A touch of spice makes everything nice. That, and a lightly fried egg whose richness bathes everything in sticky bliss. The prongs of your fork will be cloying this substance, well after you’re done eating and trying to rinse it free. It doesn’t take much to make one simple brunch so memorable, and linger on in your tastebuds, if not also your silverware.
My friend Karol has been coordinating a CSA in her neighborhood for years. A couple years ago, she handed me a bag of spelt berries, a whole grain similar to farro or wheatberries, that was leftover from her pickup day. I used it to make a “risotto,” with maitake (aka hen of the woods) mushrooms and parsnips that dissolved into an invisible melding sludge to the sauce. That was a pretty tough one to follow. But Karol recently handed me another bag of spelt berries from her CSA pick-up day, and I was determined to take it to another place. Goodbye, Italy, hello North Africa.
What a difference a little spice blend can make! My boring, leftover roasted sweet potatoes were revived to something quite else with a pinch of Moroccan ras el hanout. This is a typical mixture of spices from the region, usually incorporating turmeric, cumin, coriander, chili, cinnamon, nutmeg, and cardamom, but each shop or chef has their own blend, as its name actually denotes “top shelf,” or its top quality spices. I sprinkled a little more of this into the cooked spelt grains, along with salt, olive oil, and a squeeze of fresh lemon juice to brighten it up.
My crisper drawer has been looking a little sullen lately, filled with onions and roots rather than sprightly greens. But I did find myself with some really “top shelf” onions recently, little treasures called cipollini onions, which sort of resemble flattened shallots with their diminutive size and pinkish cast. They have an affecting sweetness and I didn’t want to overcook them, to savor it more. I think they retain crispness better than shallots when sauteeing, though, as some of mine still gave with a gentle crunch, although they weren’t sharp-tasting, either.
Here, I wish I’d had some mint to color the pilaf a little more. But in lieu of that, I went for something more satisfyingly rich rather than refreshing. I was really hungry around late-late brunchtime, too, which I think entails right before dinner. So I plopped an egg on the same pan that had sauteed the onions, and let it sit just until its white firmed up.
A simple solution that sticks — literally. Now go enjoy that mess of goo soon!
Spelt Pilaf with Roasted Sweet Potatoes, Onions and Ras el Hanout
(makes 2-3 servings)
1 cup uncooked spelt berries
2-3 cipollini onions (or substitute with shallots), thinly sliced
2 medium-sized sweet potatoes, diced
3-4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon ras el hanout (a Moroccan spice blend)
salt and pepper to taste
1 egg per serving (optional)
Cover the spelt berries in 1 inch of lightly salted water and bring just to a boil. Reduce heat to a low simmer, cover, and cook until all the water has been absorbed and spelt is tender, about 35 minutes.
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Toss the sweet potato pieces in about 1 tablespoon olive oil, a couple pinches of salt and pepper, and about 1/4 teaspoon of the raz el hanout. Spread in an even layer on a sheet pan and roast about 20 minutes, flipping them over once halfway through cooking optionally (to produce a more even browning).
Heat a saute or fry pan with another tablespoon of oil and add the sliced onions. Cook over medium-low, stirring and adding a pinch of salt, until just softened, 5-6 minutes.
Let the spelt berries cool uncovered a few minutes. Toss with the roasted sweet potatoes, sauteed onions, and the remaining 1/4 teaspoon of raz el hanout. Add about 1 tablespoon of olive oil, the lemon juice, and season with salt and pepper to taste. Heat the pan with a spot of oil over medium heat for the fried egg. Gently crack an egg over the bubbling oil and don’t touch it a few seconds. Let it cook sunny side-up, sprinkling it with a bit of salt, for about 1-2 minutes. Transfer from pan and top each serving of the pilaf with a fried egg.
(for 2-3 servings)
1 cup spelt berries (at $4/lb from Cayuga Organics): $1.50
3 cipollini onions (at $3/lb): $0.75
2 sweet potatoes (at $1/lb): $1.00
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice: $0.20
3-4 tablespoons olive oil: $0.30
1/2 teaspoon raz el hanout: $0.50
3 eggs (at $5/dozen): $1.25
Four maple leaves: Despite its dearth of green, this dish is potent with vitamins and minerals, thanks to both the spelt and the sweet potatoes. Since these ancient grains are kept whole, with their bran and germ, the spelt berries are high in fiber, protein, B-vitamins and manganese, and are known to promote heart and cardiovascular health. Sweet potatoes, while not green, are intensely hued and incredibly rich in beta-carotenes. Its Vitamin A and Vitamin C levels will help keep you healthy this winter, and since sweet potatoes have lots of natural sugars, they’ll keep this dish flavorful, too.
Nine maple leaves: Locally-sourced, whole, healthy grains that keep in storage; locally-grown, healthy sweet potatoes that can be stored all winter long, and a cage-free, locally-produced pastured chicken’s egg as the icing on the cake makes this a very low carbon-footprint meal. Did I mention that it’s also very economical, given these stored winter ingredients? The imported spice blend, olive oil and salt and pepper spice things up here, but those keep in your pantry for quite a while, too.