This would work well as a vegetarian entrée or a side dish. It can be made a day in advance – add additional olive oil as needed to keep it moist.
Ready to serve!
We enjoyed this with a wonderful dry German Riesling – but any dry white wine would work.  Bon Appetit!


Preserved Lemons
Preserved lemons

My favorite lemons to preserve are the thinner-skinned, sweeter Meyer lemons, but Eureka lemons work equally well. To make them, all that is required is lemons and salt. Additive free kosher salt is especially recommended, as it seems to dissolve more quickly. They are terrific in so many dishes – you will want to make your own to use again and again.

Wash the lemons well. While holding them over a plate to catch the juice, make four deep longitudinal cuts, evenly spaced around the lemon, effectively dividing it into four sections attached at the ends. You want to keep the lemons whole. Pack the cuts generously with salt. Put a couple of tablespoons of salt in the bottom of a clean, sterilized mason jar and pack lemons in layers, sprinkling a thin layer of salt between layers of lemons. Push the lemons down firmly to pack them tightly and to help express some of their juice. To enhance the Mediterranean flavors, feel free to add a cinnamon stick, whole black peppercorns, cloves, coriander seeds and a bay leaf to your jar as you build it with the lemons. Finish with a final layer of salt. You almost cannot use too much.

Pour any juices that collected on the plate when the lemons were cut. Cover the jar tightly. Leave at room temperature in a dark corner, monitoring the level of liquid in the jar. The lemons should be completely submerged in juice after a few days.  If they are not, add more lemon juice. Ideally, you should wait one month, shaking the jar daily, before they are truly preserved. But, if needed, they are likely ready in a few weeks and will keep for up to a year.  They do not absolutely require refrigeration, but I always keep them tucked in the corner of our frig. Use wooden utensils when removing lemons later for use. As the metal in the Mason jar will become eroded by salt, I would recommend covering the top with saran wrap after first use, before replacing the lids so it can be more easily opened later.
Perserved lemons in a mason jar
Preserved lemons are featured prominently in Jewish, Mediterranean and Italian cooking.  They are used in drinks (lemon drop martini & lemonade, of course), salads (cut up a little and add for summery lemon bite in winter!), sauces, or on fish, chicken, lamb, beans, lentils or any vegetable. Of course, any lemon dessert would only be enhanced with their use.

The lemons should be rinsed well before use – people use the rind most frequently, cutting off the pulp. How does the rind taste? – more lemony, perhaps a bit salty but not at all acidic. (Pulp is fine for use but is quite a bit saltier - in a Bloody Mary maybe?)  As the lemons age, the color intensifies, turning almost a deep amber. 

Other ideas: finely dice preserved lemons and mix them with sautéed vegetables, such as green beans, fava beans, or to elevate lowly rounds of carrots into something interesting and exotic, perhaps tossing in a few cumin seeds as well. They are also good mashed into butter with some fresh herbs, then smeared on top of grilled fish or a nice chunk of caramelized roasted winter squash. You could sneak some into a batch of tapenade, as well as adding some finely chopped little pieces to a batch of lemon ice cream, too! Preserved lemons are more flexible than you might think. A few other ideas, some more traditional than others - all highly recommended: thin-crust wood fire oven pizzas (as a garnish/topping), in various slow-cooked tagines, in couscous and a few other whole grain salads, and as an accent in a tomato based panzanella.
Any place you would use salt and lemon flavor is fair game – just expect it to be better! If my house were on fire, I’d grab my jar of preserved lemons on my way out.  They are that great – and so much better homemade. Give it a try!

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Brined Pork Chops with Fennel Pollen

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Brined Pork Chops with Fennel Pollen

Serves: 4
Brined Pork Chops with Fennel Pollen 
Pork is the “other white meat”. The advertising slogan worked well and many people increased their pork consumption. Despite the slogan, the U. S. Department of Agriculture, (USDA), treats pork as a red meat. However, it is quite a bit leaner than similar cuts of beef. The most common cuts of pork have 16% less total fat and 27% less saturated fat than 20 years ago. Today’s leaner pork can be enjoyed medium rare. The USDA recently announced that pork could be safely cooked to 145 degree F followed by a three-minute rest time, resulting in juicy and tender pork. As an added plus, pork is relatively inexpensive, very tender and very flavorful.

This is definitely a plan ahead recipe as the brine last three days. Yes, I said 3 days! I did not believe it mattered at first so tried it after one day vs. three days. It was a huge difference in the depth of flavor imbued into the pork. It takes no extra cooking or prep time. One just needs to set it up three days before cooking and serving.

Brining is a powerful tool. It cures meats, as well as change their texture, flavor and juiciness. It also allows you to season meat uniformly. Gone are the days of dry pork! It absorbs flavors well and, because of the nature of the osmotic effect of salt, the meat actually retains more moisture after cooking. I ALWAYS brine pork and chicken….always, always. So spend the extra few minutes to create your brine and you will be amply rewarded with an amazing moist and tasty pork chop.

