Cilantro Coconut Pesto

Last weekend, my sister-in-law Lauren told me that her mom had been reading up on the health benefits of coconut oil and was now using it in a lot of her recipes. I had never heard of the stuff—aside from coconut based skin care products—and was eager to try it. I also needed another topic to write about for RootSpeak and this seemed like it might be just the thing.

When I was at Whole Foods earlier this week, I bought a jar of coconut oil. That’s right: a jar. In non-tropical climates, coconut oil is sold in solid form. It kind of looks like marshmallow fluff, but once you microwave it or warm it in a frying pan, it liquifies almost immediately. To read more about why coconut oil is good for you, click here to read my RootSpeak article.

But health benefits aside, I needed to know if you could really cook with the stuff and more importantly, if it would hold up as a substitute in some of my favorite recipes. Tropical Traditions, a manufacturer of coconut products, has tons of recipes on their site. When I came across one for cilantro coconut pesto, I decided to put it to the test.

I started with the ingredients and quantities they suggested, but quickly needed to make some changes. The pesto was too watery for my taste and contrary to the recipe author’s claim that the pesto didn’t need salt, it totally did. The only new ingredient I added (besides salt and pepper) was freshly grated Pecorino Romano cheese. I love the consistency and slight sharpness that cheese adds to pesto. Into my food processor I combined:

6 tablespoons coconut oil

2 cups of packed cilantro leaves

2 tablespoons lemon juice

1 ¼ cups walnuts

1 large clove of garlic

2 tablespoons freshly grated Romano cheese

Salt and pepper to taste

I melted the coconut oil in the microwave for about 30 seconds. I boiled some farfalle and then mixed the pesto with the pasta. I was pleasantly surprised at the taste! The coconut gave it a mild sweetness and melded nicely with the cilantro flavoring. It’s definitely different than your traditional basil pesto, but in a good way.

I am anxious to try coconut oil in other recipes. Perhaps in baking? Hmmm…

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Tomato Corn Salsa

We were in Connecticut last weekend which meant that almost everything we ate was prepared on the grill. As city dwellers, we don’t have the space for a grill, so we relish any chance we get to barbecue. Heather and Jeff came over on Saturday and we spent the most delightful day grazing on grilled clams, shrimp, squash, turkey burgers and pizza with pesto and roasted red peppers. Throw in guacamole, fried squash blossoms and a beet salad and it was a veritable feast indeed—made better by the fact that most of the bounty came from local farm stands. I about lost my mind when we arrived in CT and I discovered a new farm stand situated between Bud’s Fish Market (which had the best sea scallops I’ve had in a long time) and a gas station in Branford. Their baskets were brimming with tomato, corn, berries, summer squash and more. I didn’t want to leave!

As my eyes are often bigger than my stomach, I had a good amount of leftovers at the end of the weekend, especially corn. An idea for corn salsa began brewing. I was about to head down to the Jersey shore to spend a couple of days on the beach with my friend Emily and I wanted to bring her dad a homemade treat as a thank you for having me. I picked up a couple more heirloom tomatoes and set to work. I boiled the ears of corn (I would have loved to grill them, but alas…) and then shaved the kernels off the corn with a  knife. I separated the kernels, tossed them in a bowl and added diced tomato, cilantro, red onion, about a half of a small seeded jalapeno pepper, cumin, a pinch of cayenne, half of a lime, juiced. I did all of this by taste, so feel free to adjust the ratios to your liking.

That’s Emily’s hand in the photo. We all thoroughly enjoyed the salsa. In fact, I liked it so much, I made another batch last night for Johnny.  It’s a tasty way to use up leftover summer vegetables. Yum!

Olive Hummus

It’s been a slow week on the blogging front. I’m working on two magazine stories simultaneously, I had a touch of a summer cold earlier in the week, and I’m gearing up for my friend Heather’s wedding celebration this weekend. Whew!  However, there’s always time to make hummus. It literally takes five minutes. Plus, we had a lot of pita leftover from the takeout we ordered from Cafe Rakka on Monday night and I didn’t want it to go to waste. I made pita chips from it and then whipped up a batch of my usual hummus, only this time I threw some green olives and their juice into the mix. Wow! I really like olive hummus in general and this simple add made for a delightful dip. I used about a tablespoon of olive juice and a handful of small green olives. (I bet it would be good with black olives too.)

