Thursday, September 2, 2010

Easy Creamy Pesto Pilaf

Dinner! It should be easy, shouldn't it? Well, that's what I am all about lately. E-Z! Well, simple can be just as delicious as anything else and as you read on, I will show you a little restaurant tip to make food look fabulous.

But food first.

Cooked quinoa
I always have quinoa on-hand for just about any time of day. I like it for breakfast sometimes, as a great start to my day. And sometimes, for lunch, it's quick and simple too. Plus, it stores easily on the shelf and in the fridge for a long period of time, so it's great for re-heating and eating a quick bite. I love quinoa! It's healthy, filling, full of all sorts of beneficial nutrients and it's relatively cheap. I buy mine at Costco in a big bag for $10 and it lasts me forever. Really. Now, a family of four...maybe less than forever, but still - for ten bucks? How can you say no?

And next to my quinoa in the pantry is my millet. I love millet. I've written a recipe or two on here with millet included, mostly in flour form, but I love the grain. Some people like to make fun of it because in this country our idea of millet is the little yellow grain in bird seed. It's true. That is millet. But we are missing out on a powerhouse of nutrition here. And I just love the flavor and texture it brings to dishes - a sweet, nutty, crunchiness that is different than other grains. I love it. Not only is it gluten-free, like quinoa, it's hearty, filling, eco-friendly, highly sustainable, cheap (seriously cheap! No pun intended.) and getting easier to find in health food stores.

Toasting millet
This recipe came about because I was in the mood for something simple, fast and didn't require me to go to the store for anything. I just wasn't in the mood. We all have days like that, right? Well, I happened to have some thawed pesto on hand (I keep mine frozen after making several batches all at once to save time - a trick I learned from a good friend!) and something creamy sounded too good to pass up. I pulled out the quinoa and the millet and - wala! - dinner was served. So easy. This is a quick night yummy for any household. And if you don't have quinoa or millet or both on hand, just use rice. Use whatever you've got. Sometimes, I like to mix and match - a little quinoa, a little millet, a little rice. Whatever. It's all good!

Note: if you decide to mix and match your grains, just make sure you add enough water to the pot to make sure all of the different grains cook evenly. 2 cups of water : 1 cup of quinoa, 3:1 for millet, and 2:1 for rice. And the same goes for the veggies I included. I had squash on this particular day, but the Creamy Pesto Pilaf would be just as good with asparagus, greens, peas, eggplant, mushrooms - whatever you've got. This is a mix and match, what-you've-got kind of recipe. Experiment and have fun! That's half the fun of cooking!

Fun serving suggestion: This recipe, although delicious, is not the prettiest to put on a plate. It's thick and green, but the flavor is fabulous. So, I did what restaurants and chefs do to make something that isn't exactly pretty into something gorgeous and upscale. I used a cookie cutter. That's right. A heart-shaped cookie cutter. You can use any style - round, square, diamond, oval, whatever. I would avoid too many nooks and crannies, but whatever suits your fancy will work! The cookie cutter/biscuit cutter is what gourmet chefs do to polenta, rice dishes and even oatmeal to make it ten times more appealing on a plate. You'll see what I mean. You don't have to do this, but it's fun and elegant and you  know what? You're worth it! Place a medium or large cookie or biscuit cutter on a plate. Fill the center with the Creamy Pesto Pilaf, pressing everything down gently. Slide the cutter slowly up, holding the pilaf down with a finger or spoon and - presto! - you have restaurant-beautiful pilaf. Repeat for more than one serving or depending on size of cutter. Top with fish or beef and enjoy!

Happy eating!

Creamy Pesto Pilaf

Serves: 4 – 6
Cook time: 30 - 45 minutes

½ cup quinoa, rinsed

½ cup millet, rinsed

1 tbsp butter or olive oil

2 ½ cups water

1 – 2 tbsp olive oil

½ onion, chopped

2 cups squash or zucchini, sliced into ¼-inch half-moons or rounds (about 1 large squash or two small)

½ - ¾ cup pesto of choice (see optional recipe below)

3 tbsp cream cheese, Neufchatel cheese, or non-dairy cream cheese substitute

Sea salt

*Degorge squash, if necessary, by placing rounds in a shallow bowl and tossing with a pinch or two of sea salt. Allow to sit for 20 minutes, then rinse and drain. Set aside.

Rinse quinoa and millet in a fine-mesh strainer until the water runs clear. In a medium saucepan, heat quinoa, millet and butter over medium heat, allowing the butter to melt fully and gently toast and brown the grains, about 2 minutes. Add water and a generous pinch of salt. Allow mixture to boil gently, stirring occasionally, until all the water is absorbed. During last five minutes, place cover on pan and allow to finish cooking. Remove from heat.

Heat a skillet over medium heat, then add olive oil and onions with a small pinch of sea salt. Mix and let brown gently for 1 - 2 minutes. Add drained squash and continue to sauté, adding more olive oil, if necessary. Brown pieces gently on both sides, about 4 minutes. Remove from heat.

Remove cover from cooked grains and fluff with a fork. Add the pesto and cream cheese and place the cover back on top for 30 seconds to a minute. Remove the cover and using the fork, gently combine the grains with the pesto and cheese. In a separate large bowl, place the pesto pilaf, sautéed onions and squash, Mix gently with fork to combine.

*Tip: if degorging squash due to bitterness, do not add any salt to squash during cooking. The salt that remains on the squash after rinsing is plenty unless you like things really salty!

Easy Homemade Pesto

2 cups fresh basil, washed and de-stemmed (or use another herb of choice: cilantro, parsley, mint)

¼ - ½ cup pecans, walnuts, almonds or pine nuts

2 cloves fresh garlic or 1 tsp garlic powder

¼ to ½ cup extra virgin olive oil (or more as needed)

¼ cup grated Parmesan or Parmesan-substitute (optional)

Sea salt, to taste

In a food processor (or if you’re brave – a mortar), combine herbs, nuts and garlic until finely ground. While machine is running, slowly drizzle olive oil into the mixture until a smooth paste forms. Add cheese, if using, and sea salt to taste.

Cover and place in the fridge for one hour to let flavors mingle. Makes about one cup. Freeze remainder or keep in fridge for a week or two. It's great on bread, pastas, chicken, fish or eggs.

Optional tasty variation: Decrease amount of herbs by one cup and add one cup of sautéed swiss chard, raw or sautéed spinach, or raw or sautéed broccoli. This will add an extra amount of flavor and nutrition! Experiment and enjoy!

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