Saturday, June 19, 2010

pesto grilled vegetables with israeli couscous, quinoa and baby chickpeas

"Brevity is the soul of wit."

So William Shakespeare wrote in his timeless play, Hamlet. Admittedly, wit is not my strong point, and perhaps being long-winded is where I go astray. I brainstormed for a long time about a more succinct title for this post, but in the end I was willing to forego cleverness in favor of capturing the soul of this recipe. In the interest of clarity and informativeness, I give you Pesto Grilled Vegetables with Israeli Couscous, Quinoa and Baby Chickpeas. If you're the impatient type, I'll throw you a bone. This recipe is quick enough to make for lunch.

The inspiration came from a package of "Harvest Grains Blend" I picked up at Trader Joe's. It's a mixture of Israeli couscous (which is basically tiny round pasta balls), orzo (rice-shaped pasta also known as risoni), baby garbanzo beans (also known as chana dal) and red quinoa. The brilliant thing about this blend is that all of these "grains" take about the same amount of time to cook. I find that this mix is a little short on the quinoa, so I supplement from my own stash. Quinoa, by the way, is a superfood, with very high protein content and a unique combination of amino acids, such that NASA is considering it for its Controlled Ecological Life Support System [more on the benefits of quinoa]. Just like Tang, if it's good enough for astronauts, it's good enough for me. (All right, in the interest of full disclosure, I've never tasted Tang and I don't blindly follow celebrity endorsements, but hopefully if you haven't already tried quinoa, you'll give it a go. It's delicious and really good for you.)

I grill my veggies on a George Foreman Grill. It sits on my kitchen counter and gets a lot of use in the summertime. If you don't already own one, I highly recommend it; just make sure you get the model with the removable grill plates, because otherwise it's a real pain in the neck to clean. This reminds me of a quote from one of my favorite comedians, the late Mitch Hedberg. "This shirt is dry clean only... which means it's dirty." Infer what you will.

The exact proportion of veggies to grains doesn't really matter here. You can't go wrong; these quantities are provided as a guideline. If you don't usually work with asparagus, here's how to prepare it: Hold the spear at both ends and bend it until it breaks. The natural breaking point is where the tough, woody part ends and the soft, yummy edible part begins. This tip came to me courtesy of my brother-in-law Ed, a former NYC chef. Thanks, Eddie!

One more note: This recipe is vegan except for the Parmesan cheese on top (and maybe the pesto sauce depending on your choice of sauce). I think the cheese is essential to the flavor of the dish, but if you're vegan, I'm sure you already know of a few alternatives. Some high-quality sea salt should do the trick, for example.

- 1 cup Trader Joe's Harvest Grains Blend (or your own mixture of Israeli couscous, orzo, baby chickpeas and red quinoa)
- 1/4 cup (additional) red quinoa
- 1 3/4 cup water
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 1 red pepper, deseeded and sliced into rounds
- 1 zucchini, sliced into rounds
- 12 asparagus spears, broken to remove the woody bottom part
- Half a small eggplant, sliced into rounds
- 6 stuffing-sized portobello mushrooms, sliced
- Half a large red onion, sliced into rounds
- 3 tablespoons of pesto sauce (I recommend Basiltops Dairy-free Vegan Pesto, which I get at WholeFoods, but any ready-made pesto sauce will do... or of course you can make your own)
- Freshly grated Parmesan
- Salt and pepper to taste

Put the water, olive oil and grains into a saucepan and bring to a boil. Cover, reduce the heat, and simmer for about 13 minutes.
While the grains are cooking, heat up the grill, slice up your veggies and toss them on. I brush them with olive oil and sprinkle them with salt once they're on there. Keep an eye on them, as different veggies take different amounts of time to cook. Once they're grilled, chop them up into smaller pieces. By now, the grains will be done (I recommend tasting them to be sure - all the water should have evaporated), so add your chopped grilled veggies right to the cooking pot, and then your pesto sauce. Stir to combine. Spoon the mixture out into bowls and top with some freshly grated Parmesan cheese.

Katherine's Note:
I think this little recipe is deserving of its long magnific title; it is so awesomely easy and delicious. I love TJ's for offering such a creative and appealing mix with this blend. I looked around online to see if anything else is written about it, and someone suggested incorporating it into a soup, which I think is a good idea also.

It is fun to read that NASA article about the potential use of quinoa on the long space mission. It is actually an easy-to-read and informative summary about the grain. I am a big fan of having quinoa as a breakfast cereal, and I had read somewhere that it is important to rinse it in cold water before using, but didn't remember why. In the NASA article, it's explained that the grain has a coating of saponin glycosides, a bitter chemical that the plant naturally uses to deter insects. These saponins can presumably interfere with digestion, and may taste bitter anyway, so be sure to rinse.

And I am happy too that you brought up the long term space mission because it gives me a chance to plug one of the best short stories I have read in recent years: Lostronaut, by Jonathan Lethem. Luckily it is available online. If you are a lover of fiction, check it out.