Saturday, May 24, 2014

Farro and Palm Hearts Salad

Whenever I happen to be in McLean's Tysons Galleria at midday I am always amazed by a long line of people waiting to get their lunch at Sweet Leaf--a vegetarian place where you can get a salad of your own design--and not only that. There are many young women in that crowd watching their diet but, what surprises me even more, there are equally as many business-dressed men waiting to buy their salad lunch as well.

It makes me think that we are becoming more and more vegetarian, watching our diet and calories intake. I also have noticed a similar trend when I am having friends over. Salads often win against meat dishes. This salad was just another culinary experiment and I made it with farro, which I have not been using too often so far.

Farro is an ancient nutritious grain, which thanks to its values became quite popular recently and by now is quite easily available. You can get 10 minutes farro from TJ but I prefer the one from Whole Foods which take a little longer to cook but has more texture. I combined it with palm hearts, which are very rich in iron, and spiced up with watercress leaves and red oranges. This salad has a differentiated texture and a delicate taste but at the same time it is very nutritious: a perfect lunch meal for Sweet Leaf aficionados.

Farro and Palm Hearts Salad

1 cup farro,
1 can palm hearts cut into half-inch slices,
4 oz watercress salad,
2 oranges, preferably bloody,
1/3 cup toasted hazelnuts, roughly chopped,
1/2 red onion, finely chopped,
juice from one large lemon,
4 tbsp olive oil,
salt and pepper to taste.

1. Cook farro according to instruction (10-15 minutes), drain and cool.
2. In a large bowl, put together farro, palm hearts, chopped onion, and hazelnuts.
3. Cut out the skin from the oranges and using a small sharp knife get out the flesh without white membranes. Add orange pieces to the bowl with farro and mix.
4. Finally, add to the salad water cress leaves and gently incorporate to it.

5. In a small bowl, mix oil with lemon juice. Season with salt and pepper and drizzle over the salad. Mix gently again and serve.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Saffron Risotto with a Twist

Risotto seems to be a pretty well known dish but I was surprised to hear that some of my friends who are good cooks never made it, or one even expected risotto to be cooked from orzo pasta. After my trip to Italy when I was raving about food I had, a friend asked me for a good risotto recipe. So here it comes.

Risotto, because it is so simple, like many simple dishes has its secrets which make it special. Sometime the secret lies in the recipe and sometimes in the quality of the ingredients. I admit that since my host in Rome showed me each step of the process, also my risotto has improved a lot.

In this case, the most important secret is to have a good, preferably home made stock, which is added during the whole process. I make mine from scratch or use an organic free range chicken stock, which is a good substitute. Also, butter used to fry should be only melted, not fried and the onion or shallot and all other ingredients should be chopped finely or grated, so they are detectable in taste rather than in texture. Bigger pieces are added usually at the end for finishing. A real good quality Italian Parmesan also makes difference.

Most often I cook saffron risotto, since it has become my kids favorite. Saffron adds not only a beautiful color but also the aroma. Moreover, saffron risotto is often just a base and different ingredients are added to it, beside saffron.

During my recent trip to Italy I visited one of the famous restaurants in Florence: Caffè Giubbe Rosse. I had saffron risotto with zucchini, finished with scamorza affumicata (smoked cheese a bit similar to mozzarella), which was melted on top and gave an extra smokey taste to the delicate risotto. So today I share this recipe.

Saffron Risotto with Scamorza
(Serves four)

1 and 1/3 cup Arborio rice,
2 shallots, peeled off and finely chopped
3 tbsp butter,
1 glass of white wine,
a pinch of saffron powder or saffron threads,
4-5 cups good quality stock of your choice,
2 zucchinis, grated,
1/2 cup grated, Italian parmesan,
4 tbsp table cream,
4-6 thin slices Scamorza cheese (available for instance in Giant's gourmet cheese section),
salt and pepper to taste.

1. Place stock on a pot and heat it until hot. If you use saffron threads, rather than saffron powder, let them soak in the stock. Keep the stock hot during the cooking of risotto.
2. In a large heavy duty pan melt butter until liquid but do not let it fry. Add chopped shallots and them fry over medium heat for about 5 minutes, until shallots becomes transparent. Add Arborio rice and fry for about one minute, until grains are coated.

3. Add wine to rice and cook stirring constantly until wine almost completely evaporates.
4. Pour in about a half a cup of stock and cook stirring until liquid is absorbed. Repeat until you use about 2/3 of the stock. Then add grated zucchinis and continue cooking and adding stock until rice is al dente and zucchinis still green.
5. Turn off the heat. Season risotto with salt (not much as stock is usually salted) and pepper. Add Parmesan, cream if you use, stir well, cover and let infuse for about 3 minutes.

6. Transfer hot risotto into serving plates, cover with thin slices of scamorza and serve.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Frozen Strawberry Pie--Just in Time for Mother's Day

I noticed that somehow I have not posted many strawberry recipes, although so often we eat them at home. Strawberries, as they are at their peak in May, are often used for Mother's Day desserts. When my younger son was in preschool just before Mother's Day kids baked strawberry shortcakes and served them with coffee at a Mother's Day party.

So today, just before Mother's Day, I will post a very easy strawberry pie recipe that any kid could make. I have had this recipe hand copied in my notebook for years and do not even remember where it comes from. But only recently I made it for the first time when I bought one too many strawberry boxes, as they were very ripe and irresistible.

A nice thing about this pie is that it can be made well ahead. It should be frozen for 4-6 hours to set up, but it can be frozen ahead and gently defrosted in a refrigerator just before serving. If served frozen, which is also possible, this pie would remind an ice cream cake.

And even if you miss the Mother's Day, a strawberry pie served with fresh strawberries on top and a cup of coffee would make a wonderful spring dessert at any time.

Frozen Strawberry Pie
(For a 9-inch baking form with high removable walls)
9 Graham crackers (2 and 1/4 by 4 and 3/4 inch) crumbled,
5 tbsp unsalted butter, melted,
1 lb strawberries, stems removed, plus another cup for decoration
1 can (14 oz) condensed sweetened milk,
juice from 2 limes or lemons,
1 and 1/2 cup heavy whipping cream

1. Preheat oven to 350F. To make a crust in a medium bowl, mix crumbled crackers with melted butter. Transfer crackers to the baking pan and using a small bowl push them so they stick to the bottom and the walls of the form.

2. Bake the crust until gold for 10-15 minutes and cool completely.
3. Cut strawberries in half and place in a blender. Add condensed milk and lemon juice and purée everything together until smooth.

4. In a large bowl beat the heavy whipping cream with an electric mixer until stiff. Add to the cream half of the puréed strawberries, fold in gently, and add the other half. Transfer the cream to the baked crust. Smooth the top and freeze for about 4 hours, until set.
5. Remove the pie from the freezer before serving and let it soften in a refrigerator for about an hour. Decorate with fresh strawberries cut in quarters and serve.