Monday, March 23, 2015

Spice Merchant Cauliflower Couscous with Shrimp and Snow Peas

Okay cauliflower, let's talk about you and your fancy facades. First, you masqueraded as a large, beefy steak.  Now you’re tiny and mighty, disguised furtively as couscous!? Proving once again that our cruciferous friend is indeed the most chameleonic vegetable out there, I hereby present to you this recipe for Spice Merchant Cauliflower Couscous with Shrimp and Snow Peas.
The concept of cauliflower couscous is plenty enchanting on its own. Ten seconds of food processor pulsing creates uniform kernels, which are then pan-sautéed for a mere 7 minutes to produce a soft, fluffy grain that’s indistinguishable from real couscous—except that it’s one-tenth the calories. But the remarkable couscous is just the first of many surprising standouts in this dish. Next we have the Middle Eastern spices, featuring newcomer za’atar; on top of that, adorning jewels of sultanas and cashews. Maybe it's because I just saw Aladdin on Broadway, but the phrase "spice merchant" is running wild through my imagination... I totally picture these spices, dried fruits, and nuts at Aladdin's marketplace—bartered but more likely stolen, of course—for this dish, worthy of the Sultan of Agrabah! The spices feel almost luxurious, so distinctly Middle Eastern that you immediately feel transported (to a whole new world? Ok I'll stop), but really, the departure from everyday spice is really special.
If you are not familiar with za’atar, here's the scoop. A za'atar spice blend features thyme, sesame seeds, sea salt, and sumac (the least known but most integral part.) Sumac is biting and tart, lending piquancy to this herby delicious melody of flavors.  Because I had all of these spices on hand, I made the za'atar myself following this recipe from 101 Cookbooks, although it's readily available at any specialty food store (and from what I've been told, some Whole Foods as well.) 
This dish was designed as a side,  so I added in shrimp and snow peas for some protein and gusto to transform it into a dinnertime main. The cauliflower couscous so closely also resembles rice, upon completion the dish looked deceivingly Asian—shrimp fried rice! But of course, the flavors were anything but: here, tart, tangy sumac and lemon zest & juice are equipoised by grassy olive oil and earthy cauliflower, sweet yellow raisins and crunchy cashews offer bites of new flavor, and juicy shrimp and snow peas contribute their substantive punch.  Yes, it's a hodge-podge of tang and taste—but one that works brilliantly at the finish line.
Spice Merchant Cauliflower Couscous with Shrimp and Snow Peas (adapted from QueenSashy. In addition to adding shrimp and snow peas, i greatly reduced the amount of olive oil and doubled the serving of za'atar.)
Serves 4

1 large cauliflower (about 1 ½ pound of cauliflower florets)
5 ounces raw cashews
3 ounces sultanas (gold raisins)
1 ½  tablespoons olive oil
4 tablespoons lemon juice
2 tablespoons minced parsley
1 teaspoon za’atar
½ teaspoon cumin
1 garlic clove, crushed
¼ teaspoon finely shredded lemon zest
Salt and freshly ground pepper
1 lb shrimp, cleaned and deveined
6 ounces snow peas

1. Place the sultanas in a bowl and pour warm water over them. Leave for about 15 minutes, until sultanas are plump. Drain and discard the water.
2. Heat a cast iron skillet over medium heat. Reduce the heat to medium low, add the cashews and toast them for about 8 minutes, until lightly golden. Stir frequently to make sure that cashews do not burn. Let the cashews cool, then chop into small pieces.
3. Break the cauliflower into florets, making sure to leave behind as much of the stem as possible. Chop the florets into smaller pieces. Transfer the cauliflower into food processor in batches, and pulse until the pieces are finely chopped and resemble couscous. Be careful not to over-process.
4. In a large sauté pan, heat 1 tablespoon of olive oil over medium heat. Add the cauliflower couscous to the pan and cook for about 7 minutes, stirring frequently.
5. Remove the couscous from the heat and let it cool. In the same pan, flash-sauté the snow peas until just soft, 2-3 minutes.
6. To the couscous, add the snow peas, sultanas, cashews, za’atar, cumin, parsley, garlic, lemon zest, lemon juice, and the remaining two teaspoons of olive oil. Season with plenty of salt and pepper.
7. Leave the couscous for about 15 minutes for the flavors to combine. While the couscous is sitting, cook shrimp in the pan (1-2 minutes on each side; more if frozen).  Add to couscous.

