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caramelized veggies with couscous

January 5th, 2012 | 4 Comments »

The new year is starting out with a bit less motivation than I was expecting. This isn’t such a bad thing; I did have the last five days off work, and after the busy, frenetic pace of the holidays that was a very welcome change. Maybe the sloth that settled on me was just a reminder to take the time off wisely, to relax, regenerate and just be.

But I wanted to cook and I wanted to stretch. I’ve been lacking in the desire to stretch in the kitchen, to experiment with a few recipes that press against the norm of what I’ve been doing lately, which admittedly, isn’t a whole lot. That work thing sort of stunted my creativity for a while, and before that…. well, I was just coasting. But we’re on a fresh calendar page, with new beginnings for everyone; resolves to take a healthier approach to life, to strive for better in our personal lives; I’ve even seen people who are eager to expand their eating repertoire, promising to try one new food item each week. These are resolves I can get behind. And along with continuing on our meat-free journey, I need to explore more options for our meals. Because while soups, meatless chili and braised greens are all tremendous and satisfying, there is so much more in this vegetable world that can be taken on.

This recipe was bookmarked back in October, most likely. As is the norm, I’m just not sure why I don’t tackle these things as soon as they land in my radar. I could have been enjoying this dish on repeat each week, changing up the vegetables and inhaling it’s deeply dark and sweet flavor through these last few months, but as usual, it languished. And we missed out. That’s too bad. The flavor in this dish was incredible, invading our senses not only as it cooked, but as we gathered over our steaming bowls, forks poised in anticipation. I looked down at my bowl and turned to Mike. “This is a total restaurant dish.” and he nodded as the first bite crossed his lips. His eyes lit up and he smiled.

And there’s another reason why I kick myself for waiting so long to enjoy this. To miss out on seeing that is criminal.

The creation of this dish isn’t difficult; it does require some attention as you methodically caramelize your vegetables in stages on the stovetop. I evolved the process from the original instructions to make it even easier for your average cook. You need a big pan with lots of surface area- I used a 12″ skillet with straight sides- and patience to allow the vegetables to cook, undisturbed, so they achieve that golden flavor and color. The original recipe calls for using orzo, but I’m slightly enamored of pearl couscous these days, so any excuse to throw that in the mix is fine with me. A good hearty brown rice would even work. While there are a lot of steps to this recipe, it flows very well so don’t let the length intimidate you.

Don’t you just love that color? Not only is the dish gorgeous all on it’s own, placing it in the morning sun, as it rose behind a thin band of clouds brought out all it’s burnished caramel-y tones. Even with it being 9:00am when I took these photos, I could have eaten this for breakfast without a second thought. Hmmmm….. don’t mind if I do.

Caramelized Vegetables with Pearl Couscous

2 c. pearl couscous
Grapeseed, peanut, or vegetable oil
1 large sweet potato (about 3/4 pound), peeled and diced, about 1/4″-1/2″
1 large onion (about 1 pound), finely diced
4 cloves garlic, minced
3-inch piece fresh ginger — peeled and chopped fine, about 1 tablespoon
1-8oz pkg portabella mushrooms, sliced, with stems removed
1 T. balsamic vinegar
2 T. soy sauce
3 big leaves chard or kale, stalks removed and leaves finely chopped — about 2 cups (I subbed in the equivalent of arugula) 
Freshly ground black pepper
Parmesan, optional

Heat a large pot of water to boiling and salt it generously. Cook the couscous until barely al dente — about 5 minutes. Drain and toss with a generous drizzle of oil so that the grains are lightly coated with oil. Set aside.

Heat a large sauté or frying pan (the largest you have — you want plenty of room and hot surface) over high heat. Drizzle in a little grapeseed or vegetable oil (not olive oil — you want an oil with a high smoke point) and heat until very hot. Add the sweet potatoes and arrange them in one layer. Cook them over high heat until they are beginning to caramelize and turn brown — about 4 minutes. Flip them over and cook for another 3 minutes or so.

Turn the heat down to medium and add the onions, sprinkling them with about a teaspoon of salt. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the onions are beginning to turn brown. Add the minced garlic and chopped ginger and stir them into the onions. Push the sweet potato and onions to the edges of the pan, making room in the center.

Add the sliced portabella mushrooms to the hot center of the pan and cook them for 4 minutes without turning them. Then flip and stir them and cook for another 4 minutes. Once browned, stir them in to the sweet potato and onions. Keep the heat at medium, or slightly higher. Stir the vegetables occasionally. You want them richly browned.

At this point everything should be getting well-cooked; the onions should be quite dark brown and the garlic should be golden and soft. The potatoes should be softening.

Whisk together the vinegar, soy sauce, and 2 tablespoons of oil. Pour this into the pan with the vegetables and mix everything together, scraping the bottom as you go. Cook all the elements together for about 3 minutes on medium heat. Then turn the heat up to high, as high as it will go.

Add the couscous gradually, shaking in about a cup at a time, stirring and scraping constantly. Cook the couscous over high heat with the rest of the vegetables for about 5 minutes, letting the couscous get browned on the bottom of the pan, then scraping it up. You are developing a little more color and flavor on the pasta, and helping all the flavors combine. (I cooked this a bit longer to get more flavor in the couscous. The browning of it smells glorious)

Finally, toss the greens into the mix and cook for 1 more minute or until the greens are barely wilted. Turn off the heat and taste. Add salt and pepper if needed. Serve hot, with shavings of Parmesan if desired. (We didn’t even consider the parmesan. And I don’t think it even needed it.)


