Monday, April 20, 2009

Best Laid Plans

Well I thought I should let those of you who don't know about our flood, why I have no post for this week. This past Thursday, as my neighbor put it during a frantic phone call to my cell phone, "Wendy, you have water gushing out of your house!" Due to the assistance of many lovely neighbors and friends, the "gushing" was reduced to a mere rainstorm within my family room/kitchen area, with rivulets running throughout all three levels of my house.

We've now got the pros involved: water abatement company, insurance adjusters, contractors, etc. and we now have a repair plan. Later this week we will be rid of the industrial sized fans and dehumidifiers, and hopefully will have lights in the lower level and new appliances in the kitchen. Until then, we'll be eating out or carrying out. A challenge for healthy eating that perhaps I'll share with you next week!

Check back next week!

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Quinoa Musings

The very first thing you need to know about quinoa is how to pronounce it (keen'-wah). Not at all intuitive, is it? I find that many more people know about quinoa when they see it written than when they hear it spoken. Once they realize I'm talking about "queen-o-a", it's all good.

The second thing about quinoa, at least for those of you observing Passover, and particularly for those of you who observe Passover following Ashkenazi rules (no rice), is that it is Kosher for Passover (* at least those brands that are processed and packaged in facilities dedicated to quinoa and no other grains so there is no cross contamination. I have found references stating that Ancient Harvest and Trader Joe's brands are compliant).

Third, quinoa is wheat and gluten free! Although it acts and tastes much like a grain and while generally referred to as a grain, quinoa is actually the seed of a leafy plant, related to the beet family.

What's most important about quinoa, however, is that it is a versatile, extremely healthy food that just happens to taste great.

When I first started making quinoa dishes, my husband asked if it was just invented. Although newer to our American markets, quinoa is an ancient food, used by the Incas, who referred to it as the "mother grain" as it was so important to their culture. Nutritionally, it is considered a complete protein as it contains all 8 essential amino acids as well as many other nutrients. According to the package of quinoa I have now, the National Academy of Sciences calls it "one of the best sources of protein in the vegetable world."

One of the brands that I have right now, Ancient Harvest, is organic and comes in both the traditional cream color and "Inca Red." The flavor is not much different, but I often mix the two for a variety of color in a dish. I also have another brand, Alter Eco, which is a Fair Trade quinoa from the Anapqui cooperative in Bolivia. Lately, I've seen quinoa in all the regular supermarkets as well as Whole Foods, Trader Joe's and my natural food store.

I once had a quinoa salad at Le Pain Quotidien which was little more than a pile of quinoa with a VERY light vinaigrette and some sprouts. I loved it, but I'm pretty sure not too many other people would. I know no one else in my family would like it so bare. I like to saute onions or shallots, garlic and vegetables in olive oil to add to the quinoa, which gives it a little more interest as a side dish. You can also easily use plain quinoa in lieu of rice with a saucy dish.

Most quinoa needs to be rinsed before cooking, but Ancient Harvest brand states that it is pre-washed and needs no rinsing. Quinoa cooks quickly, in about 10 - 15 minutes. The box instructions advise cooking 1 cup quinoa to 2 cups water and after bringing the quinoa and water to a boil, reducing to a simmer for 10 - 15 minutes until the water is absorbed. I like to cook it on the shorter side to maintain a little more of a crunchy mouth feel. After about 10 minutes, I check the pot and see if the grain has become translucent. I taste it gingerly, as the stock or water is hot, and if it's too crunchy, I leave it to simmer a couple of minutes more. When it is done, the individual grains should be translucent and you should be able to see a "ring" around the edge. That is the germ of the grain. If the quinoa is fully cooked and you still have water in the pan, you can always get rid of the remaining water by draining over a fine mesh colander or sieve (fine as you don't want the grains to run right through with the water). If you don't mind taking the extra step of draining the quinoa, you can use even more water than called for on the box. For extra flavor you can substitute low sodium chicken or vegetable stock for the water.

