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Mediterranean Quinoa Salad

I haven’t talked much about my garden this year. Truth is, I’m afraid to jinx it. I started out nursing kale and leek seedlings under homemade grow-lights, not really knowing what I was doing. I’m still not sure. I read all winter about succession planting, raised beds, organic pest control, composting, and square foot gardening, and when it came time to actually put the seeds in the soil I didn’t feel nearly prepared enough.

Well, my soil is first-year soil. It’s rocky, full of clods and clay, and Bermuda grass borders the tilled ground on all sides, making weeding a Sisyphus-esque chore. To have lived around grass all my life, I never knew it grew that fast. My poor kale seedlings (that I watered painstakingly with a spray bottle for their first month of life) have been stunted by the poor soil, but they’re still alive. The leeks actually look incredible. In fact, I don’t think I’ve had a single casualty. My tomatoes aren’t exactly bushy, but they’re producing in spite of the hornworms that continue to threaten them. The basil, however, is starting to resemble shrubbery, and if it keeps this up, we’ll have enough pesto to get us through the winter.

It’s not exactly a stunning garden, but after walking through it yesterday afternoon and picking ten tomatoes, I felt like shouting. It was a hallelujah sort of moment. The garden may not pay for itself this year, but it’s been one of the most rewarding projects I’ve ever undertaken. There’s nothing like eating something you’ve grown yourself.

I think the garden is one of the reasons for my cold dishes series. Sure, the availability of ultra-fresh produce is inspiration, but I mostly just hate the idea of turning on the stove after spending hours weeding in the heat. And as much as I love a good dinner of chips and salsa (Hey, I can only be a domestic goddess for so long each day), that can get boring after a while.

This week’s cold dish is a little cheaty. You will have to turn on your stove, but I promise it won’t be for long, and if you have a rice cooker, you can probably get away with using that instead. A grain salad is a fine thing. Like panzanella, it can be a main course if you beef it up a little, and you can use almost any grain. For now, I’m going to hone in on quinoa.

It is to my personal chagrin that when I first heard of quinoa, I thought it was pronounced kwin-oh-uh. I was that uncool.

But it’s not about how you pronounce it, although I don’t want you making fools of yourselves at the local Whole Foods when you ask someone where the “kwin-oh-uh” is. For the record, it’s “keen-wah.” As I was saying, it’s not about how you pronounce it, it’s about how you cook it. Quinoa is somewhere between bulgur and rice in cooking time. You can’t just pour hot water over it and expect it to cook through, but you don’t need to have it on the stovetop for 30 minutes to an hour. Basically, quinoa is a merciful grain in heat like this.

Quinoa has plenty of health benefits, but I’m no nutritionist. Suffice it to say that quinoa is good for you. It’s gluten-free, high in fiber, and contains complete proteins, making it an ideal “grain” for vegetarians (it’s technically not a grain, but it cooks like one). You can cook it plain, simmered in water until the little white germ appears, but honestly, this is such a versatile ingredient that you shouldn’t settle for bland. Quinoa is great in stuffings, made into cakes, mixed into breads and cookies, and milled into flour for gluten-free baking. They also happen to make great salads, which is what I’m going to talk about.

Quinoa salads aren’t news. They’ve been floating around the blogosphere for years now, but they have a lasting place in my food repertoire. Quick, easy, filling, nutritious, delicious, and undeniably attractive, quinoa salads are nearly perfect foods. They’re gluten-free and can easily be made vegetarian or vegan. You can also personalize them very easily. My personal favorite is a quinoa salad made with roasted butternut squash, dried cherries, toasted almonds, and feta, but really you can do pretty much anything you please. Toss in some green veggies with Green Goddess dressing or pesto. Use balsamic vinaigrette and roasted summer squash. Honestly, whatever you have on hand will work, but I’m giving you a recipe as a basic guideline.

For this salad, I highly recommend using roasted red peppers. They have a deeper, richer flavor than raw peppers, but you will need to turn on your oven (unless you have a gas stove). To roast bell peppers, simply turn your broiler on high, place the peppers on a baking sheet, and roast until the skin blackens. Turn the peppers to blacken them on all sides. Remove the peppers from the oven and place them in a paper bag. This sweats them and makes the skins easier to pull off. If you don’t have a paper bag you can still scrape the skins off with a sharp knife. If you have a gas stove, simply turn on a burner and use tongs to hold the peppers over the flame until the skin blackens. You can also buy a jar of roasted red peppers, but you will pay more for it.

Mediterranean Quinoa Salad
Serves 6

Place in a medium saucepan:
            1 cup red or white quinoa
Barely cover with water and bring to a boil, cooking until water is almost gone. At the last minute, throw in:
            8 ounces button mushrooms, sliced
Remove quinoa from the heat and allow to come to room temperature. Meanwhile, in a large bowl, combine:
            Juice of 1 1/2 lemons
            Zest of 1 lemon
            1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
            1/3 cup minced parsley
            1/2 a red bell pepper, finely chopped, or 1/4 cup chopped roasted red pepper
            1/3 cup rinsed, chopped sundried tomatoes in oil
            3 tablespoons capers
            Cracked black pepper and salt to taste
Add the quinoa to the bowl and refrigerate until cold. Just before serving, add:
            1/3 cup basil leaves, torn


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