Easy Rice Pilaf

 Homemade Rice Pilaf – Quick, Easy, and Delicious:

Homemade Rice Pilaf - easy and delicious

When I was young, one of my favorite side dishes was rice pilaf. It came in a slim box with a portion of rice and a sachet of spices, dehydrated chicken stock, and goodness knows what else – all set to prepare with water on the stovetop. The results were salty, addictive, and fragrant. My brothers and I would fight over who got to finish the bowl on the dinner table. One box was never enough.

These days, I make pilaf from scratch – and you probably do, too, without realizing it. The principle behind pilaf is that rice, or another grain such as bulgur or farro, is sautéed to lightly toast the grains, and then steamed in a flavorful broth, along with spices and a few aromatics such as onion and garlic. When ready to serve, the rice is fluffed to separate the grains and prevent stickiness, and handfuls of fresh herbs, chopped almonds, or chilies are added for extra flavor, texture, and color. You can choose to keep the rice simple or add the garnishes selectively to your taste. I tend to pile them on, because they add sensational flavor and freshness, while nudging an unassuming side into a stand-alone dish. So, before your reach for a box of pilaf in the supermarket with a long list of multi-syllabic ingredinets, remember that it’s really quite easy – and much cheaper – to make your own from scratch.

Homemade Rice Pilaf

Active Time: 10 minutes
Total Time: 45 minutes
Serves 6 as a side dish

2 3/4 cups chicken stock (or vegetable stock for vegetarian option)
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon sweet paprika
Generous pinch of saffron threads
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 cup orzo
1 small yellow onion, finely chopped, about 1/2 cup
1 garlic clove, minced
1 1/4 cup basmati rice

Optional garnishes:
1 scallion, white and green part thinly sliced
1 small red jalapeño, finely chopped
2 to 3 tablespoons coarsely chopped almonds
2 to 3 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro or parsley

1. Combine the stock, 2 tablespoons butter, the salt, paprika, and saffron in a medium saucepan. Bring to a simmer and keep warm.
2. Heat the oil and melt the remaining 1 tablespoon butter in a deep skillet (with a lid) over medium heat. Add the orzo and sauté until light golden, about 2 minutes. Add the onion and sauté for about 1 minute, and then add the garlic and sauté until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add the rice and continue to cook, stirring constantly to coat and lightly toast the rice, for about 2 minutes.
3. Pour in the stock and bring to a simmer. Reduce the heat to low and cover the pot. Cook, undisturbed, until the rice is tender and the liquid is absorbed, 20 to 25 minutes. Remove the lid and fluff the rice with a fork. Let stand for 5 to 10 minutes
4. Serve with the garnishes sprinkled over the top.

Summer Pizza with Squash Blossoms and Sweet Peppers

Decorate your summer pizza with flowers – squash flowers, that is:

Grilled Pizza with Squash Blossoms

Squash blossoms might make this pizza sound pretty fancy, but it really isn’t. Delicate squash blossoms are everywhere at the farmers market at this time of year. I’ve been eyeing them, and contemplating ways to easily incorporate the floppy, sunny flowers into a meal. I’ve eaten blossoms fried and stuffed, but to be honest, I find them time consuming to prepare and often oily and rich. So I decided to simply layer them, with no other preparation, on a white pizza – or a pizza with no red sauce – and see what happened. The results were resoundingly good and a unanimous hit at the dinner table. The flowers shriveled and crisped while cooking, which concentrated their subtle and nutty flavor, which was nicely rounded out by sweet Jimmy Nardello peppers, onions, and a kick of heat from crushed red chili flakes. These fragile squash blossoms may be delicate, but it’s clear that they are no shrinking wall-flower.

For this recipe, you can make your own dough or purchase a good quality fresh dough from your supermarket, which is a simple shortcut for an easy meal. This recipe stretches one pound of fresh dough into a large rectangle, but you can also shape it into 2 smaller pizzas.