In addition to scooping the hummus up with pita chips, I also like to spread a thin layer of it on a slice of bread topped with turkey and lettuce. It adds a little spice to my sandwich. More blog posts to come next week, including a recipe for homemade pickles—if I can find dill seed, that is. Who knew this would be difficult? Anyway, I’m off to perform my matron of honor duties. Have a great weekend and congratulations to Heather and Jeff!

Mango Salsa

Nothing says summer like fruity salsas, and while I enjoy eating mango salsa, I only recently tried my hand at making my own. It wasn’t my best culinary moment. I had never worked with mangoes before and I wasn’t entirely sure how to cube one. I made the mistake of skinning it first and then trying to dice it up, and the result was a soupy, pulpy mess. It tasted good, but was far from photo worthy. Tonight, we’re having cat fish tacos and I wanted to serve them with a light, fresh topping. Mango salsa immediately came to mind, but this time I researched how to properly cube a mango before reaching for my knife. I found a great tutorial on Simply Recipes and after following their directions, my mango emerged perfectly cubed and salsa ready. I also checked out a few mango salsa recipes online and then added a few subtle tweaks. To the cubed mango I added one roma tomato, the juice of one lime, a handful of chopped cilantro, some finely chopped jalapeno (I used about 1/4 to a 1/2 of my pepper) salt, and a pinch of cumin. I thought about adding a drizzle of honey, but the mango is sweet enough on its own. When choosing mangoes for salsa, be sure to pick one that’s slightly soft, but not overly mushy.

I think this will be a welcome addition to taco night!

Garlic Scape Pesto

A few months ago, I was perusing a blog written by beloved cook and baker Dorie Greenspan, when I came across a recipe for garlic scape pesto. I’d never heard of scapes, the curly bright green shoots that sprout from the top of garlic plants, but they looked so refreshing and beautiful that I was intrigued. Since scapes have a very short season—they’re gone by the end of June—I filed the idea away in the back of my mind. Over the weekend, a Facebook friend was making garlic scape pesto and yesterday I stumbled upon a table full of them at the Greenmarket. The time had come for me to experiment with scapes! I brought them home and Googled various ways to prepare them. I thought I might skip the pesto, since we had an asparagus version just last week, but when Dorie’s recipe appeared in my search I just couldn’t resist. I did, as always, make a few changes. I used walnuts rather than slivered almonds, because I love walnut pesto; I added a handful of basil, since I have a delightfully fragrant bunch of it in my refrigerator right now; and I used more than a half a cup of olive oil. I slowly added more oil while the mixture pureed until it was at a consistency I was satisfied with. I also substituted Pecorino Romano for Parmesan. I started with 1/3 of a cup but added a tiny bit more at the end before giving the pesto a final pulse in the food processor.

Doesn’t that look like summer? We ate the pesto over farfalle pasta, though Johnny also ate quite a bit of it spooned onto the garlic bread I made. It was deliciously garlicky, so if you aren’t a huge garlic fan, you could probably use less scapes in your version. I think I may freeze the leftover pesto so we can enjoy it once the scape season has passed.

Oh and here is a picture of what scapes look like. I borrowed it from Dorie’s site. I hope she won’t mind.

Asparagus Pesto

My friend Liz sent me a link to Mark Bittman’s recipe for asparagus pesto a couple of weeks ago and raved about how good it was.  Needless to say, I have been dying to try it. I stopped by Whole Foods today and was happy to see asparagus from nearby New Jersey on display, so I decided to make it for tonight’s dinner. The pesto did not disappoint! I didn’t have pine nuts, so I substituted walnuts instead, and I also used Romano cheese instead of Parmesan. I rarely make asparagus because Johnny only eats the tips, but there’s no waste in this recipe: the asparagus is ground up in the food processor so you use the whole stalk. This pesto was simple to make and it’s light enough for summertime fare. We had it with DeLallo’s whole wheat shells and also fettuccine (I had a little of each that I wanted to use up so I made two kinds of pasta).  The recipe yielded enough for leftovers, so I think I will use the remaining pesto as a pizza topping tomorrow night. Thanks for sharing Liz!

