Sunday, October 16, 2016

Recipe of the Month: Super Umami Quinoa

This month's Recipe of the Month came about sort of by accident. We had this container of Streit's quinoa that we'd picked up on a lark last spring, when it was on sale as a Passover-friendly grain substitute. (Quinoa is technically a seed, not a grain, and therefore most rabbis consider it acceptable for Passover as long as it's not processed with any forbidden grains.) But since we don't actually know any recipes that call for quinoa, the container had just sat in our pantry for several months, and Brian thought it was probably time we found some way to use it up.

So he started experimenting. First he tried some of it in place of the couscous in our favorite couscous salad from The Clueless Vegetarian. That experiment actually turned out remarkably well—even better than when we tried it with kasha last year—and will probably become a regular part of our summer supper repertoire. We may even start making the dish with quinoa instead of couscous as the default option, since it's apparently super nutritious. (According to Authority Nutrition, a cup of cooked quinoa has 222 calories, 8 grams of protein, 5 grams of fiber, and loads of minerals—and it's "usually grown organically" even if it doesn't say so on the label. And, of course, it's also suitable for all our gluten-free friends.)

So, emboldened by this success, he decided to try inventing a quinoa dish so completely from scratch, just throwing in whatever he could find in the fridge. We had a pound of mushrooms and a small red pepper from the garden, and he thought if he cooked these together with the quinoa, he could make a sort of pilaf. To make sure it had enough flavor, he also added garlic, walnuts, and some soup stock made with our favorite vegetable soup base from Penzey's, which packs enough flavor punch to liven up even the dullest soup.

By the time it was done, however, he feared he might have gone a little overboard. The finished dish didn't look all that appetizing—it was sort of an amorphous brown mass—and after tasting it, he warned me that it actually might have "too much umami." (Umami, for those who don't know, is a Japanese word that translates roughly as "savory." It's one of the five basic flavors that our tongues can distinguish without any assistance from our sense of smell, along with bitter, salty, sour, and sweet.)

To my tongue, however, this dish actually tasted a lot better than it looked. There was plenty of umami, for sure, but I didn't find it overpowering. And the soft-cooked veggies, chewy quinoa, and crunchy walnuts made for a pleasing combination of textures. The only problem with it was that Streit's quinoa apparently isn't cleaned all that well, so every so often you bite down on a hard piece of chaff or sand or something that shouldn't be in there. But made with some other quinoa, I think it would be fine.

If you want to try it for yourself, here's how:
  1. Saute 1 pound sliced mushrooms, 1 chopped red bell pepper, and 2 minced garlic cloves in olive oil in a large cast-iron skillet until the veggies start to soften. 
  2. Add 1 cup quinoa, 2 cups rich vegetable broth (can be made with Penzey's soup base according to the directions on the can) and 1 cup water. Stir to mix, then top with 1/2 cup chopped walnuts
  3. Cover the pan and cook on low until the liquid is absorbed, uncovering the pan once in a while to give it a stir.
So will we make this dish again? Well, probably not in this exact form. Brian wasn't all that wild about it, and while I liked it fine, it's not a dish I'd request specially. But we will almost certainly continue to experiment with quinoa in the future, so perhaps some later Recipe of the Month will be influenced by this one.
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