Sunday, September 10, 2017

Recipes of the Month: Fun with quinoa

Last weekend, we made our first official Costco run since signing up for membership in July. We stocked up on a bunch of things we'd found Costco to have the best prices on, including cereal, milk, raisins, sugar, olive oil—and a 4.5-pound bag of quinoa for $10. We dabbled a little bit with quinoa last year, when we picked up a container of it on sale after Passover, and we enjoyed it enough to keep an eye out for good deals on it since then in hopes of trying it again. However, until recently, the best price we'd seen was $4 a pound at Trader Joe's, which was more than we were prepared to pay. When we discovered the stuff at Costco for around half that price, we decided it was time to pick some up and try experimenting some more.

So, after bringing home the big bag, Brian went on a hunt for good quinoa recipes. The first one he tried was this Quinoa with Apple and Sage from the Live Well Network, for which we happened to have most of the ingredients on hand; I'd picked up some apples from the farmers' market, and getting a tablespoon of fresh sage off the enormous sage plant in our front yard was child's play. He did tweak the recipe just a bit, substituting some onion for the shallot and plain raisins for the golden raisins, but he figured these changes wouldn't affect the flavor too much.

The dish was quite easy to make, and it was indeed very flavorful—almost too much so, in my opinion. In addition to the faint nuttiness of the quinoa itself, there were the mingled flavors of apple, raisins, onion, sage, cinnamon, cayenne, curry powder, and the savory Penzey's vegetable soup base we used for the broth, all competing for attention. To me, this felt like it was a bit of a sensory overload. I still liked it, but I found the riot of flavors a bit too overpowering. My inclination is to try this dish again soon, but next time, leave out the teaspoon of curry powder and let the simpler flavors in the dish stand up for themselves.

Pleased with this success, he went straight on to the next quinoa recipe on his list: Quinoa with Leeks and Herbs from A Couple Cooks. Unlike the first one, where all the ingredients are cooked together, this recipe starts out with cooked quinoa, so Brian decided to try something else he'd been curious about: cooking quinoa in the pressure cooker. The instructions at Hip Pressure Cooking claim it's possible to do this in just one minute, but like most pressure-cooker recipes, that's a bit misleading; what it really means is that it only spends one minute cooking at full pressure. Counting the entire time it takes for the cooker to come up to pressure and then depressurize afterward, it's more like 15 minutes total—only about 5 minutes less than the time it takes to cook the quinoa for the other recipe on the stovetop. But it does come out nice and tender.

The good news is that, once your quinoa is done, the rest of the dish comes together in minutes. Just saut√© the leeks for a few minutes, chop and toast the walnuts, and stir it all together with salt, pepper, and fresh sage and thyme (once again supplied by our herb bed). This wasn't nearly as complex a dish as the first one, but between the leeks and the herbs, it still packed quite a wallop of flavor. In fact, those green, herbal flavors pretty much overpowered the quinoa itself, and as for the walnuts, you could only tell they were there by the occasional crunch. Of course, a bit of texture variety in a dish is nice, but it does seem like a bit of a waste to use an ingredient as pricey as walnuts—and, for that matter, quinoa—if you can't really taste them.

Indeed, Brian's observation was that it seemed the creators of both recipes seemed to be trying to deal with the "odd" flavor of quinoa by basically drowning it out with other, stronger flavors. That seems kind of silly to me, because if you don't like the flavor of quinoa, why would you eat it instead of some cheaper source of starch like rice or buckwheat? Sure, it's healthy stuff with plenty of protein, but it's not exactly the only food that's high in protein, and many of the others (eggs, chicken drumsticks, tofu) are cheaper. It seems to me the best reason to eat quinoa is because you like eating quinoa, so the best quinoa recipe would be one that highlights and complements the unique flavor of this pseudo-grain rather than covering it up.

Fortunately, Brian's still got one more quinoa recipe on his list to try—a sort of quiche-like concoction with spinach, eggs, and Greek yogurt. So we'll probably try that later in the month and see how it does at letting the flavor of this funky ingredient come through.

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