Asparagus Pesto

1 pound asparagus, trimmed and cut into 2-inch segments

1 clove garlic, or more to taste

1/4 cup pine nuts

1/4 cup olive oil, or more as desired

3/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese

Freshly ground black pepper

Salt

Juice of 1/2 lemon, or to taste

1. Bring a large pot of water to a boil and salt it. Add the asparagus and cook until fully tender but not mushy, 8 to 10 minutes. Drain well, reserving some of the cooking liquid, and let the asparagus cool slightly.

2. Transfer the asparagus to a food processor and add the garlic, pine nuts, 2 tablespoons of the oil, Parmesan, a pinch of salt and a couple of tablespoons of the cooking liquid. Process the mixture, stopping to scrape down the sides of the container if necessary, and gradually add the remaining oil and a bit more of the reserved cooking liquid to moisten if necessary. Add the lemon juice and season with salt and pepper to taste, pulse one last time, and serve over pasta, fish or chicken (or cover and refrigerate for up to a day).

Yield: 4 to 6 servings (about 1 1/2 cups).

Red Clam Sauce

When we went to Carmine’s for my dad’s 60th birthday a few weeks ago, we ordered linguine with white clam sauce, one of their signature dishes. It was delicious, but I’ve always preferred red clam sauce to white. So when a recipe for the former popped up in my inbox last week, as part of Whole Foods weekly newsletter, I decided to try making it myself. This recipe is practically foolproof.  It requires few ingredients and, since the sauce only needs to simmer for 15-20 minutes, you can get dinner on the table quickly. Don’t underestimate the power of the crushed red pepper, however. I added a lot to my sauce and it was very spicy. Though the recipe calls for two 6 oz. cans of clams, I used one 10 oz. can which was plenty. I also added in all of the leftover clam juice to finish the sauce.

For pasta, I used DeLallo’s whole wheat organic fettuccine. Johnny’s not a stringy pasta fan, and fettuccine is a happy medium. I topped the dish with fresh parsley and served it with garlic bread, steamed artichokes and salad. Delightful!

Red Clam Sauce

1/2 pound whole wheat linguine or fettuccine
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
1/2 yellow onion, thinly sliced
3 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
1/8 teaspoon red pepper flakes, more to taste
1 (28-ounce) can diced tomatoes, with their liquid
2 (6-ounce) cans clams, drained, liquid reserved
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
3 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add pasta and cook until al dente, 8 to 10 minutes. Drain well. Meanwhile, heat olive oil in a large skillet. Add onion and garlic and cook until fragrant and starting to turn translucent, 3 to 5 minutes. Add red pepper flakes and tomatoes with their liquid. Bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer and cook 8 to 10 minutes. Add clams, 3 tablespoons of the reserved clam liquid and black pepper. Simmer until sauce is slightly thickened, about 5 minutes. Add more red pepper and clam liquid, if desired. Stir in chopped parsley and pasta. Toss to coat pasta with sauce and serve immediately.

A Simple Vodka Sauce

There’s a little takeout place in our neighborhood, Bite Me Best, which makes a ridiculously good dish called rigatoni buttera. It’s rigatoni, sausage and peas tossed in a tomato cream sauce. After ordering it several times, I decided to try my hand at making it myself. I’ve made vodka sauce before, using Rachael Ray’s recipe, but I wasn’t wowed by it. Then I came across Lidia Bastianich’s recipe for penne alla vodka several months ago, and it’s now become my go-to vodka sauce recipe. What I like about this version is that it doesn’t require a lot of ingredients and it makes just enough sauce for a pound of pasta. Definitely use the full pound and eat leftovers the next day. I only used a half a pound last night and the sauce was too watery. Which brings me to the second reason I like this recipe: you finish cooking the pasta in the sauce, which allows it to thicken up quite nicely. Often times I find vodka sauce to be a bit watery. I usually use rigatoni and I also add sausage and frozen peas to the sauce when I put the pasta in. Another note: be sure to generously season the sauce with salt and crushed red pepper. Otherwise, it can be a bit bland. You can skip the additional olive oil or butter at the end but don’t forgo the parsley or cheese. (I use Romano, but Parmigiano-Reggiano would also work.)  It adds a nice flavor to the dish.

Click on the Penne alla Vodka link above for the recipe.

