This quinoa side salad will outshine your entree

·4 min read

Figuring out what to cook for dinner isn’t always so easy, especially when it comes to side dishes. OK, the grocery store had a sale on cornish game hens, so you’re making roasted cornish game hens. Or maybe you have some pork chops in your freezer that you need to cook. Perhaps you looked in your pantry and landed on chickpea burgers. Protein, decided!

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But what should you serve with those main dishes when you’re sick of mashed potatoes, rice, roasted Brussels sprouts and broccoli? For those nights when you want something a little different but still crowd-pleasing, consider cooking quinoa and using it as the base for a salad. If you’ve seen quinoa in the store but aren’t sure how to cook with this grain, here’s the rundown (or skip straight to the recipe).

What is quinoa?

Pronounced KEEN-wah, quinoa is one of the “ancient grains” alongside the likes of barley, farro, freekeh, millet and spelt. Though quinoa has just recently become trendy in the United States, this superfood has been eaten in South America for thousands of years. In fact, the Incas called quinoa “the mother of all grains.” Though it’s packed with protein and its own host of benefits, quinoa is frequently used as a swap for rice or pasta.

Is quinoa good for you?

Quinoa is gluten-free, so it’s a great option for people who want grains but can’t eat wheat. Beyond its purpose as an alternative to pasta, it has a host of other health benefits. One serving of quinoa (1/4 cup uncooked, which yields about 1/2 cup of cooked quinoa) has 7 grams of protein, 15% of your daily iron and is a good source of fiber and other vitamins and minerals.

What does quinoa taste like?

Quinoa has a light flavor with a slight nuttiness and earthiness hidden in its grains. While you can eat it on its own, quinoa is best punched up a bit with a vinaigrette or even just a big squeeze of lemon and some salt. Quinoa has a fluffy texture with just a hint of seediness, making it a great base for grain bowls.

When browsing the grocery store aisle, you may see white, red, black and tricolor quinoa. Though pretty much the same, there are some differences between the varieties. White quinoa has the lightest flavor and texture and cooks quicker. Red quinoa is a tad nuttier (both in flavor and texture) and then black quinoa is the boldest in flavor and in bite. Tricolor quinoa, if you hadn’t guessed, is a mixture of all three. If you’re not sure where to start, begin cooking with white or a tricolor quinoa.

How do you cook quinoa?

Quinoa is as easy to cook as rice. First, rinse the quinoa before cooking to get rid of its slightly bitter coating (called saponin). Then, add 1/2 cup water to 1/4 cup quinoa and bring to a boil. After it comes to a boil, quickly lower to a simmer and cover the pot. Cook the quinoa for about 15 minutes or until all the water is absorbed. If you want to add more flavor, cook the quinoa in homemade broth instead of water.

After mastering the basics of simmering quinoa, you’ll quickly learn this grain is a great base for any number of dishes. If you’re not sure where to start, well, you can never go wrong with bacon and black beans. The recipe below can act as an accompaniment to any number of proteins or as a lunch in its own right. Once you’re comfortable cooking quinoa, then it’s time that you use it as a base for more salad recipes that aren’t exactly “salad.”

Bacony Black Beans and Tricolor Quinoa

This recipe by JeanMarie Brownson originally appeared in The Chicago Tribune.

Ingredients:

  • 1 medium leek or 1 medium sweet onion

  • 1/4 cup finely diced smoky bacon

  • 1 large clove garlic, finely chopped

  • 1 or 2 teaspoon olive oil

  • 2 cups low-sodium chicken broth

  • 1 cup tri-color quinoa

  • 1 small orange habanero, optional

  • 1 (15-ounce) can black beans, drained, rinsed

  • Salt to taste

  • Chopped fresh cilantro

Directions:

Step 1: Cut off the tough leaves and dark green portion of 1 medium leek; set aside for use in a stock later. Cut the white and pale green section of the leek lengthwise in half. Rinse it well, then cut into 1/8-inch thick slices.

Step 2: Cook 1/4 cup bacon, leek and 1 clove garlic with 1-2 teaspoons olive oil in medium saucepan over medium heat until bacon starts to crisp and brown, about 5 minutes.

Step 3: Stir in 2 cups chicken broth; heat to a boil while scraping up any browned bits from the bottom of the pan.

Step 4: Stir in 1 cup quinoa.

Step 5: Nestle 1 small habanero into the quinoa.

Step 6: Reduce heat to low. Cover pan tightly; cook until quinoa is tender and all the broth has been absorbed, about 15 minutes.

Step 7: Stir in beans and salt to taste, usually about 1/4 teaspoon.

Step 8: Remove habanero. Serve quinoa warm garnished with cilantro.

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