Vegetarian Lasagne with Pesto

I just looked through my recipe notebooks, and I see that I have eleven different recipes for lasagne. Some are meat-based, most are vegetarian-friendly but use all kinds of different ingredients, one is even suitable for vegans. You have to make something very special indeed though to beat a classic lasagne, made with a rich tomato sauce, comforting bechamel and, of course, minced lean beef.

This is a classic in all-but-one respect: the mince used here is Quorn. Quorn is a product which has become so sophisticated that, when handled well, you can fool most meat-eaters into never considering that they are not eating meat. I’m not generally a fan of using meat substitutes, it seems to be a bit pointless; there is a world of indescribably gorgeous vegetable, lentil and pulse dishes out there to be enjoyed. So, if I am going to use a meat substitute then it has to stand up as an ingredient in its own right; in this lasagne the Quorn mince adds just the right amount of texture, balancing the supple pasta, silky bechamel and piquant tomato sauce.

There is another advantage to using Quorn: it is much lower in calories than lean beef. This is one of those recipes that will lead you into eating far too much of it, it’s just so moreish. At least you don’t need to feel too guilty when you overindulge.

Lasagne is always a bit of a faff. It takes a long time, so my advice is to make the individual elements as your day allows. I made this for my family yesterday and I made the pesto in the morning, the tomato sauce in the afternoon and the bechamel in the evening just before assembling the lasagne. No stress, no rushing, plenty of time to correct any mistakes.

Serve alongside an apple and celery salad, the perfect accompaniment.

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RECIPE – Serves 6

For the tomato sauce:

3 tbsp olive oil

1 medium onion, finely chopped

1 large carrot, grated

1 celery stick, finely chopped

3 fat garlic cloves, peeled and crushed

500g Quorn mince

125ml Madeira, or red wine

400ml passata

1 tin of chopped tomatoes

1 tbsp tomato puree (or, if you have any, two or three oven-dried tomatoes)

a dash of Worcestershire sauce

1 tbsp Marmite

1 tbsp fish sauce

For the pesto:

40g fresh basil, leaves and stalks

1 garlic clove, peeled

30g pine nuts

120ml extra-virgin olive oil

20g grated Parmesan

Sea salt, to taste

For the bechamel:

100g salted butter

100g plain flour

1 litre semi-skimmed milk

1/2 tsp freshly grated nutmeg

50g grated Parmesan

For the lasagne:

lasagne sheets

50g grated Parmesan

50g cold unsalted butter, cubed


METHOD

Prepare the tomato sauce:

Heat the oil in a large pan and gently cook the onion, carrot and celery with the garlic for five minutes over a medium heat until softened. Add the Quorn mince with a generous pinch of salt, cook for a minute or two then add the Madeira and turn the heat up. Let the alcohol bubble off for a minute or so, then add the passata, tomatoes, tomato puree (or oven-dried tomatoes), Worcester sauce, Marmite and fish sauce. Stir thoroughly, bring to the boil then simmer for 30 minutes to an hour, until it is reduced to a thick, rich sauce. Check and adjust the seasoning once it is reduced. Set aside until required.

Prepare the pesto:

Place the basil, garlic and pine nuts in a food processor. Pour in the oil and blitz until it is fairly smooth. Transfer to a bowl and fold in the cheese, season and set aside.

Prepare the bechamel:

Melt the butter in a large pan over a medium heat, stir in the flour and whisk over the heat for a minute or so until a smooth paste has formed. Gradually add the milk, a little at first and in increasing amounts as the volume of sauce increases. Whisking continually, only add more milk once the lumps in the sauce have been beaten out.

Keep whisking continually, until the sauce comes to the boil. Whisk for another minute or so at a simmer, to ensure that the flour is completely cooked-out. The sauce should now be thick enough to coat the back of a spoon.

Stir in the nutmeg, add the Parmesan, then the pesto that you made earlier. Check and adjust the seasoning. You will have a lovely thick, pale green bechamel which – if you have made it correctly – will be the best bechamel you have ever tasted.

Assemble the lasagne:

Preheat the oven to 180C/ gas 4.

