There’s something I have to get off my chest, today. I hope you’ll bear with me. It’s small, and round, and edible, of course. It’s my favorite grain that’s not a grain at all. Yes, I’m talking about quinoa.
I’m not usually one to make demands about what one must or mustn’t do in the kitchen. At least not in your kitchen. Food is personal, and you’ve got to do with it what you want. You’re the decider! So go ahead and eat your steak as bloody or as burnt as you please. Douse it in ketchup, or mayo, or grape jelly, for all I care. Cook and let cook! Eat and let eat! Except for when it comes to quinoa. This, for the simple reason that I have been enjoying the heck out of quinoa lately, and I think you will, too, if you cook it up right.
For a long time, I made quinoa much like I make rice. (I also have some things to say about the way we’re all taught to cook rice, by the way, but that’s a story for another day.) Anyway, you know how it goes: some measure of quinoa and about twice as much water, simmered down until it has either evaporated or absorbed. There’s a reason I used to do it this way. The box told me to. And so did any number of reputable print and on-line sources. It seemed obvious enough, and depending on how I timed the cooking and calibrated the boil (what does a true “simmer” look like, anyway?), the result was more or less fine. But somewhere along the way, after at least half a dozen times of more-or-less-fine, I came to the conclusion that I wasn’t the biggest fan of the stuff. The flavor was borderline nice, I suppose. There was something faintly nutty there, but it was muted, bogged down. And the texture. Was this how it was supposed to be? Mildly soggy at best, mushy at worst? I nearly typed the word “swampy” in that last sentence, which leads me to wonder just how “fine” my early days of quinoa really were.
Then, in the late summer of 2006, the August issue of Gourmet turned up in my mailbox with a recipe for quinoa with corn, scallions, and mint. I could stop right there, or maybe with the fact that the recipe also includes fresh lemon zest and juice, and a touch of honey, and you’d already know that this recipe had a lot going for it. But what really got me was the cooking method. You start the quinoa on the boil, as I’d come to expect, but carry on only until it’s just coming around to tender. Then, you drain it, and set it in a sieve over an inch of simmering water to steam the rest of the way through to done. The technique is brilliant, and so is the quinoa that comes out in the end. It’s soft without the sog, breaks between the teeth with the lightest pop, and when you fluff it with a fork, you actually fluff it with a fork. Fluff it, not smoosh it. Because the individual seeds remain individual seeds, clump-free, lump-free, and every bit as delicious as all the quinoa you’ve ever eaten has let on it might be, given the proper circumstances.
So there you go. Thanks. I feel much better now.
Lemon-Scented Quinoa with Scallions and Mint
Adapted from Gourmet
The original recipe includes four ears worth of fresh corn kernels, boiled on the cob for five minutes, then removed, or simply raw. It’s wonderful that way in the summer. This time of year, I make it without the corn, and it’s still excellent. Make the dressing with butter or, for a something different, olive oil. I like it both ways.
1 Tbsp. finely grated lemon zest
2 Tbsp. fresh lemon juice
½ stick (¼ c.) unsalted butter, or ¼ c. olive oil
1 Tbsp. mild honey
Salt and black pepper to taste
2 c. (about 10 oz.) quinoa
4 scallions, thinly sliced
½ c. chopped fresh mint
Rinse the quinoa in three changes of cold water to remove any bitter coating. Bring a 4- to 5- quart pot of salted water to a boil, add the quinoa, and cook for about 7-8 minutes, until just slightly tender. (Think al dente pasta.)
Drain the quinoa in a sieve, then set the sieve over an inch of simmering water in the same pot. (Make sure that the water doesn't touch the bottom of the sieve.) Cover the quinoa with a folded kitchen towel and cover the whole thing with a lid. Steam until the quinoa is tender, fluffy, and dry, about 5 minutes. Remove from the heat and let stand, still covered, for another 3-5 minutes.
Meanwhile, make the dressing: Whisk together the lemon zest and juice, butter or oil, honey, salt, and pepper. Gently fold the quinoa into the dressing with a rubber spatula, then fold in the scallions and mint. Taste, and add more salt and pepper, if you'd like. Serve at any temperature.
Makes enough for eight.