I really like quinoa alongside or even incorporated into a vinaigrette based salad - the slaw I wrote about earlier works really well. I've also done it in summer with cut up grape tomatoes, cooked cannelini or fava beans and some basil with a vinaigrette. In winter, it would be great with some diced, roasted butternut squash and some dried cranberries with a little thyme vinaigrette.

This time of year, almost spring, I like a mix of onion, asparagus and shiitake mushrooms. However, when I went to buy asparagus earlier today, it was only available imported from Peru. While this would be a nice complement to the Bolivian quinoa, I opted for a really pretty, tiny head of U.S. grown Napa cabbage. The combination of shiitake mushrooms, onion and either asparagus or cabbage can easily take on an Asian feel with the addition of a little soy sauce , a dash or two of sesame oil once off the heat, and a garnish of crushed peanuts or cashews. As I was making mini meatloaves, I instead chose to use just a touch of hot pepper to spice up the mix.

Quinoa with (Almost) Caramelized Onions, Shiitake Mushrooms and Napa Cabbage
(serves 4)
1 cup quinoa (I used a mix of the traditional cream colored with a handful of Inca Red thrown in)
2 1/2 cups water or low sodium chicken or vegetable stock, plus a few tablespoonsful for the vegetables
1 large onion. halved and thinly sliced
2 cloves garlic, minced
3 ounces (1 small package) shiitake mushrooms, stems removed and thinly sliced
salt, to taste
dash cayenne or Aleppo pepper
1. Heat a saute pan on medium heat. When pan is warm, add 2 - 3 tablespoons of olive oil to pan. Add the sliced onions and a dash of salt and let them cook, stirring occasionally (about 10 - 15 minutes).
2. Put quinoa and stock or water in a saucepan and set on a burner on a medium-high flame. When the mix comes to a boil, lower to a simmer and cover. Make sure to check in ten minutes as described above. When the quinoa is done, drain and put into a large bowl.
3. Cook the onions until they look like this

4. Then lower the heat to medium -low and add the garlic and mushrooms. Once they have softened, about 3 minutes, add the cabbage (or you could easily substitue lightly steamed asparagus cut in 2 inch pieces). Stir for about three minutes. If the vegetables seem dry, add a few tablespoons stock or water and stir some more.
5. Add salt to taste. Add a dash of cayenne or Aleppo pepper.
6. Add vegetables to the quinoa and mix well. Taste for salt and serve.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Caramelized Onions

I recently read a post on one of the food blogs I follow, comparing caramelized onions to bacon. Specifically, "caramelized onions are the bacon of the vegetarian world." If you'd like to read her entire post, here's the link:

I've been using caramelized onions for years but they've been especially helpful this last year or so, as I've tried to cut saturated fat. The beauty of caramelized onions is that while they add a real punch of flavor and depth to your food, they add very little else. They are low in calories and fat and require no salt. They make a great topping for baked sweet potatoes (much lighter and more satisfying than sour cream or butter!), grilled or roasted meats, and provide a flavorful base for many vegetarian dishes.

The method is simple, but you must have patience. It might take twenty to thirty minutes to properly caramelize onions. I like to use two nice sized onions when I do this, as my family loves caramelized onions and there never seems to be enough otherwise. Cut the onions into thin strips, lengthwise. Warm a pan (not non-stick) over medium heat. When it is warm, add a thin film of olive oil to the bottom of the pan. Add the onions and let them cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally. They will get translucent and then begin to brown. I don't like them as crispy as some people, so I keep a close eye on them as they cook, and turn the flame down if necessary. The onions will get soft and sweet and smoky. Taste them once they start browning to see how you like them best.

I came across a recipe for chana masala that begins with caramelized onions. This is a perfect example of using these onions to provide depth to a vegetarian dish. It was both delicious and easy. If you're interested, go to