Fresh Fava Beans with Polenta

Fava beans, also called broad beans, have a soft, creamy texture and delicate flavour. Where I live, they are generally only available in spring, and this year, it was Easter weekend when I first spotted them at my local farmers market. But it snowed that weekend so it sure didn’t feel like spring at all.

I made this recipe and then forgot about it because it wasn’t the way I had planned to cook the the fav beans. My intention was to marinate the pods and grill them whole, on the barbecue but I wasn’t keen on standing outside in the cold in an inch of snow, even if they do cook quite quickly. So, I came up with this recipe instead – coarsely pureed fava beans with garlic and chillies served on a bed of creamy polenta and topped with fresh parsley, basil and scallions! Divinely comforting! 

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Fava beans grow in pods and depending on the variety, each pod will contain four to eight beans inside. The pods are easily opened but each bean is enclosed in a bitter tasting skin that you’ll most likely want to remove. The peeling process sounds much more finicky than it  is.  There’s actually nothing to it and since fava beans are a good source of protein, vitamins and minerals as well as being high in fibre and iron, the task is well worth the effort for their nutritional benefits alone. Don’t be put off by the thought of having to peel them, essentially twice. 

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Because fresh fava beans have a short season (late March to late May), I tend to grab these super-tasty delicacies when I see them. And they don’t store well, so you should eat them as soon as possible after purchasing for the best flavour and nutrition. 

This recipe serves 4.

Ingredients

  • 1 lb. fresh fava beans
  • 2 cloves garlic, peeled and bruised
  • Salt
  • Scallions
  • Fresh flat leaf parsley, finely chopped
  • Fresh basil, finely chopped
  • 1 fresh red chilli or crushed red pepper flakes
  • Fresh lemon juice, optional

Removing fava beans from their pods is not dissimilar to shelling green beans or peas. Grab the tip of the pod, pull a strip down the seam of the pod. (In a perfect world, the seam will peel away from the pod in one long strand). If it breaks, use your fingers to split the pod in half along the seam and remove the beans. 

The easiest way to remove the skins from the beans is to blanche the beans first. Bring the beans to a boil in enough water to cover, with one clove of garlic and a generous pinch of salt. Simmer for 5 minutes or until the beans are soft. Strain the beans, reserving the liquid for the polenta. Pinch the beans between your fingers – the skin should slip right off. 

Pulse the beans with one clove of garlic and a little salt to taste in a food processor or blender. If the mixture is too thick to blend, add more water as necessary. taste the mixture and add juice from 1/4 lemon, if desired. 

For the Polenta

Ingredients

1-cup medium or coarse cornmeal
4 cups water (use the residual blanching water and top up with water until you have to 4 cups)
1 1/4 tsp. Celtic or pink Himalayan salt

½ tbsp. Dijon mustard
1/2 tsp chili paste, or fresh chilies, finely chopped
1 clove garlic, finely minced

Bring 3 cups of water to a boil in a medium large non-stick fry pan. While water is boiling, combine cornmeal, salt and remaining cup of water in a small bowl and stir to make thick slurry. Pour the cornmeal slurry into the boiling water and stir to distribute the water and cornmeal evenly. Reduce heat to low. (Cover the pan with a lid or spatter guard as the mixture will bubble up and make a mess of your stovetop). Simmer for about 10 minutes or until cooked through and thick. You can raise the lid and give the mixture a stir every now and again, but for the most part it is ok to leave it unattended. If it appears to stick to the bottom of the pan, don’t worry, it will all come together at the end.

The texture of polenta is a personal preference. If the polenta seems too thick, add more water or residual blanching water until you achieve the consistency you want. If it seems too thin, let it rest for a few minutes as it will firm up on standing. 

When you have achieved the texture you want, remove the pan from the heat and add the Dijon mustard, finely minced garlic and chili paste. Stir the mixture until the ingredients are well blended.

Immediately divide the polenta between 4 plates or shallow, wide serving bowls and place a mound  of bean puree in the centre. One by one, sprinkle the finely chopped parsley, basil, thinly sliced scallions and chillies on top. 

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Quinoa and Fresh Vegetable Ragout

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Got quinoa? Trying not to waste food? This recipe is adaptable to whatever vegetables you have on hand! If you soak the quinoa overnight and prep the vegetables while your tomato sauce is simmering, this simple, nutritious, and incredibly satisfying dish can be made in fairly short order. 

Although it is often mistaken for a grain, quinoa is a seed and a complete protein. Prior to commercialization, quinoa was grown in the back gardens of Peruvian families where it was common for different strains of the seed to pop up in different colours, and no one thought much of it. Enter marketers … now we can purchase different colours of quinoa (red, black and white). All are comparable nutritionally, all can be used interchangeably in recipes and all take roughly the same amount of time to cook. (Red quinoa takes slightly longer).  In this recipe I used neutral quinoa just for colour.