A Cinco de Mayo Fiesta

I look forward to Cinco de Mayo every year. I love Mexican food (and margaritas) and if the weather is warm, as it is today in New York, Cinco de Mayo symbolizes the start of summer for me. In the city, every restaurant that has even a hint of Mexican cuisine on the menu is packed with revelers spilling onto the sidewalk (or as is most often the case, waiting in line on said sidewalk to get in) and the mood is festive and fun. But also really, really crowded. So after navigating SRO bars for years for what usually amounted to a sickly sweet, half melted marg, I decided to start hosting my own Cinco de Mayo fiestas. Last year our friends Emily and Andy came over for turkey tacos and this year, we’re having them over again. Only I’ve decided to kick up the menu a notch. Tonight we’ll be starting with corn fritters, a recipe I found in the book Fabulous Parties by Mark Held, Richard David and Peggy Dark. I recently interviewed Mark for a story and he was fabulous. I’ve never made fritters before but they look relatively simple and I already had the ingredients, so I’m going to give it a go. I wanted an easy aioli of sorts to dip them in and I found a recipe for cilantro dip on Epicurious which I’m also going to make. We’ll have chips with fresh guacamole and salsa and then for the main course, skirt steak and grilled-chicken tacos, both recipes adapted from Food & Wine’s May issue. The chicken has been marinating overnight in a mixture of lime juice, tomatoes, water and salt.

As for drinks, I’m always on the hunt for a margarita that isn’t too sweet so I consulted my mixologist friend, Matthew Biancaniello, who I also recently interviewed, for an easy, tasty margarita recipe. He suggested a ratio of 2 oz of tequila, 3/4 oz of agave nectar, and 3/4 oz of fresh lime juice. I’m going to make a pitcher, so I’ll adjust the quantities accordingly.

Photo courtesy of Seattle Weekly Blogs.

Pictures of our meal to come later, but for now here are recipes for the corn fritters and cilantro dip. And on a completely unrelated note, today is also the ninth annual National Day to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, a cause I have worked on extensively over the years. Check out an article I wrote on the topic on Tonic.com.

Happy Cinco de Mayo!

Corn Fritters
Makes 20-30 appetizers
2 cups whole corn kernels (either fresh cut from the cob or frozen, do not use canned)
1 egg, lightly beaten
1/3 cup finely chopped scallions, white part only
1/4 teaspoon finely minced garlic
2 tablespoons finely chopped cilantro
1/4 cup finely chopped white onion
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 cup cornmeal
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon ground coriander
corn oil, for frying

Heat the oil in a large frying pan until very hot. Mix all of the ingredients together. Using two spoons or your fingers, drop small dollops into the oil and fry until golden brown. Remove with a slotted spoon and drain on paper towels. Serve warm.

Cilantro Dip
1 cup plain yogurt
1/2 cup chopped fresh cilantro
1 teaspoon grated lemon peel
1/2 garlic clove, minced
1/8 teaspoon dried crushed red pepper

Mix all ingredients in small bowl to blend. Season with salt and pepper. Cover and refrigerate until flavors blend, at least 1 hour or overnight.

Homemade Hummus

We had a wonderful evening on Saturday celebrating Tiffany’s birthday. I was especially delighted when Tiff’s husband, Chris, told me about some of the vegetables he’ll be growing this summer. As readers of this blog know, I’ve become very passionate about where the food we eat comes from and I try to shop seasonally and organically whenever possible. Anytime I’m in the company of someone who shares this philosophy, I can go on for hours swapping tips and recipe ideas. We’ve been house hunting not far from where Tiffany and Chris live, and once we eventually make the move to the burbs, I’m really looking forward to growing our own food. Who knows? We may have our own little farm share someday!

Anyway, Chris also told me that their 16-month old son, Connor, often eats homemade hummus for a snack (now there’s a child who is being raised with good eating habits!) We’re big fans of the garlicky dip too, so I asked Chris for his recipe. I used 2 tbsp of lemon juice instead of a fresh lemon, and I added a little more tahini than the recipe called for. It came out great:

I even spread some on the open faced turkey sandwich I had for lunch, in lieu of mayo:

Next time I may experiment with chopped olives or roasted red peppers. But as is, this hummus makes for a delicious, healthy snack. Thanks Grasso!

Homemade Hummus

1 15 oz can of chickpeas, drained, with juice reserved
1/4 cup of  chickpea juice
2 tbsp of lemon juice (or the juice of one fresh lemon)
1 large clove of garlic
2 tbsp olive oil
1 tbsp tahini (I added more tahini to taste)
Blend all ingredients in a food processor or blender for three minutes or until creamy.

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