Recipe Finder: Herbal inspiration

Spring officially arrived, thank goodness. We're ready for the bounty of herbs soon to come. Happily, a recent meal at T'afia, an eclectic restaurant in Houston, made our herb-loving hearts beat faster. Chef Monica Pope served a mound of red quinoa with quickly seared scallops and an herb-laden sauce that we nearly licked off the plate.

We started garden-planning immediately: flat-leaf parsley for flower-bed borders everywhere. Plenty of pots of tender cilantro near the back door for easy kitchen use.

The inspirational sauce, a Moroccan staple known as chermoula, uses lots of parsley and aromatic cilantro. In Morocco, the sauce stars as a fish marinade. Like a vinaigrette, the fresh herbs, spices, olive oil and lemon juice simply get blended together. Spiked with plenty of garlic and cumin, the chermoula adds tremendous flavor to delicate, sweet scallops. It also works magic on grilled seafood, chicken, pork and thick eggplant slices.

Red quinoa, a nutritious grain from South America, makes a welcome change from bland couscous. The quinoa sports a nutty flavor with a slight crunch. We found it easily in the natural food section of the supermarket. When cooked, the red grain pops open to reveal a cream-colored center. We simmer the grain on the stove top, but a rice cooker works perfectly.

Even with the bold Moroccan flavors of the chermoula, we couldn't resist adding a little chopped preserved lemon as a garnish. It packs a bright punch perfect for spring dining. Don't fret, the lemons are completely optional, especially when pressured for time. But they are fun to make and will keep many weeks in the refrigerator.

Big, bold flavors, fresh herbs and gorgeous grains.

Sauteed scallops with chermoula

Prep: 20 minutes

Cook: 5 minutes

Makes: 4 servings

Adapted from chef Monica Pope of T'afia in Houston. Leftover chermoula makes a fantastic dressing for romaine, chicken or shrimp salad.

Chermoula sauce:

3/4 cup olive oil

1/2 cup each: parsley leaves, cilantro leaves

1/3 cup fresh lemon juice

4 cloves garlic

1 teaspoon ground cumin

1 teaspoon sweet or smoked paprika

3/4 teaspoon salt

1 1/4 teaspoon ground red pepper


1 1/4 pounds large sea scallops

1/4 teaspoon salt

Freshly ground pepper

2 tablespoons olive oil

Diced preserved lemon rind, see recipe, optional

Parsley sprigs

1. For chermoula sauce, process oil, parsley, cilantro, lemon juice, garlic, cumin, paprika, salt and ground red pepper in a blender until garlic and herbs are finely chopped. Taste; adjust seasonings. (Chermoula will keep up to 2 days covered in the refrigerator; use at room temperature.)

2. Pat scallops dry. Season with the salt and pepper to taste. Heat oil in large nonstick skillet until hot. Add the scallops in a single, uncrowded layer. Sear over medium-high heat until golden, about 3 minutes. Turn; sear the other side, about 1 1/2 minutes.

3. Transfer scallops and pan juices to 4 heated serving plates. Pour about 2 tablespoons chermoula over and around each serving. Sprinkle preserved lemon over all. Garnish with parsley sprigs.

Nutrition information: Per serving: 309 calories, 62% of calories from fat, 21 g fat, 3 g saturated fat, 47 mg cholesterol, 5 g carbohydrates, 24 g protein, 521 mg sodium, 0 g fiber

Smoky red quinoa

Prep: 5 minutes Cook: 15 minutes Makes: 6 servings

1 box (12 ounces) red quinoa (about 1 3/4 cups)

1 can (14 ounces) diced fire-roasted tomatoes, undrained

½ teaspoon salt

1 1/2 cups water

1. Heat quinoa, tomatoes with their juice, salt and water to a simmer in a medium saucepan. Reduce heat to low; cover tightly.

2. Cook over low heat until tender, about 15 minutes. Let stand 5 minutes. Fluff with a fork.

Nutrition information: Per serving: 336 calories, 14% of calories from fat, 5 g fat, 1 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 59 g carbohydrates, 13 g protein, 516 mg sodium, 7 g fiber

Easy preserved lemons

Prep: 10 minutes

Marinate: 9 days

Meyer lemons are good here — they are sweet and tender. Look for them at Trader Joe's and large specialty markets.

2 whole lemons, scrubbed clean

Coarse (kosher) salt

¼ to 1/2 cup fresh lemon juice

1. Cut each lemon into wedges, leaving them attached at the stem end. Coat with a generous amount of salt. Place in a small glass jar; sprinkle with more salt. Repeat with the other lemon, packing it tightly into the jar. Add lemon juice to come about halfway up the lemons. Put the lid on the jar.

2. Let stand at room temperature a couple of days, shaking the jar every day. Refrigerate about 1 week. Lemons will keep 3 months or more in the refrigerator and the skins will get softer. Rinse off salt before using.

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