Thursday, February 7, 2008

Quinoa Pilaf with Chickpeas and Herbs

Until a few years ago, hardly anyone outside South America had heard of quinoa (pronounced keen-wa). For centuries, this tiny grain has been a staple of people living in the high altitudes of the Andes. Now you can buy it in bulk at Whole Foods for a pittance. Most health food stores carry it as well, either in bulk or boxed.

Quinoa as a food grain has a number of advantages. It is very high in protein, including several amino acids--lysine, methionine and cystine--that are not present in other grains or in soybeans and it contains no gluten. Quinoa also is extremely easy to cook and mixes with a vast range of other ingredients. Uncooked, the tiny, pellet-like grains look like canary food. Cooked, quinoa sometimes is mistaken for couscous, except that the grains are larger with a glassy center. The taste is similar, the quinoa being lighter with a pleasant chewiness.

Quinoa is one of my favorite grains for making pilaf. Unlike many other whole grains, it cooks quickly and isn't terribly starchy, so the finished pilaf remains light and fluffy. I don't go about these pilafs with a particular recipe in mind. Think of the grain more as a component, to be mixed and matched with other ingredients you might have on hand and with an eye toward seasonality.

My most recent effort was a buffet dinner with a pilaf combining quinoa with chickpeas, sundried tomatoes, red onion, radicchio and finely chopped herbs--mint, cilantro and dill. I just happened to have a large bunch of cilantro and a bunch of dill in the fridge, along with half a radicchio. So they shouldn't go to waste, I added them to this pilaf, which illustrates perfectly how I like to approach these kinds of dishes. You could just as easily use parsley or green onion or any number of other things you already have on hand.

Although quinoa may be unfamliar, it could not be simpler to cook. Some authorities advise soaking the grains in water for about five minutes first because quinoa sometimes comes with a natural coating of something called saponin, which can make the finished quinoa a little bitter.

Cook one cup quinoa in two cups water. Bring to a boil in a saucepan, then reduce heat to low, cover and continue cooking until the quinoa has absorbed all the water and is tender and fluffy, about 15 minutes. To cool the quinoa, I spread it out on a baking sheet. Then I procede to mix it with the other ingrediets in a large bowl. Don't worry too much about exact quantities. The finished pilaf will be your own creation and should suit your own tastes.

Mix in some chickpeas (up to a full 14-ounce can, drained). Chop a few sundried tomatoes into small pieces. I prefer the kind marinated in oil. Saute about one-quarter red onion, cut into small dice, until just tender. Add these as well. If you have some radicchio, chop that into small pieces and throw that into the bowl. Endive would also work, or if you like the idea of a green with sharp flavor, you could add watercress leaves or arugula torn into pieces or green onion. Now mix in some of your favorite herbs, chopped fine--mint, cilantro. dill, parsley--until you have a nice balance of grain and green. Taste now and again as you add ingredients. Trust your own instincts about what and how much to add.

Finish the pilaf by seasoning with extra-virgin olive oil (a couple tablespoons should do, not too much), salt and the juice from half a lemon. Depending on what you are serving with the pilaf, you could also add dried fruits, such as raisins or chopped dried apricots.

Serve this pilaf at room temperature. It can be made a day ahead and would be the perfect thing next to a roasted chicken or braised lamb.


Trevor said...

I've been looking for a good recipe for quinoa to make for a friend. Now I've got one...

Jenny said...

Quinoa is one of my favorite grains. I made a quinoa pilaf and served it with roast chicken the other night. It also makes a good hot breakfast cereal too. And it's easy to make in a rice cooker.