Saturday, November 05, 2005

Perfect Quinoa Bowls

You need crunchy, tender, salty, rich, tangy, creamy, and protein. But how you achieve that is up to you!

{Note: this post has a very 2009 sound to it. Which is when I wrote it. At this point, I know, everyone and their brother is making quinoa in their sleep. So please forgive the retro-ness.}

I understand that I'm about to lose a lot of you here, and that I risk compromising my integrity as a peddler of kid-friendly meals and becoming the kind of cultish health fascist who would suddenly foist upon you QUINOA! THE SUPERFOOD OF THE ANDES! I know. Let me start by telling you that it's pronounced keen-wa, just so that you don't end up in Whole Foods insisting to the eye-rolling hippy supermodel of a floor manager that what you need is a bag of kwin-oh-a. Keen-wa. And let me say further that this grain (okay, it's technically a seed) is not only wildly wholesome, it is also incredibly yummy: tender and crunchy at the same time, with a mild, grainy flavor that takes well to things like butter, cheese, and citrus. Picture couscous, only picture it emerging from a phone booth as the Caped Crusader of Complete Protein--with the powers of fiber and iron!--instead of a wimpy processed pasta product. If you are unsure about it, try just following the quinoa directions below, and add the lemon zest and juice, but then instead of olive oil stir in a big blob of good butter and serve it just like that. It is very hard not to like. (I write that, though, and then picture the crazy things my children have managed not to like over the years: potatoes, say, or lettuce. So, maybe quinoa won't actually be that hard not to like.)

If you think your family's game, try this meal. Even though it is neither especially quick nor especially simple to make. Quinoa--and I know this is not helping it's case--requires a bit of gentling, as you need first to rinse off its bitterness (nice!) and then boil it and then, so it will be fluffy instead of gluey (mmm!), steam it briefly: none of this is hard, but it requires you not to be trying to get dinner on the table out of a single pot in five minutes. Likewise, the way this meal works best is to offer many components that your family can add to their bowls of quinoa to customize them: beans for velvety wholesomeness, a vegetable for its vegetableness, cheese for salty richness, seeds or nuts for luxurious crunch, and something herby for zing. I'm giving directions here for a quick black bean salad, broiled zukes, crumbled feta, toasted pumpkin seeds, and a cilantro pesto--but use what you've got. Chick peas, pickled beets, grated cheddar, toasted walnuts, and a blob of purchased pesto, say. (But do use a seed or a nut, because the crunch is really key here.)

I've said it before, I know, but a meal that everyone gets to assemble as they please? It is just the most brilliant marketing device. You feel like you're eating every healthy thing of your own total and complete free will.
Or simply serve quinoa with the beans and nuts, and a salad on the side. It doesn't need to be so complicated. But what is wonderful, if you do it this way, is that you'll have a crazy-delicious citrus-scented bowl of food that will, quite literally, energize you. Also, it's fun to sit at the table and rank the components. My kids both ranked the feta first and the zucchini last, though Birdy did like the fact that "The zucchini is burnt and so it kind of tastes like a burnt marshmallow, which I like." I don't know how I feel about that. Michael liked the sauce best and skipped the feta entirely. And me? I love how all the flavors echo and complement each other--the lime and lemon zest, the olive oil and salt--but I like the quinoa itself best of all: all those little lemon-scented grains popping wholesomely under my teeth. I just do.

Perfect Quinoa Bowls
Serves 6
Total time: 45 minutes

This meal was inspired by Heidi Swanson's book Super Natural Cooking--a book so inspiring as to be, in fact, a little daunting. But the quinoa cooking method comes from Gourmet Magazine's recipe for "Lemon-Scented Couscous." If you like the concept of the grain-bowl meal but just can't bring yourself to deal with quinoa, then make it with something familiar first: rice, say, or couscous, or even pasta. In fact, stirred together with a bit more oil and lemon juice, this makes a killer pasta salad. You'll note the usual themes here--salt, olive oil, citrus, fresh herbs--but feel free to vary the components as you like, using nuts instead of seeds (if they're raw, toast them at 350 for 5 minutes) or different cooked or raw vegetables, different cheese, different kinds of beans. 

I have, more than once, caught the dish towel on fire. Just saying.
For the quinoa:
1 1/2 cups quinoa
Kosher salt
The finely grated zest of 1 lemon, and 1 tablespoon of its juice
1 tablespoon olive oil

Wash the quinoa in 3 changes of cold water in a bowl, draining it in a sieve after each rinsing (this is a great job for a child). Now cook the quinoa in a medium pot of boiling salted water (it should be salted enough to taste salty), uncovered, until almost tender, about 12-14 minutes; the grains should have spiraled open somewhat. Drain it in a sieve, then set that sieve over the same pot above 1 inch of simmering water (the water should be lower than the bottom of sieve). Cover the quinoa with a folded kitchen towel, then cover the sieve as best you can with a lid and steam it until tender, fluffy, and dry, about 10 minutes. Remove the pot from the heat and remove the lid. Let it stand, still covered with the towel, for 5 minutes, then move it to a bowl, fluff it with a fork, and stir in the oil, zest, and juice. Taste it for salt, but bear in mind that both the seeds and the feta are going to up the saltiness quotient in the end.

For the beans:
1 15-ounce can of black beans (or any other beans or chickpeas you like), rinsed and drained
1 tablespoon olive oil
The juice and finely grated zest of 1/2 a lime
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt (or half as much table salt)

Stir all the ingredients together, taste, and adjust the seasoning as you like.

For the seeds:
1 teaspoon olive oil
1/2 cup raw pumpkin seeds
1/4 teaspoon chili powder or flakes (optional)
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt (or half as much table salt)
A few scrapings of lime zest

Heat the oil in a tiny pan over medium heat. When it's hot enough to sizzle a seed, add all the seeds and fry, stirring, until popping and golden-brown, about three minutes. Turn off the heat but keep stirring for another minute so that they cool down without burning, then add the chili, salt, and lime zest.

For the herb sauce:
A large handful of cilantro (or parsley or basil), washed and dried
The juice and finely grated zest of the other 1/2 a lime (minus the bit you used for the seeds)
1 clove garlic, peeled and put through a garlic press
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 cup oil (I actually used canola here, for mildness)

In a food processor with the metal blade, whir together the cilantro, lime juice and zest, garlic and salt, stopping the motor occasionally to scrape down the sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula. With the motor running, drizzle the oil through the feed tube and process until emulsified. (Honestly, you could so skip this step: use already-made pesto, or simply chop some herbs nice and fine and put them in a bowl.)

For the cheese:
1 cup crumbled feta (or crumbled fresh goat cheese or another crumbled or shredded cheese of your choosing)
For the veggies:
3 or 4 small zucchini
Kosher salt
Olive oil

Dice the zukes into half-inch pieces, then toss them with oil (about a tablespoon) and salt (about a half teaspoon) on a foil-covered baking sheet. Broil close to the heat for 10 to 15 minutes, until the zukes are tender and browning and taste like burnt marshmallows. (Alternately: quarter the zukes lengthwise, brush them with oil and sprinkle them with salt, then grill them, covered, until they're tender, then chop them up.)

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