Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Honey Roasted Pumpkin and Zesty Couscous Salad

Muggy, steamy days are finally giving way to crisp and breezy mornings. The blistering sun has softened, casting warm, glowing beams as it retires earlier each evening. Everywhere, shopfront mannequins are exchanging capris and tees for cardigans and plaids, signaling that - at long last - Fall has arrived.

In Hong Kong, Autumn is as pleasant as it is transient, no longer so much a distinct season as in the past, but more of an elusive transition into the dry, and sometimes harsh winter. With that said, fall is unquestionably my favorite season to do just about anything: taking a leisurely stroll, hitting the outdoors, having a barbecue... all without the fear of a heat stroke. Heck, even my garden plants seem to be perkier these days. 

A dear friend currently positioned in Saudi Arabia was in town last week and I promised to throw a cozy dinner party for three. Planning a dinner menu is like composing an orchestra: how does each dish flow with one another? What is the sequence of preparation? I needed a substantial salad cum starch that is at once guilt-free, easy to make, and most importantly can be made ahead of time.

With fall and Halloween around the corner comes a plethora of pumpkins big and small, ready to either be carved or thrown into an oven. A rudimentary survey of my pantry has me rounding up a basket of seemingly incongruous ingredients: a box of couscous, some oranges, and an assortment of dried berries and nuts. Surely with a little creativity these can turn into an amazing salad. 

Some simple web-surfing quickly captures my attention on a fascinating recipe that laces them all with accents of aromatic herbs and zesty orange. With a little tweak and some simplifications, the result is an explosion of bold flavors and a tantalizing palette of colors. So delightful and captivating it is with its combination of berries, pecans, and the perfumes of orange, it is like a little bit of Thanksgiving and Christmas, summer and fall all in one! Makes a wonderful side for fish and poultry, and definitely Thanksgiving-worthy.

To prepare...
600g pumpkin, peeled and cut into 2 cm cubes
2 tablespoons honey
3 tablespoons olive oil
1/4 cup orange juice
3/4 - 1 cup couscous
A large handful of dried cranberries and currants
Orange zest of one small orange
2/3 cup water
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 bay leaves (optional)
1 bunch of fresh mint leaves
1 bunch of fresh coriander leaves
1/4 cup chopped pecan nuts, toasted

Dressed in honey and olive oil, heading for the oven
1. Preheat oven to 180/200C. Line a baking tray with baking paper. In a large bowl, toss pumpkin with honey and 1 tablespoon olive oil. Place in a single layer on prepared tray. Bake for 20 to 25 min until caramelized and tender.

2. In the same bowl, whisk together 2 tablespoons orange juice and remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil. Set aside.

3. Meanwhile, place couscous, cranberries, currants, and half of the orange zest in a large heatproof bowl. Place water, remaining 2 tablespoons orange juice, salt, and bay leaf in a small saucepan and bring to the boil. (Alternatively, mix orange juice with 2/3 cup chicken stock)

4. Pour over mixture and cover bowl with foil. Stand for 5 min or until liquid has been absorbed. Fluff couscous with a fork to separate grains.

5. Add pumpkin, mint, coriander, nuts, and orange dressing to couscous mixture. Gently toss to combine and garnish with remaining zest. Enjoy warm or at room temperature!

Note: if making ahead of time, leave herbs, dressing, and nuts until just before serving.

Adapted from Claire Brookman's recipe on Super Food Ideas
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