Spread a quarter of the bechamel on the bottom of a large ovenproof dish, place a single layer of lasagne sheets on top. Spread half of the tomato sauce on top of that, then add a layer of one-third of the remaining bechamel.

Place another layer of lasagne sheets on top, cover with the remaining tomato sauce and half of the remaining bechamel.

Place a final layer of lasagne sheets on top of that, top it with the last of the bechamel. Sprinkle 50g of grated Parmesan evenly over the top, and dot it randomly with the cubes of cold unsalted butter. Complete it with a few good grinds of black pepper.

Cook on the lowest shelf of the oven for 30 minutes, then increase the oven to 200C/ gas 6 and move the lasagne to the middle of the oven. Bake for a further 15 minutes until the top is golden and crispy.

Remove from the oven and set aside for 5-10 minutes to settle, cool slightly and firm up. Garnish with a few basil leaves if you wish, and serve alongside a salad – the apple and celery salad is particularly good alongside this.

Salmon with Super-Crispy Skin

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The absolute best way to serve salmon is with the skin on and cooked so that it is as dry and crunchy as a potato crisp, while retaining the moistness of the salmon fillet.

The trick is two-fold: ensuring the skin is as dry as it can possibly be, and being brave enough to cook the skin side of the fish for long enough and at a high enough temperature to ensure any remaining moisture is driven out.

To get the skin as dry as possible: first remove any scales, then pat the skin dry as thoroughly as possible using kitchen paper or a j-cloth. Now take a chopping board that is set aside solely for use with raw fish, and lay several layers of kitchen paper on it. Hold the fish fillet, skin uppermost, in the palm of one hand and using the other hand season generously with sea salt. Now lay the fillet, skin side down, on the kitchen paper. Repeat with the remainder of the fillets that you are using, then cover and set aside for 30 minutes or so.

The salt on the skin will draw out any remaining moisture in the skin, and the kitchen paper will absorb it. You will be amazed at how much moisture is extracted.

When you are ready to cook, cut a circle of baking parchment the same size as the base of your frying pan – the same way that you would line the base of a baking tin. Drizzle a couple of tablespoons of light oil over the parchment, turn the heat up and let your pan get really hot, until it is just below the smoke-point of the oil.

Carefully lay the fish fillet, skin-side down, on the oiled parchment, press down so that it lies flat – the fish will probably shrink away slightly at the edges. Cook at high heat for 90% of the cooking time, which for a fillet around 2cm thick will be around 5 minutes, then flip the fillet over and flash-fry the flesh side for 30 seconds – just enough time to give it a bit of colour.

Remove the fillets from the pan and place onto a warmed plate to rest for a few minutes, then serve. It is as easy as that!

Apple and Celery Salad

I have a terrible blind-spot when it comes to salads. It is unforgivable, because amongst the tens of thousands of recipes nestling amid the hundreds of books and magazines that we own, there must be well over a thousand recipes for delicious, interesting and unusual salads. For every main course there is probably a perfect salad that could be served with it, rather than my usual fallback of rocket, romaine lettuce and cucumber, dressed with citrus or vinaigrette.

Here’s one that Bill Granger suggested to be served alongside his baked leek and goat’s cheese risotto. It complements it in every way: where the risotto is rich and creamy, the salad is sharp, bitter and citric. Where the risotto is soft and melting, the nuts, celery and apple provide crunch and texture. For a risotto, this is the perfect salad – in fact, I’ve tried it with a few other dishes and it goes well with everything so far!

If you cannot find chicory, a couple of good handfuls of rocket is a delicious replacement. If you do not like walnuts then lightly-toasted flaked almonds are also delicious.

It goes without saying that you should use the finest extra-virgin olive oil that you can afford, it makes a huge difference in salads. Price isn’t always an indicator that you will like it more, my advice is to sample as wide a variety as you possibly can and stick with the one that blows your socks off – if you search hard enough you will find one that does just that.

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RECIPE – Serves 4

1 celery stick, cut into batons

1 head of yellow chicory, leaves torn

1 head of purple chicory, leaves torn

1 red apple, cored and cut into thin wedges

a handful of walnuts, roughly chopped (or lightly-toasted flaked almonds)

1 tbsp lemon juice

2 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil

freshly-ground black pepper


METHOD

Prepare the salad ingredients, chop the walnuts (or toast the almond flakes) and toss together in a large salad bowl. Drizzle the lemon juice over the bowl, then drizzle the extra-virgin olive oil over that, toss well and season with a few good grindings of black pepper.