8. Serve at room temperature.

Za'atar Spice Blend Recipe (from 101 Cookbooks)
Makes about ¼ cup

4 tablespoons fresh thyme leaves, stripped from stems
2 teaspoons ground sumac
scant ½ teaspoon fine sea salt, or to taste

1 tablespoon toasted sesame seeds

1. Place thyme leaves on a baking sheet in a 300F oven until dry, just ten minutes or so—long enough that they'll crumble between pinched fingers. Let cool.
2. Use a mortar and pestle (or back of a spoon) to grind the thyme leave finely. If your thyme is at all stem-y or fibrous, sift to remove any larger particles. Transfer to a small bowl, and aside.
3. Crush the sumac finely with the mortar and pestle/spoon, add the salt and crush with the sumac. Add the thyme back, and grind together a bit. Stir in the sesame seeds, taste, and adjust to your liking, perhaps with a bit more salt, or sumac, or sesame seeds. Any za'atar you might not use in the coming days keeps best refrigerated (or in the freezer) if you make a double or triple batch.

Monday, March 9, 2015

Warm Tahini Squash & Chickpea Salad

As the sister of a lifelong vegetarian, I am constantly surprised (and often appalled) at the lack of viable meal options for vegetarians when dining out.  Even in New York City, where cooking vegetables creatively is considered ubiquitously trendy, restaurant competition is cutthroat, and food industry transparency is at an all time high, do I still—more often than not—see a plate of vegetables, or a pasta dish with sauce and vegetables, as the only option for plant-based eaters. No, it's not a lack of vegetables that's problematic—fresh, local produce is definitely abundant and in demand— but rather a lack of protein served with them. Just like carnivorous menus focus primarily on a meat or fish and consider vegetarian sides as appurtenances, so too a formula should vegetarian main dishes follow: protein first (beans, lentils, tofu, quinoa); vegetables second.

While I am not a vegetarian, I often choose to eat meatless: mostly because I really like vegetables and vegetarian proteins, but also because they are cheap and convenient.  I've often heard the argument that people dislike eating vegetarian because it doesn't quite fill them up (see paragraph above—a plate of vegetables isn't going to fill me up either!) and they end up feeling dissatisfied.  Well, I have a dish that is going to change that mindset for good: enter Warm Tahini Squash & Chickpea Salad. 

Where to even start? There are so many great things going on this dish. Nutrient-filled (whilst stomach-filling) seasonal winter squash, protein & fiber-packed chickpeas, and heart-healthy fat tahini (rich in protein, iron, zinc, and Vitamin B; essential nutrients to a vegetarian diet) come together to deliver a dish that feels so substantive and hearty you're bound to feel like you're overindulging.  "This is a salad that eats more like a gratin, without the cheese hangover!" one eater observed. Overindulging, I promise you're not—it's as healthful as can be.

That the salad is served warm may seem trifling, but the heat, enveloping and luxurious, is actually one of the highlights of the dish. I generally refrain from eating salads for dinner because I prefer a hot nighttime meal, so this recipe is a welcomed exception to that rule.  Between the burly roasted squash, thick tahini-lemon dressing, and chewy chickpeas, the dish's consistencies are so robust and beefy that it's hard to remember you're eating not only a vegetarian meal, but a vegan one at that.  Feeding a crowd? (Yup, this dish is dinner-party worthy!) Spoon the salad over a bed of arugula or serve with a side green salad, alongside warm toasted pita bread.

Warm Tahini Squash & Chickpea Salad (from Casa Moro via Food52)
Serves 4

·      2 pounds pumpkin, butternut, or other winter squash, peeled, seeded, and cut into 1-inch cubes
·      1 garlic clove, crushed
·      ½ teaspoon ground allspice
·      2 tablespoons olive oil
·      Sea salt and black pepper
·      14 ounces canned or home-cooked chickpeas, drained
·      ½ small red onion, finely chopped (soaked in cold water for 15 minutes if you want to soften the bite)
·      4 tablespoons roughly chopped fresh cilantro
·      1 garlic clove, crushed to a paste with a pinch of salt
·      3 ½ tablespoons lemon juice
·      3 tablespoons tahini paste
·      2 tablespoons water, to taste
·      2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

1.     Heat the oven to 425°F.
2.     Toss the squash with the garlic, allspice, olive oil, and some salt and pepper.
3.     Place on a tray, optionally lined with parchment, in the oven for 20 to 25 minutes, or until soft. Remove and allow to cool slightly.
4.     While the squash is cooking, make the tahini sauce. Mix the crushed garlic with lemon juice and add the tahini. Now thin with the water and olive oil, and check for seasoning. You should taste a balance between the nutty tahini and lemon.

5.     To assemble the salad, place the squash, chickpeas, red onion, and cilantro in a mixing bowl. Pour on the tahini sauce and remaining oil and toss carefully. Season with salt and pepper.