Squash Blossom Pizza with Sweet Peppers, Onions and Pecorino

Active Time: 15 minutes
Total Time: 30 minutes
Makes one (10 x 15-inch) pizza

3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 garlic clove, minced
Salt
1 pound homemade or prepared fresh pizza dough
1 cup finely grated Pecorino Romano cheese
1 small yellow onion, thinly sliced, about 1/2 cup
1/2 cup thinly sliced sweet red peppers, such as Jimmy Nardello peppers
8 squash blossoms, quartered lengthwise
1 (8 ounce) fresh mozzarella ball, patted dry and thinly sliced
1 tablespoon chopped fresh oregano
1/4 teaspoon crushed red chili flakes
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1. Preheat the grill for indirect cooking over high heat (about 500°F for a gas grill) and preheat a pizza stone for at least 15 minutes. (Or preheat the oven to 500°F. Place a pizza stone on the lowest oven rack and preheat for at least 15 minutes).
2. Whisk the oil, garlic, and a pinch of salt in a small bowl.
3. Stretch the dough out as thinly as possible and lay on large pizza peel (or rimless baking sheet lined with parchment). Lightly brush with the oil. Sprinkle half of the Pecorino over the pizza. Top with the onions and peppers. Arrange the squash blossoms over the vegetables, and then place the mozzarella around the squash. Sprinkle the oregano, chili flakes and pepper over the pizza and lightly season with salt. Top with the remaining Pecorino.
4. Slide the pizza onto the pizza stone. Close the grill lid and grill until the pizza is golden brown, about 15 minutes. Remove and brush the crust with some of the oil. Drizzle any remaining oil over the pizza. Cut into serving pieces and serve immediately.

Alaska Memories and a recipe for Shrimp, Kale and Pearl Couscous

Alaska Memories and a recipe for Shrimp, Kale and Pearl Couscous

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It would have been simpler to meditate. Instead, I traveled to Alaska. More specifically, I traveled 3,000 miles on three planes of diminishing size, and one water taxi to Tutka Bay Lodge. Tutka Bay sits at the mouth of a rugged seven-mile fjord stretching into the glacier capped Kenai mountains, 125 air miles south of Anchorage. It’s not accessible by road, only by sea plane or a water taxi which multitasks as a mail and food delivery service, garbage collection, and all-purpose passenger shuttle to and from Homer, the closest town accessible by road. If you want to get away from it all, this is for you. It’s well worth the trip.

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Before you pack your compass, first aid kit, and water purification tablets, let’s be perfectly clear. This is not roughing it. This is not even glamping. This is wilderness isolation in extreme comfort. You will find yourself in a lodge, tucked into plush beds in cozy private cabins, waited upon 24/7 by an attentive staff, and dining in a first class restaurant. Sure, you are in the remote wilderness on a spit of land flanked by a rugged fjord and craggy mountains dotted with old growth Sitka spruce. Yes, that’s an ancient volcano looming in the distance, waiting ever so patiently for another opportunity to express itself. Indeed, you will be sharing your outdoor space with resident bald eagles, floating otters, and possibly an orca or two. You will also be pampered, fed and catered to in a lodge staffed with servers doubling as mountain guides, valets doubling as naturalists, and professional chefs doubling as culinary instructors in a teaching kitchen converted from a re-purposed two-story crabbing boat.

Widgeon Lynda Balslev

Tutka Cooking Class Lynda Balslev

Halibut

The point is that there is something for everyone at Tutka, with the most notable activity being nothing. Because, while your every whim will be addressed and serviced, your tummy fed, your fitness itch scratched, your need for nature connected, you will find yourself in the most spectacular vignette of nowhere, amidst staggering scenery and blissful solitude. Activities are plentiful, and peace is everywhere, which yields the treasure of perspective and balance. So, whether you crave a weekend or a week to find your center, this is the the place to be. Just leave yourself a day to get there.

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Tutka kayaks Lynda Balslev
Needless to say, the seafood is glorious in this part of the world. The following recipe is inspired by a meal I enjoyed at Tutka Bay Lodge.

