April 17, 2019

Dear friends,
I finished a big writing project on Saturday and celebrated with a fun dinner. I made an intensely coconut-y quinoa and topped it with skewers of shrimp and mango chunks lacquered with sweet soy sauce and seared in a skillet. It was a party on a plate.

I got the idea from “Flavor Matrix” by James Briscione, which I borrowed from the library. The book is based on pairings of foods, determined by a computer based on their molecular similarities. Sound complicated? The book does nothing to simplify matters. And when you do drill down to a nugget of information, many of the pairings seem obvious — citrus with ginger and cilantro, cucumber with yogurt, and winter squash with butter and cheese.

Still, I gleaned enough inspiration to come up with this shrimp, coconut and quinoa dish. The author used oatmeal instead of quinoa and the idea does seem novel. Quinoa was another choice, and that’s what I had in the cupboard. If you want to try the oatmeal version, have at it.

The proportions of most of the ingredients in the recipe are mine, as are the kabobs. the tropical vibe was just what I needed on a stormy night when I was in the mood to celebrate.

COCONUT QUINOA

1 cup quinoa (the kind that takes 15 minutes to cook)
2 tbsp. butter
4 green onions, sliced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 tsp. salt
1 can (13.5 oz.) coconut milk
1/2 cup shredded coconut (not sweetened)
Rinse quinoa well under cold running water. Heat butter in a 2-quart saucepan. Sauté onions and garlic until they release their aromas and the onions begin to wilt. Stir in salt. Stir in quinoa. Stir in coconut milk and coconut.

Bring to a boil, reduce heat, cover and simmer for 15 minutes. If any liquid remains, uncover and boil until it has evaporated. Remove from heat and fluff with a fork. Mound on two dinner plates and top with kabobs.

Note: Frozen, shredded unsweetened coconut can be found in Asian and health-food stores).

SHRIMP AND MANGO KABOBS
4 to 6 wood skewers, cut to fit into a large skillet or cast-iron grill pan
12 to 18 large raw shrimp, depending on appetite
1 firm, slightly underripe mango
3 scallions, green part only
2 tbsp. vegetable oil
1/4 cup sweet soy sauce

Note: This makes two to three kabobs per person, depending on appetite. I was fine with two. Tony wanted three. Each kabob has three shrimp. Use your judgement.

Soak the skewers in warm water to prevent them from splintering when you skewer the food; even a few minutes helps).

Peel the shrimp and pat dry with paper towels. Cut the cheeks off the mango and score the flesh into 1-inch chunks. Cut the chunks away from the skin. Fold the green part of the scallions accordion-style into 1-inch lengths, two bends per piece.

In order, thread on a skewer: shrimp, mango, onion, shrimp, mango, shrimp. Repeat with remaining skewers.

Heat a large cast-iron grill pan or heavy skillet over medium-high heat. When hot, add oil and swirl to coat pan. In batches, place skewers in pan and sear on one side. Turn and brush seared side with soy sauce. After a minute, turn and brush other side with soy sauce. Turn once more.

Shrimp should be done at this point. If not, cook a few seconds longer. Remove from pan and place two or three skewers on top of each mound of coconut quinoa. Serves two.

GUT CHECK
What I cooked last week:
Chicken stir-fry with shredded brussels sprouts over rice; spice-rubbed, wood-smoked spare ribs; tomato meat sauce baked in a spaghetti squash half with Parmesan; coconut quinoa with shrimp and mango kabobs.

What I ate in/from restaurants:
Spicy fried chicken and green beans with potatoes from Louisiana Famous Fried Chicken in Akron; half of a Subway roast beef sandwich; barbecued pork chops, green beans, salad and hot tea at Alexandri’s in Wadsworth; a cup of vegetable soup and half of a spicy Asian salad with chicken at Panera; a salmon salad from Acme; scrambled eggs with ham and feta cheese, hash browns, wheat toast and coffee at Michael’s A.M. in Akron.

THE MAILBAG
From A.K.:
I have a question about olive oil. I do understand that olive oil and extra-virgin olive oil have different cooking profiles —extra-virgin (evoo) has a much lower smoking temperature because of higher particulate content, etc. The thing is, 97 percent of recipes call for simply “olive oil,” which to me tastes like vegetable oil with more health benefits. Often I will see a recipe that seems to cry out for evoo, the taste of which I love. I say use evoo when the recipe calls for low-heat cooking and simply olive oil for heavier sautéing.

So, my question: Do most recipes calling for olive oil actually mean evoo? Or should it be open to the intended use? Or do we simply use regular olive oil unless a recipe calls for evoo? Those recipes are few and far between.

Dear A.K.:
Two issues are germane here. First, many so-called extra-virgin olive oils have been found to not be the first pressing. The olive oil scam erupted in 2015, when testing showed that many Italian olive oils (some say up to two-thirds) were not extra-virgin as the labels claimed. More than 30 producers were arrested after the fraud came to light. To make sure your oil is extra-virgin, consult the list compiled by the North American Olive Oil Association at aboutoliveoil.com. Click on “Certified Quality Seal” in the menu across the top.

The second issue is that, in my opinion, many recipe writers use “olive oil” when they often mean “extra-virgin” because that’s the only kind of olive oil most Americans buy. I think you should trust your tastebuds. If you think a recipe would taste better with extra-virgin, use it. The exception, of course, is when the oil is to be heated at a high temperature. That would kill the flavor and produce smoke, so you’re better off using vegetable oil or regular olive oil.

I used to buy a very fruity, unfiltered (and expensive) extra-virgin olive oil that I used unheated in things like dressings or to drizzle on a dish as a finishing touch. I got it at West Point Market, and haven’t seen it anywhere else. I think Russ Vernon imported it directly from the producer. For sautéing, I used (and still use) a less-expense jug-type extra-virgin. For frying, I use canola. So basically, I think your instincts are correct.

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