Baked Leek and Goat’s Cheese Risotto

I must have been 48 when I ate my first risotto, even then it wasn’t a proper risotto because it was made with pearled spelt rather than risotto rice. I have no idea why it took me so long to try risotto, I have yet to meet one that I didn’t like.

Perhaps because I came to the party so late, I’m no purist. I’m happy using pearl barley or pearled spelt, which make wonderful winter risottos of mushroom and squash, or any of several different types of risotto rice (though Carnaroli is my favourite). A new twist (for me, anyway) is the baked risotto – doing away with the need for standing over the pan stirring for 25 minutes. I actually quite like the stirring, but there are days when you need to get other stuff done, and this is perfect if you’re busy but are keen to impress.

To make it vegetarian, use a light vegetable stock instead of the chicken stock.

Serve alongside an apple and celery salad, the perfect accompaniment.

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RECIPE – Serves 4

2 tbsp olive oil

25g unsalted butter

1 medium onion, very finely chopped

3 medium leeks, halved down their length and finely sliced

2 fat garlic cloves, peeled and crushed

1 tsp coarse sea salt

2 tsp fresh rosemary leaves, chopped

250g risotto rice (Carnaroli is best I think, though Arborio is fine)

850ml hot chicken stock

120g soft goat’s cheese, rind removed and crumbled/chopped

50g finely grated Parmesan


METHOD

Preheat the oven to 200C/ Fan 180C/ gas 6.

In a risotto pan, or very large frying pan, melt the butter and oil, then add the onion, leeks, garlic and salt and saute gently for around 5 minutes to soften them.

Add the chopped rosemary and rice, stir thoroughly so everything is coated in everything else, and cook on for a further minute, stirring constantly. Add the stock and bring to the boil, then remove from the heat and add the goat’s and Parmesan cheese. Stir thoroughly, cover and bake until the rice is al dente. This may take up to 25 minutes, but keep checking after 15 minutes have elapsed.

Remove the lid and place the pan under a hot grill for 5 minutes until the top is golden. Just before serving, sprinkle a little more chopped rosemary over the top, if liked.

Oven-Dried Tomatoes

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The first thing I consider whenever I cook something is: where is the flavour coming from? If it is a risotto the quality of the stock is crucial; if I am making a curry then the spices in the curry paste are the most important elements for flavour, and when making a tomato sauce the quality of the aromatics (not to mention the tomatoes) is key. Get that first consideration wrong, and it won’t matter what else you do, your dish won’t be as delicious as it could possibly be.

I long ago got into the habit of using fish sauce as a way of delivering ‘umami’, and if that isn’t appropriate then an anchovy fillet or two cooked in oil until it all-but dissolves will do the job. If you are making a dish for a vegan though, neither of these methods is appropriate, so I started using commercial sun-dried tomatoes to intensify flavours.

Anyone who knows me knows that I shy away from anything commercially processed, so will know what came next: of course, I started to dry my own tomatoes. It is a simple process, and delivers such intensity to any tomato-based sauce that you will never need to add tomato puree to anything ever again. I now use oven-dried tomatoes in all my tomato sauces, using one or two per tin of chopped tomatoes – so if a recipe calls for two tins of chopped tomatoes, I will augment it with two or four chopped dried tomatoes, depending on the intensity that I require.

They are also lovely spread on toasted bruschetta, with a little goat’s cheese as an antipasti.

To make oven-dried tomatoes:

Heat your oven to 140C/ gas 1.

Cut ripe tomatoes in half and scoop out the seeds, toss the tomato flesh in a little olive oil (I put a couple of tablespoons of olive oil in a large freezer bag, add a kilo of seeded tomatoes and work the tomatoes around the bag so they are fully coated) then lay the tomatoes in a single layer on a rack, set over a baking tray.