Shrimp Kale and Pearl Cousous
Serves 4 to 6Alaska Shrimp Tutka

Ingredients:
Extra-virgin olive oil
2 cups pearl (Israeli) cousous
2 cups plus 1/4 cup chicken stock
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest plus extra for garnish
1/2 teaspoon sweet paprika
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
Salt
Freshly ground black pepper
1 pound large (18/20) shrimp, peeled and deveined, tails intact
1/2 teaspoon red chile flakes
1 bunch purple or curly green kale, tough ribs removed, torn into 2-inch pieces
1 garlic clove, minced
1/4 cup fresh thyme leaves, chopped fresh oregano leaves and chives

Method:
1. Heat 1 tablespoon oil in a wide skillet over medium heat. Add the couscous, stir to coat, and cook until the couscous is toasted light golden, about 2 minutes, stirring frequently. Carefully add the 2 cups stock (it will sizzle). Reduce the heat to low, cover the skillet and simmer until all of the liquid is absorbed and the couscous is tender. Remove from the heat and stir in the lemon juice and zest, the paprika, cumin, 1 teaspoon salt, and 1/2 teaspoon black pepper. Keep warm.

2. Heat 1 tablespoon oil in a clean skillet (preferably cast iron) over medium heat. Season the shrimp with salt and pepper. Add the shrimp in one layer to the skillet. Cook until bright pink and lightly seared on both sides and cooked through, 3 to 4 minutes, turning once. Transfer with a slotted spoon to a plate.

3. In the same skillet, heat 1 tablespoon oil and the red chili flakes over medium heat. Add the kale and garlic and sauté until the kale leaves begin to wilt, 1 to 2 minutes. Add the 1/4 cup stock and continue to sauté until the liquid evaporates, about 1 minute. Remove from the heat and season with salt.

4. To serve, divide the couscous between serving plates or shallow bowls. Top with the kale. Arrange the shrimp over the kale. Garnish with the fresh herbs and additional lemon zest.

Homer View Lynda Balslev

 

Quinoa Bowl with Tomato, Corn, and Avocado

Summer Salad Tomato Corn Avocado

When it’s too hot to cook, try serving a big summery salad for your main meal. Not just a simple garden salad, but a satisfying bowl layered with crisp veggies, grains or legumes, and fresh herbs. The combination is fresh, filling, and light – guaranteed to hit the spot on a warm day. This salad bowl includes the classic summer veggie trio of sweet corn, tomato, and avocado – tumbled together with protein-rich quinoa and mounded over a bed of kale. No need to cook the corn – summer corn is juicy and naturally sweet, and it’s crispness adds great texture to the quinoa. As always, you can tweak the ingredients to your taste. Feel free to substitute another grain for the quinoa, such as wild rice or bulgur. As for the kale, a quick rub of the hardy leaves with oil and salt helps to soften them and coax out their flavor. Alternatively, choose another more tender green, such as arugula or spinach, and skip the rubbing step.

Tomato, Corn, and Quinoa Bowl with Kale and Avocado

Prep time: 15 minutes
Total time: 15 minutes
Serves 4

Dressing:
2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
1 small garlic clove
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1 teaspoon honey
1/4 teaspoon salt, or to taste
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Dash of hot sauce, such as Tabasco
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil 

Salad:
1 small bunch Tuscan/Lacinato kale, ribs removed, torn into bite-size pieces
Extra-virgin olive oil
Salt
3 scallions, white and green parts thinly sliced
2 ears of corn, uncooked, husked, kernels cut from the cobs
1 red bell pepper, seeded and diced
1 poblano pepper, seeded and diced
1 cup cherry or grape tomatoes, halved
1/2 cup tricolor or red quinoa, cooked and cooled
1 small handful Italian parsley leaves, chopped, about 1/2 cup
1 small handful cilantro leaves, chopped, about 1/2 cup
1 ripe but firm avocado, cut into 1/2 inch pieces

1. Whisk the lime juice, vinegar, garlic, mustard, honey, salt, black pepper, and Tabasco in a small bowl. Add the oil in a steady stream, whisking constantly to emulsify.
2. Place the kale in a large bowl. Drizzle 1 to 2 teaspoons oil over the leaves and season with a generous pinch of salt. Rub the leaves until thoroughly coated (this will help to soften them).
3. Combine the scallions, corn, peppers, tomatoes, quinoa, parsley, and cilantro in a separate bowl. Pour about 1/4 cup of the dressing over the salad and gently stir to combine. Mound the salad over the kale. (Or divide between individual serving bowls.) Top with the avocado and drizzle with additional dressing to taste.

