Ahh, babies. It’s been a long time since I’ve had babies on the brain. Most of my peers had kids so long ago that they are now old enough to be productive members of society; but a month ago, one of my closest and dearest friends had a baby boy the day after my birthday! I cannot tell you how excited I am that a new baby has come into our little group of mostly child-free friends! I don’t have children of my own and that’s not entirely by choice. I struggled with infertility for many years before coming to the realization that one day my lady parts were going to become my undoing. That realization came in 2007 when I landed in the hospital with a collapsed lung caused by severe endometriosis. The following year, almost to the day, my lung spontaneously collapsed again. That time, I spent 6 grueling weeks in the hospital having 4 unsuccessful surgeries before finally heading to the Mayo Clinic for treatment. Remember when I mentioned my scars a few weeks back? That situation accounted for about 60% of them! I spent a week at the Mayo Clinic and they got me in good working order and I am forever grateful for that medical facility–they are nothing short of amazing! For the next 5 years, I tried to avoid the question of what to do about my fertility but once again, my body kind of chose for me. Between the endometriosis and then fibroids, my quality of life was declining, so last year, I bid adieu to my defective parts and gained a few extra scars. You should see me in a bikini! I now just tell people I was attacked by a shark! It was ultimately a good decision, but one made with the stark realization that I was closing the door on having children and assuming the permanent title of Aunt Tracey. And, you know, being Aunt Tracey isn’t so bad. I get to have all the baby-snuggling, play-doh buying and party-throwing fun, without the parent-teacher conferences and college funds!
Last weekend my friends and I threw a baby-welcoming party to welcome this new little person to the tribe! Since this is not a story about biting off more than I can chew, I won’t mention how it’s totally possible to exist on a diet of pink and yellow Jordan almonds and caffeine for 48 hours or that my default amount of food for any gathering equates to “enough to feed an army”. 5 people? Army. 15 people? Most definitely an Army. Probably throw in the Navy for good measure…
Here’s one thing that I know to be true about every party. No matter how much planning and preparation goes into it, party day time is different than normal time. Party day time elapses at a speed that will make your head spin. This party was scheduled to begin at 11:00 a.m. and I swear, 9:00 to 11:00 went by in 10 minutes! Thank goodness I had a lot of help from my friends who helped decorate and put together this amazing spread of appetizers!
The theme of the menu was salads and flatbread pizzas and I was pleased that there was something for every dietary need–vegan, vegetarian, gluten free, omnivore–I think we had it all covered! Over the next few weeks, I’ll be sharing a few of the newer dishes from this menu, but this Grilled Corn and Black Bean Salad was on the menu as well as this Fig and Prosciutto Flatbread Pizza.
This Israeli Couscous, Asparagus and Mushroom salad was a big hit! I know this because there was only one tiny bowl of it left after the party was over! What I loved about this salad was that it could be assembled the night before without the dressing and quickly finished just before the guests arrived, which is great if you’re Aunt Tracey, who makes too much food and is pretty much going crazy making more and more dishes at the last minute. This salad is a playground of flavors and textures: bouncy, tender couscous, crisp-tender asparagus and crunchy spinach are balanced against the meaty umami of sautéed mushrooms. Salty Parmiggiano-Reggiano is tucked in throughout the salad and the whole thing is punctuated by a bright, tangy, red wine vinaigrette. It’s healthy and it’s filling without making you feel heavy. There are a few different components that are made separately, but I’m going to tell you how you can save a little time by changing your method for cooking grains!
In the past, I’ve always made grains in my rice cooker or on the stovetop. Usually I would use a 2 parts water to one part grain ratio and cook it until the grain has absorbed all of the water. But, last year, my friend Alexandra, from Alexandra’s Kitchen who is also a big fan of grain salads, started talking about cooking grains in a big pot of water, just as you would when you boil pasta. The grains cook completely and retain their fluffiness in the salad and what’s more, it cooks in LESS time than the rice cooker or stovetop method. It’s foolproof. I’ve been using this method for quinoa and decided to apply the same method to the couscous for this salad, since Israeli Couscous is essentially a small, pearl-shaped pasta. I simply started a pot of water, threw in a generous pinch (more like a tablespoon) of salt and put the water on to boil. To save time, I blanched my asparagus for the salad in the boiling water, removed it and shocked it, then put the couscous right into the same boiling, salted water. I cooked it for 10 minutes, drained it with a fine mesh strainer and gave it a rinse with cold water. It worked perfectly! The couscous retained its shape and was well-seasoned by the salted water. Since I was making it ahead of time, I drizzled it with a little olive oil just to keep the grains from sticking together. I’m going to try it soon with farro and barley and I’ll report back on how it turns out, but I’m pretty confident that it will work. I actually used Trader Joe’s Harvest Grains Blend for this dish. It’s a blend of Israeli Couscous, quinoa, orzo, and garbanzo beans and I love all of the different textures of the grains! If you don’t have a Trader Joe’s near you, you can find Israeli Couscous in the grocery store located near the rice.
The party was a blast. Everyone had a great time and left with full bellies and to-go containers! I got to honor my best friend and her new little guy. Food, friends and family. It’s what it’s all about. I am Aunt Tracey. And I will snuggle your babies (because my cats don’t tolerate that one bit).
Israeli Couscous, Asparagus and Mushroom Salad
This recipe can easily be increased for a larger portion.
- 1 cup Trader Joe’s Harvest Blend or Israeli Couscous
- 8 ounces sliced Crimini Mushrooms
- 1/2 pound asparagus, trimmed and cut into 1 inch pieces
- A few handfuls of baby spinach
- Olive oil
- 1/4 cup red wine vinegar
- 1 clove garlic, crushed
- 1 teaspoon dijon mustard
- 1 teaspoon herb salt or 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1 teaspoon agave syrup or honey
- Freshly ground black pepper
- Freshly shaved Parmesan cheese or Parmiggiano Reggiano
- kosher salt
- unsalted butter (optional)
- Heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil and a little butter, if desired, in a sauté pan over medium high heat. Sauté the mushrooms in batches with a pinch of kosher salt until they are golden brown. Remove the pan from the heat and set aside.
- Fill a pot with water and season with about one tablespoon of salt and bring to a boil. Fill a medium sized bowl with ice water. Add the asparagus to the boiling water and cook for one minute. Remove the asparagus (leave the water in the pot) with a slotted spoon or fine mesh sieve and immediately plunge the asparagus in the bowl of ice water. After the asparagus cools, drain and set it aside.
- Pour the couscous or couscous blend into the pot of boiling water and boil for 10 minutes, or until the couscous is tender.
- While the couscous is cooking, make the vinaigrette. Whisk together the vinegar, crushed garlic, dijon mustard, agave syrup, herb salt and a few grinds of black pepper in a small bowl. Slowly whisk in 5 tablespoons of olive oil until the mixture has emulsified and set aside.
- Drain the couscous into a large mesh sieve or colander and rinse with cool water. Toss the couscous with a little olive oil to keep the grains from sticking and place in a large salad bowl.
- Add the asparagus, mushrooms, a few handfuls of spinach and the shaved Parmesan cheese to the couscous. Add the dressing, then toss, using your hands if necessary. Garnish with more shaved Parmesan.