Original recipe from The Kitchn, by Faith Durand. Here with my own modifications.

Comfort foods, but better

May 10th, 2009 | 5 Comments »

Life isn’t simple anymore. Not that this is a shock to anyone with an adult’s perspective. It seems that everything has gotten so much more complicated, and while we burst through life determining what path to take that is right for us, we are constantly faced with decisions and truths that require a ‘turn on a dime’ change of direction. It’s just not like when we were kids.


Of course, this isn’t a bad thing either. It’s nice to look at our past and see where we’ve ‘grown up’ even if, somewhere inside us, we still are surprised at the face that looks back from the mirror. I still can feel like I’m 12 again, or 24, or 30 and a brand new Mom. Of course I wish that I could still run barefoot from June to September, the sun hot on my skin and nothing more pressing in my day except where the next adventure would take root; I think about Kool-Aid, Popsicles and A&W Root Beer with a hard scoop of vanilla ice cream floating in it. I think about one-room air conditioners, the smell of bed linens fresh off the clothesline and how it seemed so perfect to take a peanut butter sandwich outside to the backyard for a picnic. And while all of this speaks more to the carefree days of childhood and what I find I can no longer freely indulge in, it’s more than just a nostalgic turn; I think I just yearn for a time when I was blissfully unaware that life existed outside the realms of my neighborhood. With all the gloom and doom present in our daily media, it’s no small feat to try and close it out. And while I can grasp my adulthood fully with both hands and move ahead with the changing world, there still are times that I want something that reminds me of simpler days.

Not too long ago I posted about finding plenty of nostalgia in a perusal of food blogs, and it got a conversation rolling with Jamie and Kristen about foods from our past. Kristen especially tickled me in a discourse we had over cream soups and some of the dishes we used to make with them, and part of what we talked about was that although these foods often have good memories attached to them, they aren’t all that healthy. Looking around me in the grocer, I had to wonder if it was possible to bring them back with less guilt, and possibly more flavor.

The ubiquitous Tuna Mushroom Pasta was a standard from my childhood; macaroni, canned mushrooms and tuna, cream of mushroom soup and a crush of potato chips over the top was a mainstay for dinner. No one really went “Ooooooh!!!” whenever it was presented, and I recall a time when I clearly told myself I would never eat it again. And in that representation, I never did.


One good thing about following the flow of life is watching your food mature around you. I’m glad to be far away from the foods of my past, although it’s nice to think I can recreate them, but better. And more flavorful.

mushroom-tuna-and-pasta-012(Not exactly the Beauty Queen of Cuisine…..but oh so delicious!)

No one is chained to Campbells soups anymore; Amy’s Soups has a lovely creamy mushroom soup, Health Valley Organics makes a completely natural line of cream soups, and then there’s my favorite- this Portabello Mushroom soup from Imagine Natural Creations. When the desire strikes for a meal that not only satisfies my need for a little nostalgia, but also will bring smiles to both Mike and Griffin- who absolutely LOVES this dish- this is where I turn; better ingredients, and a more sophisticated method.


Kate’s Mushroom Tuna Pasta

1# dry pasta, cooked to taste
1 pkg. Baby Bella mushrooms
1 large leek, split and washed, sliced very thin
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 yellow pepper, chopped
1-2 3-oz pkgs Tuna (or other tuna of choice)
1 16-oz container Imagine Portabello Mushroom soup (or equivalent)
1/2 c. frozen peas
Butter and olive oil for cooking
Worchestershire sauce (optional)

Other optional add-ins: Toasted seasoned bread crumbs and grated parmesan cheese.

In a medium sized skillet, warm approximately 2 T. olive oil and 2 T. butter  and add leek, cooking for about 15 minutes over medium heat, stirring regularly. When soft and beginning to brown in spots, add in yellow pepper and cook for 5 minutes. Stir in garlic, reduce heat to low and cook, stirring occasionally for about 5 minutes. Stir in peas, cover and keep over low heat.

In a separate pan, warm 4 T. of butter and 2 T. olive oil, add mushrooms and cook over medium-high heat, stirring regularly until mushrooms begin to release their liquid. If using, at this point add about 2 T. worchestershire sauce to mushrooms, along with a generous grind of black pepper. Stir to combine and continue to cook, allowing mushrooms to sear and brown.

Drain pasta, reserving about a half cup of pasta water, but don’t shake off excess. Return to pan and add in soup, tuna, the leek mixture and the mushrooms. Stir to combine. Add in some of the pasta water if the mix is thick. Season to taste with salt and more fresh ground black pepper.

This method, while a bit futzy, produces a very flavorful end result. By no means is it carved in stone. I do heartily recommend a separate pan for cooking the mushrooms, solely for the flavor it will impart, but in a pinch you can cook all the vegetables together. Regular chopped onion is fine too, it seems lately I’m kind of on a leek fix. Skip the butter if it isn’t your thing.

mushroom tuna and pasta 008

My love for toasted bread crumbs knows no boundaries. I prefer Panko for this application, reserving the bread crumbs I make from scratch for use as a filler or bond. I mix about a cup of Panko with melted butter and some olive oil, then add in a multitude of dry seasonings such as dried basil, garlic and onion powder, fresh ground pepper, maybe some dried mustard and then heat them gently in a pan, stirring continually, until they are fragrant and browned. Be sure to remove them from the pan when they’re done or they will burn. They keep in the fridge for a while, although I’ve never determined exactly how long because I make up excuses to eat them.