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As an evolutionary defence to protect itself from birds, quinoa grows with a bitter tasting natural coating of saponin. If you have ever eaten quinoa and thought the taste was bitter, the saponin coating was likely to blame. Saponin is removed by soaking or rinsing quinoa in water before cooking. While most commercially sold quinoa is pre-washed and some varieties have less saponin than others, it’s still a good idea to soak or rinse quinoa until the water runs clear before cooking. Just as with all seeds, nuts and grains, soaking is known to aid digestion.

Some time ago, when I was working as a pastry chef, one of my colleagues, a girl from Peru,  whipped up a staff meal at the end of our shift that just blew me away with it’s simplicity, flavour, and fresh taste. It was so fragrant with fresh herbs! Of course I had to have the recipe and of course my colleague didn’t have one! She simply gathered a few choice vegetables and simmered them in a pan with pre-soaked quinoa and fresh tomato sauce. Quinoa is a staple food in Peru. It is eaten hot and cold and served in a variety of different ways for breakfast, lunch or dinner. As a young girl, my colleague said that she and her siblings ate quinoa several times a week prepared all kinds of ways. 

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My colleague always soaks quinoa before cooking, sometimes for a few days!  She confided that in her very busy life she doesn’t always get around to cooking it when she intends to and on occasion has even left it to soak for 2 or 3 days! Good to know! But you don’t need to soak quinoa that long. If you are really pinched for time, a good rinse under cold water until the water runs clear will help to remove the bitter taste too. Rub the seeds vigorously together between your fingers to scrape the outer coating – this helps to release the saponin. No need to be gentle with the seeds. 

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Below is my best effort to recreate the meal my Peruvian colleague made that night. You’ll need to make the tomato sauce first. I used the vegetables I had on hand, but you’re not limited to those – you can use whatever vegetables you want.

Ingredients

  • 1 cup quinoa, reserve about 1/2 cup of the water after the final rinse in case you need to adjust the consistency of the sauce
  • 4 cups assorted vegetables; (I used zucchini, cauliflower, broccoli, red onion, yellow pepper, carrots
  • 1/2 red chilli, seeded, finely chopped
  • Generous pinch of cumin
  • Handful fresh cilantro, coarsely chopped
  • Fresh Tomato-Basil Sauce (recipe follows – make this first)

Soak quinoa several hours or overnight, rinsing and changing the water a few times. Rub the quinoa vigorously between your hands to scuff the surface of the seeds, which helps to release the bitter coating.

Prepare the tomato sauce before continuing with the rest of the recipe. 

Fresh Tomato Sauce with Basil 

  • 4 large fresh tomatoes, chopped
  • ½ medium white onion, chopped
  • 1 tsp garlic, chopped or coarsely minced
  • Handful fresh basil

Sauté onion in a little water or vegetable stock until soft and translucent.  Add minced garlic. Stir a minute or two and add tomatoes. Allow sauce to simmer slowly for an hour or two, or until tomatoes are fully broken down. You can puree the sauce if you prefer, but it isn’t necessary. Stir in fresh basil. Set aside.

Incidentally, this excellent tomato sauce is adaptable for any dish you’d like to serve with a fresh tomato sauce. 

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While the tomato sauce is simmering, coarsely chop your vegetables. Heat a large frying pan over medium-high heat and when hot add 2-3 tablespoons of water or vegetable stock. I used a paella pan for this but any large frying pan will do. The liquid should sizzle when it hits the hot pan.

Starting with the vegetables that take longest to cook, lightly sauté adding additional vegetables after a few minutes and light caramelization. In this case, I started with carrots and red onion, then added the cauliflower, broccoli, peppers and zucchini, in that order. Top up with liquid as you go to prevent scorching. Don’t worry if the vegetables are not cooked through. You just want to sear the vegetables a little at this point. 

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Add the tomato sauce, chilli, and cilantro to the pan, followed by the rinsed and drained quinoa. It may not look like enough liquid but it probaby is. You’ll know towards the end of cooking time whether or not you need to add any of the reserved soaking liquid.

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Stir everything together in the pan to blend the ingredients.

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Cover the pan, reduce the heat and allow the ragout to simmer for about 15 minutes or until the quinoa is tender and the vegetables are cooked through. 

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Date Syrup and Date Paste

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If you are following my blog, you may have noticed that I replace refined sugar with date syrup in many of my recipes. That’s because date sugar undergoes the least amount of processing in comparison with other sweeteners and it has one of the highest antioxidant levels – only blackstrap molasses offers higher antioxidant value. 

Date sugar is produced from the whole fruit. Dates are simply dried and finely ground with no other processing required. Date sugar is similar to brown sugar except that it does not dissolve completely. You can use it to replace brown sugar in sauces and spreads where that doesn’t matter or where colour won’t be affected, such as the dressing in the Vibrant Thai Rice Salad.

