Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Italian Style Quinoa and Sausage Stuffed Peppers

I've never considered myself particularly trendy, preferring instead to play the chameleon and attempt to blend in in most situations.  However, I will say this:  when it comes to culinary creations, I do like to stay on forefront of emerging eating and cooking trends.  So I was pleasantly surprised when I hopped online today and saw an abundance of recipes featuring quinoa on some of my favorite sites.  I have to admit, I haven't been cooking with quinoa for terribly long, but I enjoy it immensely and have SO many ideas for recipes featuring this amazing little seed!  It's nice to know I'm in good company.

Quinoa has been touted as a "superfood" and the more I work with it, the more I'm inclined to agree.  If you're a quinoa newbie, here are a few things you should know:

1. It looks like a grain, but is actually a seed.

2. It is a complete protein (containing an almost ideal balance of all 9 essential amino acids), is high in fiber, is nutrient rich (calcium, iron, manganese, magnesium, vitamin E and B vitamins) and is gluten free.

3. It's a good idea to soak/rinse it before cooking. Quinoa has a coating called saponin on it's surface that can produce a bitter soapy quality when cooked.  Granted, most of what you'll find at the local grocery store has already been pre-washed and dried, but in my opinion, a little prevention never hurt anyone.

4. There are 3 color varieties: white, red and black.  I've only come across the white variety to date but you can rest assured that as soon as I see either of the others they'll be on the dinner table that very night!

5. Working with quinoa is very similar to cooking rice, and a bit like couscous. There are a couple different methods for cooking it: boiling (like pasta) vs absorption (like rice).  I'm still trying to find my preference.

6.  It's delicious!  The texture is somewhere between that of barley and couscous...light and fluffy yet with a toothsome bite and slight crunch.  The flavor has the earthy nuttiness of wild rice but, more reserved, not as aggressive.

7. It's versatile!  Breakfast, lunch or dinner , hot or cold, side dish or main course - quinoa can seamlessly integrate into almost any meal!

Friday, March 18, 2011

Smoky Southwest Turkey Meatballs

Sometimes necessity really does breed invention.  Such was the case with these meatballs.  It started with a package of ground turkey a few days shy of its expiration date.  I needed to get this turkey out of the fridge and fast so the brainstorm began.  Turkey burgers?  Not tonight and besides, they are so much better when grilled outside on a perfect 70 degree evening, 2 puppies playing at our feet, and with my grill master away for the night, this was not that perfect 70 degree evening. A Greek twist?  Maybe another night.  Spaghetti and...?  Nope...not in the mood to make sauce.  Our old standby with soy sauce and lime (recipe will be forthcoming)? Nah...I needed something different.

Have you ever had one of those moments where, blinded by hunger, nothing sounds good?  I know it barely makes sense but it's precisely how I ended up staring into our pantry, bemused and befuddled by the litany of spices looking back at me and desperately seeking inspiration.  Nearly an hour later, after sorting through and reorganizing said spices I emerged with a brand new bottle of smoked paprika, some ancho chile powder and an idea for a smoky southwest inspired meatball.  So I was off to Fairway for some fresh produce and to spend an exorbitant amount of time perusing the cheese case.

The last time I got pulled into the vortex of a fresh cheese case, I discovered baked ricotta with chocolate chips.  I'm finding it hard to put into words just how delightful this cheese is, not because there isn't enough to say about it, but because words simply can't do it justice.  The texture is velvety and smooth like traditional ricotta, only firmer, yet not quite as firm as ricotta salata.  Slightly sweet, it dances over your tongue as it warms in your mouth and the chocolate chips begin to melt, perfuming the cheese with an almost tart butteriness. It's almost as if someone solidified the filling to the most perfect cannoli - I'm sorry, cannoli shells, but your crunchy services are no longer needed.  Anyway, where was I?  Oh yes, on my way to Fairway, my intentions to gather a few quick items for my meatball experiment and then get lost in cheese (not too difficult for me, as I'm sure you've gathered).  What happened when I got there gave me pause.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Prosciutto Wrapped Asparagus

I told you all about my Valentine's dinner for Doug and the mayhem that ensued, but never mentioned what he did for me. Actual Valentine's Day started off with a kidnapping of sorts.  The instructions were simple:  pack a bathing suit, wear sneakers.  That's all I knew.  We hopped in the car and headed east towards Manhattan.  I had recently mentioned the free public pool at the Grace Hotel to Doug and we'd both expressed an interest in visiting sometime, so I was convinced that's where we were headed.  No need for a tropical weekend getaway, an indoor pool with a swim-up bar right in the heart of the city could be just as much fun!

When we crossed over the George Washington Bridge and continued onto I95 North, past Manhattan, I was confused.  When we crossed the Whitestone Bridge I was utterly dumbfounded.  I knew we had to make it back home, shower and change with enough time to make an 8pm dinner reservation (at an undisclosed destination); surely, we couldn't be going much further.  I was right, because shortly thereafter we exited the expressway and turned into a residential neighborhood in Queens.  At this point, I was positively bewildered!  We pulled up to what appeared to be a large hotel, complete with valet parking.  The facade read: Spa Castle.   A modern day castle (of sorts) resplendent with a multitude of spa offerings...ingenious!  I'd never heard of such a place and so my bewilderment continued during check in when we got our "watches" that ended up being waterproof locker keys (brilliant!), through the locker rooms when I changed into my Spa Castle uniform for the day (orange shorts and a pink t-shirt? Stacy London would not approve!) and up the huge spiral staircase that delivered me into a cafeteria where I met up with Doug (after we were relegated to his and hers locker rooms upon entry).

We spent our afternoon sweating in the saunas, cooling off with a cocktail (or 2) and lounging in the heated rooftop pools overlooking the city.  It was wonderful and a great way to spend a romantic, relaxing afternoon together.  Upon leaving Spa Castle, we realized that our departure was ill-timed (can you blame us for being hesitant to leave?!) and we were faced with NY traffic at rush hour.  There was no way we were making it home to NJ to shower and change and then heading back "in this general direction" (the only clue I got about our dinner whereabouts) by 8pm.  So Doug called the restaurant and asked if they could accommodate us earlier.  They happily obliged and we went straight to dinner.  He took me to a fantastic little Italian place on Arthur Avenue.   For starters, we split a couple appetizers, one of which was called Asparagus Fiorucci.  It was delicious and I immediately knew I needed to attempt to recreate it at home sometime.  Below is my interpretation of this lovely dish.   The slight crunch of the earthy asparagus blends so perfectly with the creamy cheese, the floral citrus flavor of the lemon zest and the salty prosciutto; it truly is a simple yet elegant appetizer.