[I thought it would be fun to run a little series over here at DDD: I'll profile one one of my favorite foods, or a food that I've recently discovered and enjoyed, over several days. For this second entry, I'm focusing on Quinoa. The series is presented on an occasional (and entirely arbitrary) basis, before I move on to the next lucky comestible. ]
I remember very clearly the first time I tasted quinoa (pronounced keen-wah): there was I, barely having reached the other side of twenty, at an English Department party at the University of Windsor. As a Teaching Assistant studying toward my MA degree, I had leaped at the chance to attend, not only because this was my very first opportunity to enter the Inner Sanctum of the faculty club, but also because I’d been harboring a raging crush on my Modern American Drama professor and I knew he’d be there.
As it turns out, no, my sophomoric infatuation never made it beyond the fantasy stage; luckily for me, as John later became my beloved mentor, who (along with the wife he adored–drat!) welcomed me into his home, and spent countless hours in serious discussion with me at the local university pub, where I’d regularly spill my dreams, aspirations, academic anxieties and beer; and he’d regularly dispense sage advice, sympathy, pedagogic pointers and beer–for the next two decades or so.
One of the other TAs, a placid, floaty woman (in the way that 1950s housewives on Valium were placid and floaty) brought two dishes to the party buffet table that day: carob brownies (though lacking any gratuitious “hippie” ingredients as you might have found in chocolate brownies of that era, if you get my drift); and a quinoa-veggie salad. I loved both dishes as soon as I tasted them, and resolved immediately to reproduce both in the shoebox kitchen of my bachelor apartment.
The carob brownies were fairly easy to replicate (even though Ms. Floaty refused to give out the exact recipe); it was the quinoa that turned out to be the greater challenge. Most of the ingredients were fairly obvious to the naked eye–celery, green onion, cucumber, tomato. And I could easily approximate a similar oil and vinegar dressing. But what had me stumped was the grain itself, the star of the salad–the quinoa.
Feeling confident that I could maneuver my way around pretty much any grain, I boiled the little cream-colored beads exactly as I would pasta, in an overabundance of fresh water. I should have known there’d be trouble when I attempted to drain the stuff in a colander, only to discover that half or more of the quinoa pearls had fallen through the holes and down the drain. Adding insult to incompetence, when I finally scraped together the remaining 2 tablespoons of the mixture and sampled it for doneness, it unveiled a taste so powerfully bitter that I might have been chewing on a peach pit or a grapefruit peel, with a generous sprinkling of paint chip over top. Not the most auspicious beginning.
From that unpropitious start, however, has developed an ongoing and consistent love of quinoa that persists to this day (much deeper than an undergraduate crush on a literature professor would have been). Quinoa is, by far, my favorite grain, for a plethora of reasons: I love its distinctly mild, slightly nutty flavor; its chewy, almost crunchy texture; its visual impudence–that color-contrasted spiral tail slowly unfurling as the grain cooks, like a loose stitch on your favorite sweater.
Quinoa, like most complex carbohydrates, is a nutritional powerhouse. Besides offering the highest protein content of any grain, this gluten-free gem also provides a nearly complete protein, as it is, unlike other grains, high in the amino acid lysine. (One reason why vegetarians are advised to combine grains with legumes, or grains with nuts/seeds, is to achieve a “complete” combination of all nine essential amino acids.) With lysine in its lineup, quinoa doesn’t require combination with other foods to achieve complete protein status.
A little higher in calories than other grains, quinoa is worth it. According to the World’s Healthiest Foods website (maintained by the venerable George Mateljan Foundation), quinoa also provides important minerals, heart-healthy fiber, and the anti-cancer protection of antioxidants, among other health benefits. It ‘s also fairly neutral on the acid-alkaline spectrum, important because most grains lean towards the acidic side, while our blood requires a more alkaline status. In other words, quinoa won’t mess with your body’s acid-alkaline balance the way some other foods (especially those that are processed or high in sugar) might.