Lamb Merguez Patties and Couscous Salad

Lamb Kefta Patties
Feeling spicy? When I crave a good dose of spice and heat I head to Asia, the Middle East or North Africa (well, in my dreams). In reality, I head to my kitchen, where I fling open the spice cabinet and get cooking. I made these merguez patties recently when I was craving the heat and fragrance of North Africa: harissa, garlic, coriander, and mint. These feisty patties hit the spot – well, an airline ticket would have really hit the spot, but, hey, this was a pretty good stand in for a week night.

What really tipped these patties for me was the use of whole spices that I toasted and ground in my mortar. If you haven’t tried doing this, then you are missing a big component in the flavor department. It’s not as complicated as it sounds, and the results are well worth it. Whole spices are readily found in the spice section of your supermarket, gourmet and spice shops – even online. When you are ready to use the spices, toast the seeds in a dry skillet over medium heat until fragrant, about 1 minute. Then transfer to a spice grinder or a mortar, and blitz or pound the spices until fine. The flavor is light years better than pre-ground spice.

Lamb Merguez Patties and Couscous Salad

Prep Time: 30 minutes
Total Time: 2 hours and 15 minutes
Makes 18 to 20 (2-inch) patties

Couscous Salad:
1 1/2 cups couscous
1 1/4 cup water
1/4 cup fresh lemon juice
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 small red bell pepper, finely diced
1 small poblano or green pepper, finely diced
1/2 small red onion, finely chopped
1/4 cup chopped fresh mint leaves
1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro leaves
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1/4 teaspoon cayenne
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Lamb Merguez Patties:
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
1 teaspoon coriander seeds
1/2 teaspoon fennel seeds
2 pounds ground lamb
3 garlic cloves, minced
2 tablespoons harissa paste
2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon sweet paprika
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1. Prepare the couscous: Place the couscous, water, lemon juice and olive oil in a large bowl. Bring to a simmer, cover the pot, and remove from the heat. Let stand until liquid is absorbed and couscous is tender, 15 to 20 minutes. Fluff with a fork, add the remaining ingredients, and stir to combine.
2. Prepare the patties: Toast the cumin, coriander and fennel seeds in a dry skillet over medium heat until fragrant, about 1 minute. Grind to a fine powder in a mortar with pestle or a spice grinder.
3. Transfer the remaining patty ingredients to a large bowl. Add the toasted spices and mix until combined without overworking the meat. Form into 2-inch patties. Cover and refrigerate for at least 1 hour or overnight.
4. Remove the patties from the refrigerator and let stand 10 minutes. Grill over direct high heat or pan-in fry in 1 tablespoon olive oil over medium-high heat until brown and cooked through, 8 to 10 minutes, turning once.  Serve with couscous salad, pita bread, Greek yogurt, and a squirt of harissa if you’re feeling extra spicy.

30 Minute Dinners: Asparagus Carbonara

Easy Carbonara Pasta with Asparagus
Just do it – in a skillet: Pasta Carbonara with Asparagus.

My favorite cooking vessel is my cast iron skillet: it’s one stop shopping in the kitchen equipment department. Not only is a cast iron skillet handy on the stovetop, you can use it in the oven and even on the grill. Last night I used my skillet to make this simple carbonara pasta dish.

Carbonara is the Italian version of chicken soup – a comforting dish for all ages – which consists of pasta and cured pork (guanciale) or bacon, whisked in a slick sauce of eggs and gads of grated Pecorino cheese. The method is quick. It relies on the heat from the freshly cooked pasta to sufficiently cook the eggs and melt the cheese, while the sauce is vigorously stirred to prevent the eggs from scrambling. From start to finish, this dish can be whipped up in less than 30 minutes.

I often mix in vegetables to my carbonara, which add extra oomph to the dish and allows me to call it a one-dish family meal, replete with the nutrients from the veggies. Peas are a year-round contender, since frozen peas can easily be added to the mix. In the springtime, though, I like to add fresh asparagus.

