Quinoa, for those of you not familiar with it, is an ancient grain (well, pseudocereal, to be exact) from South America. Pronounced “KEEN-wa”, it’s a rare plant source of all the essential amino acids, making it a complete protein. In other words, it’s ridiculously good for you.
But more importantly, this tiny seed takes hardly any time to cook (less than 15 minutes), and is surprisingly flavorful, with a nutty aroma. I keep a stash in the pantry for those times when I’d really love some brown rice with dinner, but have no time to cook it. Nutritious and fast? Yes, please.
The first recipe below is for a savory quinoa salad, bursting with fresh asparagus and scallions sautéed in a blazingly hot skillet until just barely blackened. Lightly roasted grape tomatoes bring sweetness, and pockets of feta add saltiness and a creamy texture. A salad like this is a fantastic way to use any special finds from your local farmers’ market; just be sure to keep things cut fairly chunky. That way, each bite is something entirely new, every forkful bound to the next with the rustic flavor of the quinoa. This particular mixture of vegetables and herbs, however, is just amazing. It tastes like late Spring.
Second, I’ve adapted a red quinoa pudding recipe from Heidi Swanson at 101 Cookbooks. Similar to rice pudding, it’s just barely sweet, making it an unusual and hearty breakfast alternative for those of you who need that A.M. sugar rush. Of course, if you prefer (as I do) to serve it for dessert instead, you can scarcely find a more virtuous option. Like Heidi, I’ve used a red quinoa here, but it’s purely for aesthetic purposes; if you can only find the more common tan-colored sort, that will work just as well. A cluster of blackberries and toasted nuts on top turns this humble dish into a cooly elegant plate.
The only caveat in cooking with quinoa is that you must rinse it before cooking. Quinoa comes with a natural covering or coating that tastes bitter when cooked, but rinsing removes it. To rinse, use a fine mesh sieve to hold the seeds, and run water over them until it runs clear, using your hand to agitate them as you rinse. Let it drain slightly, and you’re good to go!
Quinoa and Asparagus Salad with Roasted Grape Tomatoes
Makes 4 to 6 servings
The small grape tomatoes are roasted in a low oven to dry and shrivel them slightly, concentrating their flavor into a sort of hybrid between raw and sun-dried tomatoes. If you have a grill, try grilling the asparagus and scallions instead of sautéing them, for a smoky depth. And while the grill is hot, throw a few pieces of meat on there; this salad is ideal for an cook-out.
For roasted tomatoes:
1 pint grape (or cherry) tomatoes
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 cup quinoa
1 tablespoon olive oil
1/3 cup white onion, diced
2 cups chicken stock
1/2 teaspoon salt
To finish salad:
1 pound asparagus
1 bunch scallions (about 6)
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 large bunch mint, leaves only, chopped (about 1/4 cup)
2 tablespoons chopped parsley, leaves only
8 ounces feta
1 to 2 tablespoons sherry vinegar
Salt and pepper, as needed
1. Preheat oven to 250º F. Halve tomatoes, and place on a rimmed baking sheet. Drizzle with 1 tablespoon olive oil, and season lightly with salt and pepper. Roast for 1 hour, or until slightly shriveled. Set aside to cool.
2. Meanwhile, rinse the quinoa in a fine mesh sieve until the water runs clear, swirling with hands to help agitate the grains. This rinses off a natural coating that, when cooked, tastes bitter. Let drain.
3. In a medium saucepan, heat 1 tablespoon olive oil over medium-high heat. Add the onion and cook until translucent, 3 to 5 minutes. Add the quinoa. Stirring constantly to prevent burning, toast the quinoa until fragrant and grains separate, about 3 minutes. Slowly add the chicken stock (quinoa will bubble up and jump higher than you think) and the salt. Return to a boil. Reduce heat to medium-low, and simmer for 12 to 15 minutes, or until tender and all liquid is absorbed. Let stand off heat at least 5 minutes before fluffing with a fork.
4. Trim ends from asparagus, and cut into 2 inch lengths. Set tips aside for the moment. Cut white and light green parts of scallions into 1 inch lengths, reserving green tops. Toss asparagus (except for tips) and chopped scallion parts with 1 tablespoon olive oil, and season with salt and pepper.
5. Heat a large sauté pan over high heat until very hot. Add asparagus and scallion mixture, and sauté, tossing or stirring, until deeply browned or charred in places and crisp-tender, 4 to 5 minutes. Add asparagus tips, and cook 1 to 2 minutes more. Remove from heat.
6. In a large bowl, combine cooked quinoa with asparagus, scallions, and roasted tomatoes. Chop green scallion tops, mint, and parsley; add to bowl. Crumble feta in, and drizzle with sherry vinegar to taste. Toss gently, and correct seasoning as needed. Serve warm, cold, or at room temperature.
Red Quinoa Pudding
Adapted from 101 Cookbooks
Makes 4 servings
This dish can be served at breakfast just as easily as it can for dessert. You can swap the sugar for honey if you like, and feel free to use regular quinoa if you can’t find the red type. Both options will work equally well.
1 cup red quinoa
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
3 cups milk
3 tablespoons sugar
1 three-fingered pinch salt
1 cinnamon stick
3 pods cardamom, crushed, seeds only
For serving (optional): toasted pecans, fresh berries, honey, plain yogurt
1. Rinse the quinoa in a fine mesh sieve until the water runs clear, swirling with hands to help agitate the grains. This rinses off a natural coating that, when cooked, tastes bitter. Let drain.
2. In a medium saucepan, heat butter over medium-high heat. Add quinoa. Stirring constantly to prevent burning, toast the quinoa until fragrant and grains separate, about 3 minutes. Slowly add the milk (quinoa will bubble up and jump higher than you think), sugar, salt, cinnamon stick, and cardamom seeds.
3. Return to a boil, stirring until sugar is dissolved. Reduce heat to medium-low, and simmer for 12 to 15 minutes, or until tender. Not all liquid will be absorbed. Let stand off heat at least 5 minutes.
4. Remove cinnamon stick, and add additional milk to thin, if desired. Serve pudding topped with toasted pecans, fresh berries, dried fruit, a drizzle of honey, or a dollop of plain yogurt.