Just pop them in the oven and leave them for 2 to 3 hours, until they are reduced in size by about a third. At this point they will still be quite plump, you can go even further and leave them in the oven for up to eight hours so they are fully dried out and leathery. Cooked this way they can be stored almost indefinitely in the fridge.

Pack a kilner jar (or similar) with the dried tomatoes, cover completely with olive oil and store them in the fridge. I have had a jar of plump-dried tomatoes in my fridge for months and they are still perfect, so I have no idea how long they will actually last – long enough, that’s for sure.

If you completely dry your tomatoes then in most cases they can be stored dry, but will need to be re-hydrated in water overnight before use.

Vietnamese Beef Curry

Because my wife is vegetarian I very rarely eat red meat, I don’t miss it because the vegetarian meals that we eat are delicious, and so I will eat steak perhaps once a year, and if I don’t, well… I don’t. After discovering this recipe though, I may well eat it more often.

I came across this recipe in Bill Granger’s excellent ‘Easy’ and I was intrigued to learn how Vietnamese curries differ from the Indian and Thai curries that I am so familiar with. The ingredients are all familiar, just in unfamiliar combinations: Indian curry powder (home-made of course), fish sauce and coconut milk. Rather than being served alongside the more usual rice, this beef curry is served with crusty French bread, a culinary echo of the long French history in the region. The combinations work perfectly together: the creamy coconut milk tempers the chilli heat, the fish sauce together with the beef stock adds a deep umami flavour, and I could eat the gravy-soaked bread all day.

My apologies to all those who like to read the vegetarian and vegan recipes I post here, but this meat dish was just too good to leave out. Normal service will soon be resumed…

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RECIPE – Serves 4

1kg rump steak, cut into 4cm cubes

1 onion, peeled, halved and finely sliced

4 fat garlic cloves, peeled and crushed

a fat 3cm knob of ginger, finely chopped

2 tbsp curry powder

1 tsp turmeric

1 tbsp caster sugar

2 tbsp rapeseed oil

500ml beef stock

3 tbsp fish sauce (nam pla)

8 birds-eye chillies, left whole but slit down one side

2 carrots, peeled and sliced

500g potatoes, peeled and cut into chunks

400ml tin of coconut milk

1 long baguette


METHOD

Preheat the oven to 160C/ Fan 140C/ gas 3.

Toss the beef with the onion, garlic, ginger, curry powder, turmeric and sugar, then season well with sea salt and freshly ground black pepper. Ensure the meat and onions are fully coated. Seasoning the meat while it is raw is important, as it can more easily take up the seasoning at this point.

Cover and chill in the fridge for 15 minutes.

Heat the oil in a large shallow casserole dish over a high heat. Add the beef, in batches, and cook until it is browned on all surfaces. Remove and set aside once it has browned, while you cook the rest.

*Tip: Browning meat doesn’t seal it, as many think. Instead, searing over high heat caramelises the surface of the meat, which enhances the savoury flavour and fills the finished dish with complex layers of nutty caramel and coffee-like bitterness. This is called the Maillard Reaction and it is what makes meat quite delicious. Without searing, meat dishes can taste flat and boring.

Return all of the browned meat to the casserole, together with all the onions and spices, and add the stock, fish sauce, chillies, carrots and potatoes. Bring to the boil on the stovetop, then cover and transfer to the oven.

Cook for approximately 2 1/2 hours, or until the meat is meltingly tender. Add the coconut milk 30 minutes before the end of the cooking time.

Serve immediately with crusty bread and a big smile. I’m going back for second helpings now…

The Joy of Fresh Turmeric

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I have a long and uneasy relationship with turmeric, though it is an essential ingredient in just about every curry recipe ever written. I have always struggled to detect any flavour at all in anything but the very freshest ground turmeric, and even then it is so subtle I have to wonder: what is the point? Beyond giving a vivid yellow colour to a dish, it seems to me to be about as useful as saffron.

Ah, saffron. It may be heresy to some, but I don’t get saffron either. Again, it adds a lovely yellow hue to a dish, and it definitely has a flavour, but I just don’t like it. I’m not entirely convinced that anyone else really gets it either – I once saw a TV chef answer the question: “how much saffron should I use?”, with “how much can you afford?” I have a nagging suspicion that the very fact that it is so expensive is what attracts people to it. Like Ferraris and Lamborghinis, it has the aura of ‘status symbol’. Used in sufficient quantities to add flavour, to me it adds a medicinal edge to my cooking, while for my wife it brings to mind laundry that hasn’t been aired properly.

