Monday, January 31, 2011

On Lemony Quinoa Salad

The first time we cooked quinoa we wanted to taste its basic flavor. Like silly foochebags, we cooked a batch in plain, unsalted tap water. Touted as "earthy," it tasted like weeds. Which is not a bad taste when it comes from a piece of tall grass in the middle of a field of grain and the sultry summer air hovers, heavy and wet around your lips. But in a sad little steel pot surrounded by all the doubt of a completely foreign food, the guilt of the doctor's orders to eat healthier, and the pressure of the word "SUPERFOOD!" on the box: "earthy" was decidedly not sexy.

Convinced the cooking liquid needed more flavor, my next foray into ancient grain-land was a sorry attempt at winging it Spanish rice-style, involving chicken broth, garlic, and a desperate squeeze of tomato paste that turned the whole batch pink. I can't even remember what I served it with, the embarrassment was so great. Defeated, I was sure quinoa would have no future on our table, and I put the rest of the box in the pantry.

Almost a year later, and drawn back to quinoa's charms by incredulously finding it at both of my local redneck groceries, I stumbled upon this wonderful recipe on It looked so easy, so full of flavor, and I just happen to have a whole bag of pine nuts I regretfully bought yesterday under the low-blood sugar guise of "stocking the pantry back up." (Yes, I did wake up with a type-A panic attack in the middle of the night because I had not stuck to my list or my budget. But that doesn't affect the outcome of this great dish. Read on.)

The secret is not to waste your energy on trying to flavor the quinoa while it cooks, but rather to let it be its own ingredient, man. Don't oppress it, and serve it with interesting but simple additions.

Quinoa cooks like rice, so keep that in mind when you're trying it for the first time. Particularly the "salting the water" part of the cooking directions. A good pinch of salt makes all the difference; you wouldn't want pasta cooked in plain water, would you? The very same goes for quinoa. And in this salad application, mise en place truly makes life easier and eliminates the possibility of overcooking your vegetables.

Probably the best part of this recipe is its adaptability. The original recipe calls for kale, walnut oil, goat cheese and a Meyer lemon. Since I completely blew the grocery budget, the last thing I could do tonight was go to the grocery store again. So I used the broccoli, olive oil, Parmesan and citrus I already had. You could omit the citrus and pine nuts, add a splash of soy sauce and sesame oil and dress with sesame seeds and rice noodles. Or add a minced clove of garlic and sliced zucchini, sauteed. Feta, olives and raw English cucumbers in place of the Parmesan, mushrooms and broccoli. If it goes well together, it's worth trying with quinoa.

Lemony Quinoa Salad serves 2
(Click here for printable recipe.)

1/2 cup quinoa
1 cup water
1 T plus 1 t salted butter
4 oz broccoli (about 4 florets)
4 button mushrooms
1/3 lemon, zested and juiced
1/3 orange, zested and juiced
1 green onion, diced
2 t olive oil
2 T toasted pine nuts
1/8 cup grated Parmesan cheese
cayenne pepper

1. Boil 1 cup water with a good pinch of salt. Add 1 teaspoon butter and quinoa. Softly simmering on low, set your timer for 10 minutes and cover.

2. Slice the broccoli on the bias into 1/4" slices. If the slices are too large, make a few cuts in the opposite direction to make them bite-size. Season with salt and pepper and place in a microwave-safe covered vessel with a tablespoon of water. Cook on high for 1-2 minutes until the pieces are crisp-tender. At this thickness, this will not take long! Set aside.

3. Slice the mushrooms, and saute in the remaining butter. Season with salt and pepper and cook until mushrooms are nicely browned. Time-saving tip (courtesy of the ever-fantastic America's Test Kitchen): place the sliced mushrooms in a covered microwave-safe container and microwave for 30 seconds to 2 minutes, watching carefully. There is actually enough moisture in the mushrooms to boil over if you cook them for too long. Once the mushrooms have given up some of their moisture, they will saute much faster.

4. Combine the lemon and orange zest and juice, green onion, olive oil, pine nuts and Parmesan cheese into a medium-sized bowl. Add a pinch of salt, a grind of pepper, and a dash of cayenne.

5. The quinoa should absorb all of the water. When it is cooked (10-15 minutes), the grains should be translucent, save for the germ around the outside edge. They will have a nice little bite to them, but should not be crunchy. Once the quinoa is cooked, scoop it into your mixing bowl and mix to combine. Taste, and adjust seasoning.

The bottom line is that quinoa has so much more potential than that strange weedy grain we first thought it was. Just like plain rice is crazy boring, plain quinoa will send any potential healthy eater packing faster than you can say "flax." Make certain you salt your cooking water, a dab of butter doesn't hurt, and mix it with plenty of interesting additions. You won't be sorry!


  1. I can't get the image of an oppressed little quinoa grain out of my head! Thanks for the smile and for the recipe.

  2. Waving a flag and singing "We Shall Overcome." It's all about freedom, man...


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