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Tuesday, January 24, 2012

New Year, New You - Healthy Ingredient #1: Quinoa!

As many of you know, writing about health food is not really my thing. Rice cakes, tofu and bean spouts are not exactly the most glamorous or flavorful ingredients out there and, truth be told, I have usually avoided them at all costs. While I don't consider myself quite as naughty as a certain Ms. Paula Deen, I have to admit I usually prefer a little decadence in my dishes.

That being said, I have recently found that healthy and delicious need not be mutually exclusive. This week I'll be highlighting three healthy ingredients that are chock full of flavor and nutrients, a culinary "win-win" if you will. Without further ado, I'd like to introduce you to the first healthy ingredient you simply must try in 2012.

Quinoa (pronouced 'keen-wah', accent on the first syllable) is considered to be an "ancient grain" and was of great nutritional importance in Pre-Colombian Andean civilizations. While usually considered a whole grain, quinoa is actually a grain-like plant grown for its edible seeds. It is not a member of the grass family at all and is more closely related to species including beets, spinach and tumbleweeds. Don't let that deter you, however, because quinoa is actually prepared in much the same way as whole grains like rice or barley. Cooked quinoa has a lovely light, fluffy texture and a mild, nutty flavor and is incredibly versatile! As an added bonus, it's also gluten-free, cholesterol-free, kosher and almost always found in an organic form. Unlike wheat or rice products though, quinoa contains a balanced set of amino acids making it a complete protein source which is highly unusual among plant foods. It is also a good source of fiber and is high in magnesium and iron as well.

I discovered this delicious quinoa recipe in the January 2012 issue of Bon Appétit magazine. The article was entitled "The New Veg" and featured the cuisine of Israeli-born, London-based chef Yotam Ottolenghi who is the current undisputed master of vegetable cookery. A hallmark of Ottolenghi's style is his attention to the texture, color and overall look of a dish with an emphasis on creating beautiful as well as delicious food. I have to hand it to him, this quinoa dish is brilliant! Not only is it beautiful, I can't believe how well all the flavors and textures worked together. I hope you enjoy this recipe as much as I did and have fun exploring the various incarnations of this 'Ancient Grain'!


Quinoa, Fennel & Pomegranate Salad 
from Bon Appetit Magazine; recipe contributed by Chef Yotam Ottolenghi
1/4 cup plus 1 tablespoon olive oil
2 medium fennel bulbs (2 1/2 pounds), cut lengthwise into 1/4"-thick slices
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper 
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice 
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cumin 
1 teaspoon sugar
1 cup quinoa, rinsed 
1 lemon 
1 serrano chile, seeded, chopped 
1/2 cup chopped fresh cilantro 
1/2 cup chopped fresh mint 
1 teaspoon chopped fresh dill 
1/4 cup pomegranate seeds (from 1/2 small pomegranate)
Heat 1/4 cup oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add fennel; season with salt and pepper. Cook, stirring occasionally, until fennel is just tender and lightly golden, 10–12 minutes. Stir in lemon juice, cumin, and sugar; cook for 1 minute. Season with salt and pepper. Set aside.

Meanwhile, bring quinoa and 3 cups water to a boil in a medium saucepan. Cover, reduce heat to low, and simmer until quinoa is cooked, about 10 minutes. Drain; return to pan. Cover; let sit for 15 minutes. Fluff with a fork; transfer to a large bowl. 

Using a small sharp knife, cut all peel and white pith from lemon. Cut between membranes to release segments; discard membranes and roughly chop. Add lemon with any juices and remaining 1 Tbsp. oil to quinoa; stir. Add fennel mixture, chile, and herbs. Toss gently to incorporate. Season with salt and pepper. Transfer salad to a platter; sprinkle with pomegranate seeds. 

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