From a technique standpoint, the one critical thing to remember is that the brine needs to be completely chilled before you add the meat. Therefore, it is a good idea to make your brine the day before you’ll need it. Brine times are important and vary with cut and type of meat – so stick to them – but keep in mind that the brined food does not have to be cooked immediately. Once brined, it can be removed and refrigerated for a day before being cooked. Finally, discard the brine after its use – never reuse it.
  • 4 bone-in 1-inch thick pork rib chops
  • 1½ Tb wild fennel pollen*

For the brine:
  • ½ C salt
  • 1/3 C sugar
  • 2 Tb fennel seed
  • 2 Tb coriander seed
  • 1 tsp crushed red pepper flakes
  • 4 dried bay leaves
  • 1 medium onion diced
  • 2 carrots, peeled and diced
  • 2 ribs celery with their leaves, diced
  • 5 cloves garlic smashed
  • 1½ Qtrs. cold water

To make the brine: In a large pot add all ingredients and stir to combine. Heat to boiling for 2 minutes just to dissolve the sugar and salt. Remove from stove and refrigerate until cool or chill overnight. Then submerge 4 bone-in 1-inch pork rib chops in the brine and refrigerate for 3 days. After 3 days remove the chops from the brine; discarding brine.
Brine ingredients
Pork chops swimming in brine
Preheat your grill or grill pan. Roll the fat edge of each pork chop with the fennel pollen
Role edge of the chop in the fennel pollen
Dusted with fennel pollen
Place pork chops gently on the preheated grill. After 4 minutes rotate the chops 90 degrees to create lovely grill marks. Grill the chops for another 4 minutes and then turn over and repeat the process. If the chops seem to be burning move them to a cooler part of the grill to allow for a longer cooking time without burning. Stand the chops up so the fat edge is in contact with the grill to crisp up the fat edge, this will also make the fennel pollen very aromatic. Remove the chops from the grill and let rest in a warm place 5 minutes before serving. Pork is done at 140-145 degree F.
On the grill
Grilling the edge (not publisher's hands again!!)
Lined up on the grill
This is wonderful on its own or served with polenta, buttered noodles or vegetables. I served it recently with grilled corn on the cob and sautéed fresh lima beans. A California Pinot Noir is the quintessential wine. Other choices would be a fruity Zinfandel, Syrah or Merlot. If white wines are your preference, serve with a California Chardonnay. In any case, please give this a try. Do not be intimidated by the three-day brine, as you will be rewarded with amazing flavor.

Bon Appetit!


* If fennel pollen is not available, toasted ground fennel seeds are an acceptable alternative. But, I use fennel pollen on so many things; it might be worth obtaining some. See:

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Shisito Peppers

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Shisito Peppers
Shisito Peppers
Shisito Peppers are popping up on menus everywhere. In the past, you would only see them on the menu of Japanese restaurants. Now, they’re white hot and I have seen them on dozens of menus in a variety of cuisines. They are without a doubt the easiest things to make. The only hard part is finding them in your local grocer. While Japanese grocers commonly carry them, I have been finding at local Farmers Markets. (In San Diego – look at Chinos, Specialty Produce and local Japanese grocers)

The pepper is small and finger-ling sized, slender, and thin-walled. It turns from green to red upon ripening, however it is usually harvested while green. The name refers to the fact that the tip of the chili pepper (tōgarashi) looks like the head of a lion (shishi), and in Japanese it is often abbreviated as shishitō. It is thin-skinned and will blister and char easily compared with thicker skinned varieties.
The peppers au naturale 
I love serving these as an appetizer. They are delicately sweet and usually mild. About one out of every ten peppers is spicy. You may get one in your batch or may not.  Of course the spiciness can be increased after cooking as well. They are incredibly easy and quick to make. You can alter the ingredients as you wish – these are my favorite additions.
  • 20 Shisito peppers
  • 2 Tb olive oil
  • 1 tsp kosher or sea salt
  • 1 tsp toasted sesame oil
  • 2 tsp soy sauce
  • 2 tsp lemon juice
  • Togarashi (optional- a Japanese mixture of spices which contains chilies) 

Wash and dry 20 or more whole shisito peppers. In a hot skillet, heat to high and add 2 Tb olive oil until almost smoking. Add the shisito peppers and toss in hot oil until blistered, about 4 to 5 minutes. Turn off heat and quickly add 1 tsp toasted sesame oil and 2 tsp soy sauce to pan, (careful - it will vigorously sizzle).  Remove from heat, transfer to bowl and sprinkle with 1 tsp kosher or sea salt, and 2 tsp lemon juice over the charred peppers.  If you wish more spice or heat, sparingly add a sprinkle of Togarashi.  
Note the little blisters on the peppers
Almost done!
Eat immediately. Don't eat the stems or end nearest stem. Consider the stems your handle!

Shisito peppers can also be cooked on the grill.  Heat the grill to medium high (about 375 – 425 degree F).  Meanwhile place your clean and dried peppers in a medium bowl, add 2 Tb olive oil, and toss to coat. Set aside.

When the grill is ready, place the peppers on it in a single layer, making sure they are not touching; reserve the bowl they were in. Grill the peppers uncovered, turning them occasionally, until they start to char and blister, about 6-8 minutes total. Return the peppers to the bowl toss immediately with 1 tsp kosher salt, a dash of sesame oil, 2 tsp soy sauce and lemon juice.

There just may not be a wine pairing here – perhaps a good quality cold sake or beer would work best.  This is a fun – very IN – appetizer right now and so very simple to make.  The occasional hot one just adds drama and perhaps laughs to your cocktail time. Give it a try!  There is a reason for its popularity – it’s fun and tastes great.
With Togarashi, which contains chile peppers