Date syrup is also made from the whole fruit. The syrup is made by simmering the dates in water until the liquid reduces and thickens. The longer the dates are simmered, the sweeter and thicker the liquid becomes, and if you are making your own, the simmering process can be stopped at any time to achieve a desired sweetness and intensity.

I use medjool dates to make date syrup. Why do I use medjool dates? Because they are known as the diamond of dates, prized for their size and their melt-in-your-mouth luscious sweet taste and for their texture. That said, other varieties work just as well, so you can use other types if you prefer.

Homemade date syrup has a lovely, subtle flavour and it is a wonderful alternative sweetener for anyone trying to remove refined sugar from their diet.  It is lighter in colour, thinner, and less concentrated in terms of flavour than store-bought varieties. (Unless otherwise stated, I use my own homemade date syrup in all of the recipes in this blog; so, if you are using a commercial brand to prepare one my recipes, you will likely need to decrease the amount of date syrup called for). One of the problems I have with commercial varieties of date syrup is that some of them are made from concentrate rather than the whole fruit, which would compromise the nutritive benefits. (Not all labels provide that information).  Another problem with commercial date syrup is the colour – its very dark, and this can negatively alter the colour of your food. 

So, for all of the reasons mentioned above, it is fitting to post a recipe for making date syrup. Since date syrup has only one ingredient, this is more about a method than a recipe. The measurements below will yield about 3/4 – 1 cup of syrup but the recipe is easy to double or triple. 

Ingredients

  • 12 Medjool dates 
  • 4 cups water

You can seed the dates or not, but seeding them before simmering makes the task less messy later. Place the dates and water in a medium large saucepan and bring the water to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer gently for about 45 minutes. Skim off any film that settles on the surface of the water. The dates should be quite soft and mushy and the cooking water should be sweet to taste.

Scoop the dates into a sieve and holding the sieve over the pot, press as much juice out of them with the back of a spoon as you can. (I reserve the cooked dates, puree them into a paste and save them for use as a sweetener in other recipes. They can be frozen too).

Continue simmering the date water until you reach the desired consistency. The longer you simmer the water, the darker and more intense the flavour will become. I find that when I have about ¾ to 1 cup of liquid in the saucepan, the flavour and consistency is about right for me.

In the photo below, the darker syrup on the left was simmered for about 45 minutes, and the lighter coloured syrup on the right was simmered for about 15-20 minutes. 

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By the way, I make syrup from green grapes too. The process for making grape syrup is exactly the same. I simmer about a pound of green grapes in 4 cups of water, strain and reduce the cooking liquid to the desired consistency (just under 1 cup). The colour of grape syrup is lighter and a little less sweet than date syrup, depending on the ripeness of the grapes used to make the syrup. But it is delicious, and I find it preferable in some recipes.

Both date and grape syrups keep for a week refrigerated but they also freeze, so make extra and store some for future use.

*Note

To keep it raw, date syrup can be made by soaking 12 dates in 2 cups of water for two or three days at room temperature (you can soak them in the refrigerator if you prefer). The soaking water will sweeten after a few days at which time you can strain the liquid and use the syrup as a sweetener. The longer the dates soak, the sweeter the liquid becomes. I often leave the dates soaking for a week or more in the refrigerator. The photo below shows dates that have been soaking for about a day and a half in 2 cups of water.

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By this method, the date syrup doesn’t become as dark or thick as it would if you were boiling the dates but the soaking liquid  does become very sweet, and results in a terrific alternative sweetener. I find it perfect for sweetening iced tea, smoothies, and all kinds of other dishes when I want to replace refined sugar.

Date Paste

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Date paste is a delicious, and addictive condiment! Swirl a little in your morning oatmeal, use it to fill cookies, spread it on toast, serve it with cheese and crackers, add it to a sandwich containing spring lettuces, cucumbers, avocado and tahini, for an interesting combination of sweet and salty flavours, or use it in sugar free recipes. Yum! 

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Ingredients

  • 12 medjhool dates
  • 1 tsp. lemon juice
  • 1 vanilla bean, seeds scraped

Soak the dates in water for a couple of hours to soften. Remove the dates to a cutting board and reserve the soaking water.  

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Cut a slice down one side of each date, open it up and remove the pits. Coarsely chop the dates and place them in your blender with the lemon juice, seeds from the vanilla bean and about 1/4 cup of the soaking water to start. Blend everything together.

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If the paste is to thick for the blender, add more water, a tablespoon at a time and continue to blend until the mixture is smooth. The paste doesn’t have to be completely smooth though. Visually, I quite like seeing bits of unprocessed date throughout the paste, and I like the texture. 

By the way, if you have never tried a sandwich combining date paste and tahini together, please do so – the flavour is a little bit similar to natural peanut butter and jam!

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