Monday, June 14, 2010

A Happy Threesome

It’s funny how our minds free-associate and link favorite foods together. For example, when I think of tomatoes, basil quickly comes to mind. And when I think of cucumbers, I think of dill. And, now that dill and cucumbers are returning to the market, it’s time to re-visit one of my favorites: Dill and Cucumber Soup.

When I think of a refreshing cup of Dill and Cucumber Soup, nothing comes to my mind faster than another favorite: screaming fresh salmon. There is no question that this combination surely equals one of the Pacific Northwest’s happiest threesomes: dill, cucumber and salmon. It's important to remember that working with such classic flavors will result in an end product that is more than the sum of its parts. The point is, keep it simple.

My version of the timeless cucumber soup includes a healthy amount of yogurt - which provides a perfect counterpoint to the fresh, lightness of cucumber and dill. These bright, clean flavors perk up the appetite and perfectly prepare the palate for the satisfying earthiness of the king salmon – grilled, baked, or poached.

On those occasions when fresh salmon isn’t my planned entrĂ©e, smoked salmon is a great alternative. A lovely platter of chilled salmon, a little cream cheese, a few slices of red onion, some pumpernickel or rye bread, a few radishes for vegetable variety… and I’ve got an easy dinner.

I’ve also garnished my soup with lovely slices of cucumber dabbed with tiny spoonfuls of inexpensive Tabiko caviar or other non-fertilized salmon eggs – plus a perky feather of fresh dill. Absolutely fabulous.

Since I rarely tire of the dill and cucumber combination, I’ve planted my own dill seeds which are now sprouting - and my cucumber plants are on their way up. Oh, boy, it’s going to be a great summer!

This year, I think I’ll take up fishing… more on salmon later.

Dill and Cucumber Soup
From Soup A to Z, A traveling chef’s little black book of secrets

1 medium cucumber, peeled, seeded, diced or grated
3 Tbsp. fresh dill, minced
2 Tbsp. scallion, chopped
½ tsp. salt
1/8 tsp. white pepper
1 Tbsp. lemon juice
1 Tbsp. olive oil
2 cups plain yogurt
2 cups defatted chicken stock (approx.)

Place the cucumbers in a bowl with the dill, scallions,the salt and pepper. Stir in the lemon juice and olive oil; combine well.

Fold in the yogurt and thin with enough stock to reach desired consistency. Adjust seasoning, add more lemon juice if necessary.

Chill thoroughly. Garnish with fresh mint or dill. Serves 4 to 6~~

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Q is for Quinoa

Lately I’ve been working long hours on a multitude of projects and deadlines and my cooking has been fast and furious. As so often happens in the throes of craziness, I had a fortuitous moment of enlightenment. This time it happened when I fell into a heap of quinoa.

Up to this point I’ve regarded quinoa as too fussy, too earthy, and too unavailable to spend too much time contemplating.

For years I’ve read about the amazing qualities of this grain/seed but have been put off by similar re-occurring caveats that it must be soaked and re-soaked before using. Apparently, its exterior is coated with saponins – toxic chemicals producing a discouragingly bitter flavor which must be eliminated before cooking.

However, quinoa’s quirkiness didn’t stop the Incas – they revered it as an instrumental part of their diet. For centuries its extraordinary health benefits have been highly regarded, with some folks ranking gluten-free quinoa as the plant kingdom’s most perfect protein. It's also a good source of fiber, phosphorus, magnesium and iron - so why shouldn’t I like this?

Well, it turns out that I do. Very much.

By accident, I recently stumbled across quinoa in the midst of a mad dash to my local bulk food store. When I read the minimal directions on the bin: cook for 15 minutes I thought I could handle it. That night at warp speed I prepared a nifty idea from Dinner on a Deadline at the great website, Married… with Dinner.

Of course, I completely forgot the washing and the rinsing of the quinoa until after it was cooked; and then it hit me.  Oh, crap! I warily peered into the pot and took a whiff of the light, lovely pearls. It smelled fine…

I cautiously sampled a spoonful and it was delicious. Not bitter or soapy, but mild and slightly nutty. I have since read that of course, most commercial varieties are pre-washed for the convenience of the American market.

Quinoa has now replaced couscous on my shelf and on my table. I have gotten into the habit of pre-cooking a nice supply and storing it in the fridge for a quick addition to a meal - or for a hot breakfast with fruit and yogurt or milk. If you are another hold out, give it a try. You might just like it, too.

Quinoa with Leeks and Poached Egg
Inspired by Dinner on at Deadline @ Married with Dinner

For each serving:
1/2 cup cooked quinoa, see below
1/3 cup cooked leeks; note: 2 cups sliced leeks cooked in @ 2 Tbsp butter = 2 servings

1/2 cup simmering chicken stock, excellent quality
1 extra-large egg
1 teaspoon minced chives or scallions, for garnish
handful of Parmesan cheese (opt.), grated as finely as possible (about 1/2oz by weight)

For quinoa: bring 2 cups salted water to a boil. Stir in 1 cup quinoa, slightly cover it and simmer for about 15 minutes or until the water evaporates. Toss lightly with fork, cover with toweling, top with lid, and let stand for 5 minutes.

For the leeks: Slice the leeks in half lengthwise and rinse well, carefully removing any sand or dirt. Slice the white and tender light-green parts into half-rings about 1/4- to 1/8-inch thick.
Melt the butter in heavy skillet over medium-low heat. Add leeks and a couple of tablespoons of water. Simmer slowly until leeks are tender and almost all water evaporates, add more water if needed to further soften the leeks, about 15 minutes. Season well with salt. If using immediately, remove pan from the heat and set aside.

Drop the eggs into simmering water that has been lightly flavored with vinegar; poach for 2-3 minutes until set. Remove from heat.

To assemble: spoon about 1/3 cup leeks into bottom of each wide bowl. Top the leeks with about 1/2 cup quinoa. Remove an egg from poaching water with slotted spoon and top each mound with an egg. Ladle hot broth carefully around the leeks and quinoa, sprinkle with chives and garnish with Parmesan cheese.

Optional: add fresh mushrooms, broccoli or other fresh vegetables to chicken stock and simmer until al dente. ~~


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