If you’ve never tried this versatile and delicious ingredient, you’re in for a treat. Quinoa can be used like oats or rice as the basis of a breakfast cereal, or in side dishes like rice or millet. It can be baked into casseroles, sprinkled into soups, stuffed into peppers or cabbage leaves, or even blended into muffins or breads. And it’s equally delicious hot or cold. My HH was skeptical, at first, but he’s since become a fellow fan of this wonderful food. (“Mum, we’re keen on quinoa, too! We’ll share in it any time. . . . “)
To prepare quinoa, employ the standard ratio of water to grain that you would for rice: two parts water to one part grain. Most instructions will warn that the grain’s exterior houses a naturally bitter resin, which needs to be rinsed carefully to remove before cooking (hence my bitter first encounter; I had no idea I was supposed to rinse it first). However, in today’s marketplace, quinoa is so ubiquitous that manufacturers have begun to pre-rinse it for us. These days, I almost never pre-rinse my quinoa (more because of laziness or forgetfulness than any determination to buck tradition), and it always turns out fine. The stuff I buy in the bulk bins is just as reliable this way as the higher-end products, too.
To achieve a fluffy result (with grains that are clearly separated and well-cooked), I’ve found the best way to cook the quinoa is to first bring the water to a rolling boil before adding the grain; then, lower the heat, cover, and simmer for about 20 minutes before checking the pot (resist the temptation to uncover the pot or to stir the mixture!). If you’re new to quinoa, you might want to combine it with something else the first time; a mix of half quinoa and half rice is always a good option. For a soupier, more porridge-like texture, pour the quinoa directly into the water before you begin to heat it; allow the water to come to the boil with the quinoa already in it, then proceed as above.
I decided to offer this salad recipe first, as it’s always a huge hit at the cooking classes I teach, even with people who’ve never tasted quinoa before. I’ve paired it with buckwheat here; the mild mannered quinoa is a perfect partner to the more robust buckwheat.
Because this recipe contains both cilantro and vegetables, I thought it would be a great submission to Weekend Herb Blogging, the great event created by Kalyn of Kalyn’s Kitchen, this month hosted by Ramona at Houndstooth Gourmet.
Quinoa Salad with Buckwheat and Cranberries
This salad makes a perfect offering to a buffet table, or a nice light supper. The chewy, solid texture of the grains here works well with the slightly spicy, sweet dressing; the salad’s flavors develop even more and the cranberries plump a little by the second day (if it lasts that long). When I first created the recipe I conducted a nutritional analysis and discovered that one serving (about a cup) of this salad offers 12 grams of protein–enough for a substantial main course in anyone’s books.
1/2 c. dry buckwheat groats (kasha)
3 c. water
1/2 cup chopped walnuts, lightly toasted
1/2 cup dried cranberries or cherries
2 medium stalks celery, chopped
1/4 cup sunflower seeds (toasted or raw)
1/4 cup chopped green onions
1/4 cup chopped parsley or cilantro
2 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
2 Tbsp. flax or hemp oil
3-4 Tbsp. agave nectar
juice of 1/2-1 lemon (to taste)
1 tsp. ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp. ground cumin
1/4 tsp. ground nutmeg
Pour water into a pot and bring to the boil over high heat. Rinse quinoa well and add to pot with the buckwheat. Reduce heat to low, then cover and simmer without disturbing for 20 minutes. Uncover (all the water should be absorbed) and let sit until cool. Fluff with a fork and turn the quinoa into a large bowl. (Note: for a “cleaner” look, you can boil the grains separately from each other, then combine in a bowl to make the salad).
Add walnuts, dried cranberries, celery, sunflower seeds, scallion, and cilantro and toss to mix.
In a separate bowl, mix together all the dressing ingredients with a whisk. Pour over salad and toss to coat evenly. May be served immediately or covered and refrigerated overnight.
Makes 8-10 servings.
Other posts in this series:
Other quinoa recipes:
(Got a quinoa recipe? Send me the link during this Lucky Comestible week, and I’ll add it to the list!)