A New Year’s Eve Dinner Party: Grilled Pear Crostini and Winter Vegetable Israeli Couscous

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Happy 2014 to you all! I hope everyone had a wonderful holiday season full of family, friends, love and great food!

Pete and I were fortunate to have a little vacation time right after Christmas and spent a couple nights in favorite cities sandwiched around a couple nights at the cabin (while Otis enjoyed a little vacation of his own at the pet resort). Arriving at the cold cabin, it was around 30 F. degrees outside, but even colder inside. After Pete got an inferno going in the wood stove, the temperature climbed to a balmy 32!Thermometer (940x1280)

Gradually the warmth spread throughout the cabin and we had a comfortable evening listening to the WTIP’s eclectic programming and relearning backgammon (neither of us had played since college!). The next day was an active one spent running and snowshoeing in gently falling snow, but the outside temps plummeted that afternoon and by our second morning “roughing” it, outside it was -15 F., which made it all the more challenging to keep the cabin interior toasty, but we remained close to warm—lots of layers helped!
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The sub-zero temperatures rewarded us with stunning views lakeside. Ice formations were spectacular and the steam rising off the warmer-than-air-temp lake gave the sunny morning an extraordinary look.
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Back home now for a couple days, we decided a New Year’s Eve dinner in was the celebration of choice. One of my favorite Christmas gifts, from my brother and sister-in-law with impeccable taste, was Plenty: Vibrant Vegetable Recipes from London’s Ottolenghi by Yotam Ottolenghi. Trying out a few new recipes was a perfect way to spend the evening.

Grilled Pear Crostini was our first course. Adapted for taste preferences and what we had on hand, this was both pretty and delicious, and is an appetizer that would go over big at any dinner party. Make sure your pears aren’t too ripe or they will fall apart on the grill pan.
??????????????????????OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOur second course was a re-do of the salad I made for Christmas, an orange-pistachio salad, flecked with red onion and tossed with orange juice-Dijon vinaigrette. Recipe coming in a future post.
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A bold and hearty Winter Vegetable Israeli Couscous was our entrée. Spicy and filling, the perfect dish for a celebration dinner on a night where temperatures continue to remain stuck below zero. Wanting to avoid a trip the grocery store, I adapted it for what I had in my fridge and pantry, and have included both recipes as I made them.
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Dessert was thawed from the freezer—leftovers of our Christmas Apple Pear Galette with Cinnamon-Buttermilk Glaze, paired with a scoop of vanilla bean ice-cream. After dinner champagne by the fire brought us to a midnight toast and welcome of the New Year. May it be your best ever!

Grilled Pear Crostini
Makes 2-4 servings

1/3 cup pine nuts, toasted
5 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided
1 clove garlic, minced
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
4-6 slices whole wheat baguette, cut 1 ½ inches thick
2 semi-ripe pears (unpeeled)
2 teaspoons sugar
2 teaspoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
4-5 ounces good quality mozzarella cheese, shredded
1 tablespoon chopped fresh tarragon, for garnish

Preheat oven to 400 degrees F. In a food processor, process pine nuts, 4 tablespoons olive oil, garlic, and a bit of salt and black pepper to a coarse paste. Spread a thin layer of paste on each slice of baguette. Place bread slices on a baking sheet and toast in the oven for about 8 minutes. Remove from oven and set aside.

Meanwhile, cut each pear lengthwise into 6 wedges and remove the core with a knife. Toss the pear wedges in a bowl with the remaining tablespoon olive oil, sugar, lemon juice, and a pinch of salt.

Heat a ridged cast iron grill pan over high heat until very hot. Using a tongs, place the pear slices in the pan and cook for about one minute to make char marks, then turn with tongs and cook for one minute longer on the other side. Remove the pears carefully with tongs.
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To assemble crostini, sprinkle each toasted bread slice with cheese and top with a couple pear slices. Bake for 3-4 minutes, until cheese is somewhat melted. Remove from oven and sprinkle with chopped tarragon and freshly ground black pepper. Serve immediately.

Winter Vegetable Israeli Couscous
Serves 4

2 medium carrots, peeled and cut into chunks
10-12 baby blonde or gold potatoes, cut into quarters
4 large or 8 small shallots, peeled and cut into ½ inch chunks
2 cinnamon sticks
¼ teaspoon five spice powder
3 bay leaves
4 tablespoons olive oil, divided
Salt
½ teaspoon ground ginger
¼ teaspoon ground turmeric
¼ teaspoon hot paprika (or sweet paprika, plus a pinch of cayenne)
¼ teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes

2 ¼ cups cubed winter squash or pumpkin

½ cup golden raisins
1 can chickpeas (garbanzo beans), drained, reserving liquid
Vegetable broth or stock to make 1 ½ cups when combined with reserved bean liquid

1 cup Israeli couscous (or regular or whole wheat couscous; quinoa for a gluten-free version, cooked according to package directions)
large pinch of saffron
1 ¼ cup vegetable broth or stock
2 tablespoons butter, broken into pieces

1 tablespoon harissa
Zest of half a lemon
Freshly squeezed juice of half a lemon

Chopped tarragon, Italian parsley, or cilantro for garnish

Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. In a large baking dish, combine the carrots, potatoes, and shallots with cinnamon sticks, five spice powder, bay leaves, three tablespoons olive oil, ½ teaspoon salt, and the remaining spices, until vegetables are evenly coated. Cook for 15 minutes.
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Add the cubed squash, tossing to incorporate, and continue cooking for about 35 minutes, until vegetables have softened, but are not mushy. Add raisins, chickpeas, and broth with reserved chickpea liquid. Cook an additional 10 minutes, or until heated through. Stir the harissa, lemon juice, and lemon zest into the vegetables. Taste and add salt, if needed.

About 10 minutes before vegetables are done, heat to boiling the 1 ¼ cup vegetable broth, remaining 1 tablespoon olive oil, saffron and a pinch of salt. Add Israeli couscous, and simmer for about 10 minutes. Add the butter and stir into couscous and cover until butter is melted.

To serve, place several large spoonsful of couscous in a shallow bowl. Top with a large ladle full of vegetable mixture, including liquid. Garnish with chopped tarragon, Italian parsley, or cilantro. Enjoy!

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