This isn’t about saffron though, it’s about turmeric, and to my joy (yes, joy, that is how easily pleased I am) I have recently been seeing fresh turmeric appearing on supermarket shelves alongside root ginger and chillies. Fresh turmeric is directly interchangeable with ground turmeric powder, and when used fresh it adds an earthy, bright and peppery – sometimes, almost fruity – flavour. For me, the first goal of a successful dish is its flavour, and fresh turmeric adds it in spades. My joy was doubled when I realised that fresh turmeric is the ideal replacement for saffron, adding colour, flavour and what can only be called ‘deliciousness’.

Ground turmeric still has its uses in my kitchen, mainly for its colour and ease of use when roasting vegetables and making rice pilafs. But now I have the choice I will always prefer punchy, fresh turmeric in sautés, sauces and smoothies.

Fresh turmeric is a rhizome (a fancy word for a root) that looks similar to ginger, which is a close relative. Like ginger, fresh rhizomes have a much livelier flavor than dried. Turmeric’s bright orange flesh is earthy, peppery, and slightly bitter. Depending on how old or tender it is, you may want to scrape off the peel before using it. Like ginger though, in 99% of cases I will leave the skin on and use a microplane or fine cheese grater before use.

As with all fruit and vegetables, always choose the freshest, firmest rhizomes and avoid soft, dried, or shrivelled ones. It can be stored in a fridge in a plastic bag or airtight container for a week or two, or you can freeze it, where it will last for several months.

The key question with any unfamiliar ingredient is: how much to use?

As a general rule of thumb:

1 inch of fresh turmeric, as thick as your forefinger = 1 tablespoon of freshly grated turmeric = 1 teaspoon ground turmeric

So when adapting a recipe, grate an inch of fresh turmeric to replace each teaspoon of dried specified in the recipe, and prepare to be amazed.

Baked Aubergine, Chick Peas and Green Chilli

I made this for the first time last week – and my wife took some leftovers into work. It went down so well that I have been told, in no uncertain terms, that I have to blog the recipe as soon as possible. Well, I’m sorry for the delay, here it is at last.

This is another of Bill Granger’s ‘Easy’ dishes, and it really is SO easy. It’s another object lesson that to cook delicious food you just need to combine a few delicious ingredients and apply a little heat…

I have specified chilli oil to make the tomato sauce; I make my own and the recipe links to the instructions on how to make it. It isn’t blisteringly hot, in this dish it just adds a background ‘hum’ and accentuates the other flavours. You can omit it if you wish, just use regular olive oil.

The only unusual ingredient here is pomegranate molasses, a thick, sweet-sour condiment that is readily available from major supermarkets. You might worry that you won’t use it again so why bother? Well, once you have tasted this dish you will definitely make it again, and pomegranate molasses seems to last forever. I discovered a spare bottle in the back of my pantry a few months ago that is 3 years past it’s use-by date – I’m still using it. Of course, I couldn’t possibly recommend that you use anything that far past its best.

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RECIPE – Serves 4

3 medium aubergines, cut lengthways into 1cm-thick slices

2 tbsp olive oil

2 tbsp chilli oil

1 medium onion, finely chopped

3 fat garlic cloves, peeled and crushed

1 tablespoon minced ginger, or fresh ginger very finely chopped

1 green chilli, finely diced

2 birds-eye chillies, finely sliced

2 tsp paprika

1 tsp ground cumin

400g tin chopped tomatoes

400g tin chickpeas, drained and rinsed

2 tbsp pomegranate molasses (can be replaced with 1 tbsp of soft brown sugar mixed with 1 tbsp lemon juice)

To garnish:

flat-leaf parsley, roughly chopped

mint leaves, roughly torn

2 tbsp pomegranate seeds, scattered


METHOD

Preheat your grill to its highest setting. Lightly brush both sides of the aubergine slices with olive oil and lay on the grill tray. Grill for 5-10 minutes on each side, until soft and well-browned. If your grill tray isn’t large enough to cook everything at the same time, do them in batches and set them aside until they are all done.

