Thursday, September 17, 2009

Go green!

Continuing with my end-of-summer series, I made pesto this week. Now that the weather is turning cooler, it will soon be curtains for the large pots of basil that I tended through the summer...though maybe a small one will live through the winter on the windowsill!

I tend to think of pesto as less of a recipe than a technique. The idea lends itself so well to multiple adaptations - think arugula-hazelnut, or red pepper-walnut, or can swap in pecorino or piave cheese as well. This time, though, I decided to stick to the classic trio of ingredients: basil, pine nuts and parmigiano-reggiano cheese. Add garlic and olive oil, and you're well on your way to making something tasty and versatile that needs only 5 ingredients!

I'd like to say I made this the traditional way, hand-chopping it with a mezzaluna, but alas...I don't own one. It's on my list of hmm-looks-great-but-do-I-really-need-this kitchen gadgets! I did, however, chop up all of the ingredients by hand first, using a knife, before tossing them all into the food processor to finish off the whole thing with a few pulses. This helps preserve the identity of the individual ingredients without blending them all into a featureless mush. And it doesn't take too long either.

Pesto can be used in so many ways - dip hunks of crusty bread in it, or serve over pasta, or mix with some goat cheese for a sandwich spread. Here, I've used it as a dressing for a salad featuring some of my favorite health foods: quinoa, broccoli and green beans. Quinoa is one of the superfoods that everyone is talking about these days. It is one of the few vegetable sources of protein that has all the amino acids, with the goodness of whole grains too. Legend has it that the Spanish invaders in Latin America tried to destroy quinoa fields to rob the Inca warriors of this source of their strength!

The quinoa had bright flavor from the pesto and was accentuated by the crunch of the broccoli, green beans and slivered almonds. A pinch of chili flakes added some heat, and the whole was finished off with some salty, tangy feta. Healthy and delicious!

Basil pesto (makes about 1 cup)
1 large bunch basil, leaves only
1 large handful pine nuts
3-4 cloves of garlic
Small hunk of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, freshly grated
Extra-virgin olive oil, as needed (about 3-4 tablespoons)
Chop the first three ingredients using a sharp knife, then toss into a food processor. Add half the cheese, then process in a few short pulses. Add the rest of the cheese and pulse a few more times. Scrape into a bowl, stir in the oil and check for seasoning. Drizzle some more oil over the top, cover and refrigerate up to a week.

Green quinoa (Serves 2)
3/4 cup quinoa
1 small head broccoli, cut into florets
1 large handful green beans, trimmed and cut into 1" lengths
1 1/2 tbsp pesto
Pinch chilli flakes
2 tbsp slivered almonds
2 tbsp crumbled feta cheese
Rinse the quinoa thoroughly in a fine-mesh sieve and place in a pan with 1 1/2 cups water. Bring to a boil and then turn the heat down, cover and simmer till the water is absorbed, about 15 minutes. Fork the pesto and the chili flakes through the cooked quinoa and leave to cool a bit.
While the quinoa is cooking, blanch the broccoli florets and green beans in boiling salted water for 30 seconds. Drain and refresh with cold water. Shake dry and then add to the quinoa. Toss the salad together and divide on to plates. Serve topped with the feta and slivered almonds.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

One peach, two ways

The peach season is sadly drawing to a close - where did summer go? So I thought I ought to write about my experiment with two peach desserts before we move into fall. The good news, though, is that these would be pretty good with apples or pears too! Now that's a reason, if any, to look forward to the season ahead.
Peaches are my favorite summer fruit. Well no, mangoes are, but sadly, if you grew up eating mangoes in India, the ones you get here in the US pale in comparison. So you might say peaches are my mangoes now! They present a similar sensory experience, plump and perfumed, with the same sensuous mouth feel, and they come with hot weather! I had some beautiful peaches from a trip to the farmers' market - big and juicy, their fuzzy blushing cheeks just begging to be bitten into. After devouring several, I set one aside for this dessert experiment.
Have you ever been out to dinner with people who don't even glance at the dessert menu? Happily, I don't count myself in their ranks. Even on the days I feel I've eaten enough, I always accept the proffered menu in the hope that some of the offerings will change my mind! That said, I do believe in cooking and eating healthy, so that you don't have to feel guilty about those occasional indulgences (a buttery croissant, a macaron or two, panna cotta...). The two fruit desserts I've featured here are, I'm happy to say, just right for those days when you need your sweet fix without feeling like you need an extra 15 minutes on the elliptical the next day. They are quick and easy to put together as well.
The first half of the peach was diced, sweetened with a whisper of honey, and baked under a crisp topping. Unlike many others, this is not loaded with butter, but is packed with heart-healthy ingredients like oats and walnuts. I swapped in orange juice for some of the butter, to keep it crumbly enough. The topping comes together super-quick in a food processor - I've included a picture of the cute mini-processor I used, so handy when you have a small quantity.

For the other half of the peach, I did a cheat's version of pesche ripiene, the Italian dessert of baked peaches stuffed with crushed amaretti cookies. Well, I didn't have any amaretti, but I did have ground almonds and amaretto liqueur, so that was what went into the center of the peach half, topped by the thinnest sliver of butter to keep things moist and flavorsome. Into the oven they both went, and emerged looking like this:

Okay, I must confess, I caved in to my baser instincts and added a scoop of ice cream - but there was that empty spot on the plate, just begging to be filled! All in all, this was a great dessert plate for two to share, you get some variety without the portion being too large or the desserts being sinful. A glass of Muscat (or Prosecco, for a lazy Sunday brunch!) would be good with this, I might venture to add.

Honeyed Peach Crisp (Serves 1 or 2, but can be scaled up)
1/2 of a large peach, diced
1 tsp honey
1 tsp cornflour
1 1/2 tbsp whole wheat pastry flour
1 1/2 tbsp rolled oats
1 1/2 tbsp brown sugar
1 1/2 tbsp coarsely broken walnuts
1 tbsp butter
1 tbsp orange juice
Pinch salt
Preheat oven to 375F(190C).
Toss the peaches with the honey and cornflour and place in a ramekin. Meanwhile, whizz all the other ingredients together in a food processor till crumbly. Crumble the topping on to the peaches, packing it down firmly. Run the tines of a fork on the top lightly a few times, then bake in the preheated oven for about 30 minutes.

Stuffed peaches, my way (Serves 1 or 2, but can be scaled up)
1/2 of a large peach, stone removed (You can blanch the peach before using if you like)
3 tbsp ground almonds
1 tbsp brown sugar
Pinch salt
1 tbsp amaretto
2 tbsp dark rum
Thin sliver of butter
Mix the almonds, sugar, salt and amaretto with a fork till crumbly. Pack this filling into the center of the peach half. Place in a ramekin, pour the rum over, place the sliver of butter on top, and bake alongside the peach crisp for roughly the same length of time.