The Case for Quinoa

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Would you attend a free cooking class if your child’s school offered one? The good folks who run the cooking and gardening programs in my kid’s school district provide five-week parent nutrition classes in the spring. The evening program reinforces instruction about healthy eating these parents’ children receive at public school — and helps time-challenged adults expand their recipe repertoire. The classes emphasize local, seasonable, and organic produce and whole grains.

It’s a great idea. Who among us hasn’t fallen into a rut serving our family the same dozen or so dishes we have down pat and know our kids will eat? We stock our pantries with familiar ingredients so we can make these staples in a jiffy after the work-school-pick-up-soccer-practice shuffle.

The very nature of our busy lives can make it tough to steal away from our families to attend night school, even if its purpose is to help us feed our families better. And yet a small but eager group showed up a week or so ago to the first class I taught. Asked what they hoped to take away from the sessions each participant placed fresh ideas for healthy meals at the top of their list.

Truth be told, I felt a tad nervous about getting up in front of a group of adults and waxing on about the wonders of fruits & veggies. Sure, I’ve taught kids cooking classes. But I live in Berkeley, California, aka the Gourmet Ghetto. Some parents at our school run highly-acclaimed restaurants in the community. I’m just a home cook with a passion for produce. Indeed, several of the parents who showed up that first Thursday night clearly knew a thing or two about cooking. Still, everyone seemed willing to share what they know for the common cause of feeding our children well.

And it turned out that in our initial class, focused on simple salads, most folks found something new. A couple of participants made vinaigrette for the first time — and were delighted to discover how easy it is to do. One mom learned about zesting and how to incorporate this technique to add a little zing to her kitchen cuisine. And all but one of the assembled crew were new to the nutritional powerhouse quinoa. I’m a huge fan of this pearly little protein-packed, grain-like seed, which makes a great alternative to rice or couscous, and also works well in salads or as breakfast cereal. It’s fiber-rich, gluten-free, and helps keep blood sugar levels in check.

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Quinoa (pronounced keen-wah) an ancient Incan food and a key staple in South American cuisine, is becoming more widely available in grocery stores and increasingly showing up on restaurant menus as well. I can still recall the first quinoa salad I sampled at the Station House Cafe in Point Reyes Station, a favorite coastal walking destination. Light, crisp, and colorful, the quinoa served as a nutty, fluffy, and satiating base for my post-hike feast.

The quinoa salad we made in class is quick to fix and easy to tweak. (Your kid doesn’t like apricots? Simply omit. No parsley on hand? Cilantro works just as well in the dressing.) It proved a big hit on the night. Maybe you’ll find a way to work it into your menu schedule some time soon.

Quinoa Salad with Dried Apricots and Currants

(Recipe courtesy of the cooking instructors at Berkeley Unified School District)

Good to Know: Some folks swear by rubbing the quinoa grains together to activate or energize them. Some also advocate toasting quinoa seeds over dry heat to increase their nutty flavor. Others say soaking quinoa for several hours or overnight improves nutrient absorption.

Handy Hint: Time may factor into whether you try any of the above. Regardless, do rinse quinoa thoroughly in cold water and drain in a fine sieve before cooking to remove a naturally-occurring protective coating called saponin, which can leave a bitter or soapy aftertaste.

Ingredients:

Salad:

1 cup quinoa (well rinsed)
2 cups water
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
6 dried apricots, finely chopped
1/4 cup dried currants
3 scallions, finely chopped
1/2 cup finely diced red bell pepper (in season)
1/4 cup lightly toasted pine nuts (optional)

Vinaigrette:
1 lemon, zest & juice
1/4 cup olive oil
2 teaspoons chopped parsley
1/4 teaspoon paprika
1/4 teaspoon cumin
1/2 teaspoon salt

To do:

1. Bring water to boil then add quinoa and salt.
2. Cover and let boil for 5 minutes.
3. Turn off heat and keep lid covered another 15-20 minutes or until all water is absorbed into grain.
4. Fluff up grain with a spoon.
5. Make dressing: Combine lemon juice and zest, oil, parsley, spices, and salt in a small bowl and whisk together.
6. Mix quinoa, dried apricots, currants, red pepper, scallions, and pine nuts with vinaigrette.
7. Serve as a side dish.

Recent convert to quinoa? Find more tempting recipes here.

Photos: Sarah Henry

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One Response to “The Case for Quinoa”

  1. Alison @ Wholesome Goodness Says:

    Thanks for the link! We just ate quinoa for dinner tonight. Isn’t it great? I love the sound of the recipe you shared. I may have to try something similar…

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