Meanwhile, make the tomato sauce. Heat a large frying pan and add the chilli oil. When hot, add the onion, garlic, ginger, chilli, paprika and cumin, and cook, stirring occasionally, until the onion is translucent. Add the tomatoes, chickpeas and pomegranate molasses. Mix together and season well with sea salt and freshly ground black pepper. Bring to the boil and then let it simmer gently while you wait for the aubergines to grill.

When the aubergines are all done, turn the grill off and heat your oven to 180C/ 160C fan/ gas 4.

Place half the aubergine slices in a single layer at the bottom of a medium casserole dish. Pour half the tomato sauce over the aubergine slices, cover with the remaining aubergine and then pour over the remaining tomato sauce. Cover and bake for 15 minutes.

Serve hot from the casserole dish, garnished with parsley and mint leaves, and scattered with pomegranate seeds. This is perfect, and very filling, with a serving of couscous.

This is also delicious at room temperature.

Thai Yellow Fish Curry with Coconut Rice

There are some dishes that encourage you to eat far more than you should, this is one of them. A rich, creamy yet – relatively – healthy mild Thai curry that is so moreish it should be a controlled substance. It’s the combination of coconut milk and rice, it is as warm and comforting as a hug from your mum.

As an added bonus, it’s almost as quick to make as a stir-fry, without all the chopping. It’s my new favourite dish.

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RECIPE – Serves 4

2 tbsp groundnut oil

2 tbsp yellow curry paste

1 tsp ground coriander

1 tsp ground cumin

1/2 tsp ground turmeric

400ml tin of coconut milk

1 tbsp fish sauce (nam pla)

1 tbsp soft brown sugar

6 kaffir lime leaves

300g green beans, trimmed into 3cm lengths

600g thick white fish fillets (cod, hake, haddock etc), skinned and cut into bite-sized pieces

For the coconut rice:

400ml tin of coconut milk

175ml cold water

400g long-grain rice

To garnish:

chopped coriander leaves

mild red chillies (optional)


METHOD

First, make the coconut rice: combine the coconut milk, water and rice in a saucepan, bring to the boil then reduce the heat to minimum, cover and simmer very gently for 12-14 minutes until the liquid has been absorbed. At this point, cover the rice again and set to one side for ten minutes while you start making the curry.

Place a large wok or frying pan over a medium-high heat and add the oil, when hot add the curry paste, coriander, cumin and turmeric. Stirring constantly, fry for a minute then stir in the coconut milk, fish sauce, sugar and lime leaves, then add the green beans with 50ml water.

Bring to a simmer and cook for 3 minutes, then gently add the chunks of fish and cook for a further 3 to 5 minutes, until the fish is just cooked and starts to flake. Serve alongside the coconut rice and your choice of garnishes.

Yellow Curry Paste

Curry paste is ridiculously easy to make, yet is unimaginably better than anything you can buy from a supermarket. It freezes well and will last for months, so you can make a batch as in the recipe below, divide it into portions of 2 tablespoons each, put into a freezer bag and you’ll always have the makings of a fast and delicious mild Thai curry.

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RECIPE – Makes approximately 5 servings

1 tsp white peppercorns

1 tsp coriander seeds

1/2 tsp cumin seeds

1 tsp coarse sea salt

2 tsp ground turmeric

1 tsp curry powder

1 lemongrass stalk, white part only, chopped

1 tsp dried chilli flakes

1 yellow pepper, de-seeded and chopped

1 small red onion, peeled and chopped

5 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed

a 3cm knob of fresh ginger, finely chopped

2 tbsp groundnut oil


METHOD

Heat a small saucepan over a medium heat (NOT a non-stick pan), add the peppercorns, coriander and cumin seeds and dry-toast for a couple of minutes until fragrant. Be very careful not to burn them, turn them out onto a plate to cool before grinding to a powder in a coffee grinder reserved for that purpose, or in a mortar and pestle.

Place all the ingredients in a food processor and pulse until you have a thick, bright yellow paste. Easy!