Asparagus Carbonara

Active Time: 25 minutes
Total Time: 25 minutes
Serves 4

8 ounces thick-cut bacon, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
2 large eggs, room temperature
1 cup finely grated Pecorino Romano cheese, plus more for sprinkling
1 pound orecchiette
3/4 pound thin asparagus, cut into 1-inch pieces
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 teaspoon salt (optional)
1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes, or to taste
Freshly ground black pepper

1. Cook the bacon in batches in a large skillet over medium heat until the fat renders and the bacon is crispy. Transfer the bacon to a plate lined with a paper towel. When cool enough to handle, break into small pieces. Pour off all but 2 tablespoons fat from the skillet.
2. Whisk the eggs and cheese in a bowl until blended and set aside.
3. Bring a large pot of salted water to a rolling boil. Add the orecchiette and cook according to the package instructions until al dente; drain.
4. While the pasta is cooking, add the asparagus, garlic, salt, and red pepper flakes to the skillet. Sauté over medium heat until the asparagus are bright and crisp-tender, 2 to 3 minutes.
5. Add the drained pasta to the skillet and stir to combine. Remove the pan from the heat and quickly add the eggs and cheese, stirring constantly to coat the pasta and to prevent the eggs from cooking. Add the bacon to the skillet and stir once more. Serve immediately and garnish with additional grated cheese and freshly ground black pepper.

Spring Rolls Deconstructed – Shrimp and Rice Noodle Salad

Shrimp and Rice Noodle Salad with Spicy Peanut DressingShrimp and Rice Noodle Salad with Spicy Peanut Dressing

If you like spring rolls, then you will love this salad. All of the goodness stuffed into a rice paper wrapped Thai or Vietnamese roll – rice noodles, shrimp, crisp veggies, fresh herbs, and chiles – is jumbled together in a big bowl of salad. The result? You might be tempted to call it a deconstructed spring roll, with all of the great flavor minus the labor of actually making a roll. Once all of the ingredients are prepped, it’s quick to assemble for a light and healthy dinner. The dressing is the magic touch that pulls this colorful dish together. It has all of the ingredients you’ll find in an Asian dipping sauce and then some: ginger, garlic, Sriracha, lime, and peanut butter. The trick is to blitz all of the dressing ingredients in a food processor (including the lime sections!) to form a thick and potent sauce. In fact, you might want to make extra dressing to keep on hand – it makes a great dipping sauce for cruditées or tossed with cooked Asian noodles.

Shrimp and Rice Noodle Salad with Spicy Peanut Dressing

Active Time: 20 minutes
Total Time: 20 minutes
Serves 4

Dressing:
1/2 cup canola oil
1 lime, peel and pith removed, quartered
2 garlic cloves
2 tablespoons coarsely grated peeled ginger with juices
2 tablespoons creamy peanut butter
2 tablespoons soy sauce
1 tablespoon Sriracha
2 teaspoons runny honey

Salad:
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1 pound large (18/20) shrimp, peeled and deveined
1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
Salt
4 ounces rice noodles, cooked per manufacturer’s instructions, room temperature
3 scallions, ends trimmed, white and green parts sliced on the diagonal
1 large carrot, cut in matchsticks
1/2 English cucumber, seeded, cut in matchsticks
2 cups coarsely chopped Napa cabbage
1 cup bean sprouts
1 cup sugar snap peas, thinly sliced lengthwise
1 red jalapeño pepper, stemmed and seeded, finely chopped
1/2 cup fresh mint leaves, coarsely chopped, plus extra for garnish
1/2 cup fresh coriander sprigs, coarsely chopped, plus extra for garnish
1/4 cup chopped roasted peanuts for garnish

1. Place all of the dressing ingredients in the bowl of a food processor and process until smooth. Transfer to a bowl.
2. Heat the oil in a skillet over medium-high heat. Add the shrimp in one layer, sprinkle with the red pepper flakes, and lightly season with salt. Cook until the shrimp are pink on both sides and just cooked through, 3 to 4 minutes, turning as needed. Transfer to a plate.
3. Place the rice noodles, scallions, carrot, cucumber, cabbage, bean sprouts, snap peas, jalapeño, mint, and cilantro in a large bowl. Add the shrimp and half of the dressing and toss to combine.
4. Divide the salad among plates. Scatter the peanuts over the salads and garnish with additional mint and cilantro. Serve with the remaining sauce on the side.