I’m not one for trends, food or otherwise, so it took me a while to bring quinoa (“keen-wah”) into my kitchen. But now I’ve developed a real fondness for this crunchy little pseudo-grain with a funny tail. It’s easy to make, versatile, keeps well and satisfies the increasing number of friends I know who are avoiding gluten.
Two years ago I lived on quinoa for six weeks when I gave up gluten and sugar in a desperate attempt to resolve a health issue. The diet didn’t work for me (a relief for this carb-lover), but I know many people for whom reducing gluten consumption has resulted in a remarkable health improvement.
The essence of the gluten-free trend is this: the food we eat has a real impact on health. Hippocrates, the famed Greek physician, said, “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.” Some foods trigger the body’s inflammatory response – sugar, refined grains, processed oils, industrial meat. And chronic inflammation is associated with all kinds of illnesses, such as heart disease, digestive disorders, Alzheimer’s and cancer.
For many people, gluten causes significant problems. For others it’s dairy, or eggs, or citrus. I believe that every body runs best on different fuel. Food should not be universally prescriptive any more than medicine.
Having said that, the body needs a remarkable variety of nutrients for optimum function, and variety in our diets is important. Most of us on modern Western diets could do with less wheat. And quinoa, a prized crop in the Incan empire, provides the satisfaction of grain without the gluten.
This variation on Ina Garten’s brilliant recipe, originally made with orzo, is a versatile, vegetable-packed dish to keep in your repertoire. I got scared off quinoa when my first effort turned out bitter and mushy. But a little extra rinsing and a little less water in cooking easily solved those problems, and now every time I make it I convert another quinoa skeptic (many thanks to Faith Durand, managing editor of TheKitchn.com, for crediting my quinoa arugula salad with her quinoa conversion).
Preparation is simple – cutting vegetables is as hard as it gets. Diced vegetables all roast together in the oven until brown and caramelized. Mix in with cooked quinoa, lemon juice, basil and feta, and it’s a fantastic side dish or even a vegetarian main course.
During preparation, eggplant (or, more melodious, aubergine), seems like it would dominate the dish. But it roasts down so soft and sweet, the cooked cubes virtually disappear into the quinoa. You could substitute summer squash, but even people who claim not to like eggplant love this.
Summer weather returned last weekend for my youngest child’s late-planned birthday party. We had an open jumpy house in the yard, with family friends dropping by from late morning into mid-afternoon. Food was a colorful, casual assortment: for the kids, bagels, hot dogs, grapes, strawberries and fresh lemonade; and for the adults, guacamole, farmhouse cheddar, Greek salad, greens with sliced apples, shaved Parmesan and balsamic vinaigrette, and this nutty quinoa with roasted vegetables.
The party was so last-minute, I didn’t cook a thing until morning. But after some initial chopping, most of the time in this dish is the vegetables quietly roasting in the oven. Cut ends off eggplant and dice.
Dice bell peppers and onions. Mince garlic.
Add olive oil, salt and pepper.
Spread out on baking trays. Sometimes I can fit it on one, but I had a particularly large eggplant this time.
Well-roasted vegetables are the key.
Cook quinoa. Typical recommendation is 2 cups water per cup of quinoa, but I think 1 1/2 cups water makes a better texture. I overcooked mine a little in the frenzy of party preparation, so the bottom was browned.
Add vegetables, scraping the pan for deeply-flavored roasting juices.
Before serving, add lemon and thinly slivered basil.
Ina uses cubed feta, which is prettier. But I had crumbled.
That’s it. The hardest part is cutting the vegetables. Assembly is easy.
Our California digs are a tight squeeze compared with Ohio. But we’re cozy.
Cake was a last minute affair too. Sheet cakes aren’t as decorative, but they work better for kid-size servings. I keep trying to master a fresh strawberry cake. I love the natural pink of strawberry puree in the frosting, but the cake still needs tweaking.
I didn’t eat until after the chaos subsided. Fortunately there was a little quinoa left. And leftovers are just as good.
- 1 1/2 cups quinoa
- 2 1/4 cups water
- 1 small eggplant, cut in 3/4-inch dice
- 1 red bell pepper, cut in 1-inch dice
- 1 yellow or orange bell pepper, cut in 1-inch dice
- 1 medium red onion, peeled and cut in 1-inch dice
- 2 garlic cloves, minced
- 1/3 cup good olive oil
- 1 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt (3/4 teaspoon table salt)
- 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 1/3 cup fresh lemon juice (1-2 lemons)
- Extra olive oil, to taste
- Salt and pepper, to taste
- 1/2 pound feta, cut 1/2-inch dice (about 1 1/2 cups – crumbled also works but not quite as pretty)
- 15 fresh basil leaves, sliced thinly
- Preheat the oven to 425 degrees F.
- Toss the eggplant, bell peppers, onion, and garlic with the olive oil, salt, and pepper on a large sheet pan. Roast for 30-40 minutes, until browned, turning once with a spatula.
- Meanwhile, rinse quinoa in a mesh colander for a two or three minutes under running water. Place drained quinoa in medium saucepan with 2 1/4 cups water. Bring to boil and turn to a very low simmer. Cook 15-20 minutes, until water is absorbed. Remove from heat and let sit for five minutes. Transfer to a large bowl.
- Add the roasted vegetables to the quinoa, scraping all the liquid and seasonings from the roasting pan into the bowl. Add lemon juice and season to taste with salt, pepper and an extra drizzle of olive oil. Add feta and basil just before serving.
- Substitutions: zucchini or summer squash (watch roasting time, as squash will cook more quickly than eggplant); parsley instead of basil.
- Adds: toasted pine nuts or slivered almonds; halved cherry tomatoes; olives.
- You can easily make a day ahead of time, but save the feta and basil for adding just before serving.
- Add meat or shrimp to the dish to make a main course. Ina Garten’s inspiration for this dish came from Sarah Leah Chase, who made a lamb, eggplant and orzo salad with parsley, fresh rosemary and rare lamb chunks.
Here’s the link to a printable version.
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