Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Back From Hiatus (and How to Use Quinoa)

Wow... it's been more than 3 months since I last posted, so I'm happy to see no one's left my little clique of followers. Thanks to my sister Kelly for reminding me to get back to it. Here's something I started way back then but never finished.


Quinoa cooks like a grain but technically is a dried fruit.

It has more in common with amaranth and buckwheat, but you cook it almost like you would rice. As a busy dad, it's a versatile whole food ingredient that helps keep things simple and kid friendly without resorting to the usual starch and cheese belly bombs (not that there's anything wrong with that every once in a while).

For such a delicate, subtly flavored substance, quinoa packs a ton of protein (WholeHealthMD) -- about 11g per 1/2 cup (dry) -- including the amino acid lysine, absent from most grains. So the stuff's really good for you, but it's also easy to cook, tastes great and simple to incorporate into a wide variety of dishes: I've used quinoa in place of oats for veggie burgers and used it as stuffed pepper stuffing, but mostly served as a main dish with complementary ingredients centered around a cultural theme.

It's always a good idea to rinse quinoa before cooking, as it may still have traces of a bitter, protective coating that's usually mostly dealt with before it gets to the store. I haven't tried it yet, but some say lightly toasting the grain first on a skillet gives it a nice flavor.

You cook the quinoa itself by boiling it in twice its volume of water. Got one cup of quinoa? Use two cups of water. Then I just add the other ingredients, almost like cooking a garden-variety Indian dal dish (usually lentils first cooked in water, with fried spices, garlic, onion, maybe some peas, curry sauce).

So far I've only done two varieties -- Indian curry and Mexican/southwestern -- but an Italian variety would work, too. I've never actually paid attention to amounts when making these, since one of the main benefits of this dish is its simplicity and ability to incorporate dry and/or canned ingredients (of course fresh is best), ideally a healthy whole-food meal that's accessible and versatile.

So after you cook (or while you're cooking) say two cups of quinoa (dry measurement), which should be enough for a family of three or four, simply add the other stuff.

Indian Curry
  • 1 white or yellow onion, chopped or pureed
  • 3-6 cloves of garlic, chopped or minced
  • 2 tsp. whole cumin seeds
  • 1-2 T. vegetable oil, ghee, or oil/butter mix
  • 1-2 T. curry sauce (not to be confused with Thai curry paste)
  • salt (to taste)
  • can of chick peas (garbanzo beans), can of tomatoes, handful of raisins or 1/2-1 cup of frozen peas, roasted cashews -- the ingredients on this line item are all options and it can be as simple as just using the preceding six.
Heat the ghee, oil, butter/oil in a medium pan on medium heat. Add the cumin seeds, make sure they sizzle and cook for a minute or two, then add the garlic for another minute or so, then the onion until it's translucent. Dump this mixture into the cooked quinoa, add the curry sauce and salt, anything else you may want to add, make sure it's thoroughly blended and heated up. Serve (garnish with fresh cilantro if you have it).

  • 1 white or yellow onion, chopped
  • 3-6 cloves of garlic, chopped or minced
  • 1-2 fresh tomato(s), chopped, or canned tomatoes (avg. sized can)
  • 1 can of black beans
  • 1/2 cup fresh or frozen corn kernels
  • 1 T (or to taste), chili powder
  • salt (to taste)
This one is even more straightforward. Add the onion, garlic and tomato to the cooked quinoa and let it simmer for (uh, I'm really guessing here) 10 minutes or so? Just so that the onion and garlic are softened and, well, cooked. Then you can add the beans, corn, spices and salt. Cook for a while longer, until it's right (gotta taste it as you go).

Anyway, quinoa's a great vegetarian staple and is not soy (which we've recently limited to just tempeh).

I have a lot of catching up to do, so I hope to be posting again real soon.


Thursday, September 17, 2009

Urban Foraging

When we lived in Sunnyvale a few years ago, we had nearly year-round access to some of the best fresh fruit ever. Sunnyvale and the entire South Bay Area region is now mostly a paved-over, bustling part of Silicon Valley, but it once was part of the nation's most important fruit-producing region. Back then, it was known as the Valley of Heart's Delight. Silicon?

Remnants of that era still exist, mostly in people's yards.

We picked oranges and lemons in the winter; bing cherries in the early summer; peaches, nectarines and plums later in July or August; heirloom tomatoes from the local grade school garden and apples in September; there were even a couple of nearby pomegranate trees. I only took fruit that otherwise would drop and rot -- neglected fruit trees or branches that hung over fences -- since otherwise it just wouldn't be cool.

Some Concord grapes from down the street by our new place are pictured above.

But the real show-stopper of our Sunnyvale cornucopia was a massive and productive avocado tree directly across the street. The day I noticed the tree, shortly after we moved into the apartment, I also saw an old ladder with a sign reading "free." At risk of sounding a little too hippie, I did feel as if the universe wanted me to pick those avocados.

Now I just needed permission, since the ones that fell on the ground tended to get munched on by squirrels. To my surprise, the owner actually offered them to me when he saw me looking closely at the tree.

About once a week, I'd drag my ladder over to the avocado tree and pick about a half of a grocery bag full (any more would have gone bad too quickly). We had guacamole pretty much all the time and put generous slices of the delectable fruit on our sandwiches. Now, avocados don't normally grow that far north, so it was a real treat.

Moving back to the coast and its very different climate and vegetation, I didn't find much stone fruit or oranges -- the few cherry trees in the area were decorative only (the cool of the fog killed any chance of fruiting) -- but I did manage to find several pineapple guava trees. Pineapple guavas are not technically guavas, but they're good.

We didn't have as much of a bounty in the Midwest, but I do remember picking marionberries in the woods bordering our subdivision. I know, not exactly urban (or, to be more precise, suburban), but you never really saw much else in our clay-soil neighborhoods.

Wherever you live, look around and see what's growing. If it's cool -- i.e. you're not ripping off your neighbor -- then sample some truly local produce.

I'll be back next week, as things should settle down a bit by then.


Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Doing More with Less

I've been so busy adjusting to a new routine with my family (i.e. juggling sporadic bursts of freelance work and spending more time with my daughter, while still managing to get something on the table) that the food blog kind of got shafted. Most of us are having to make adjustments, become more resourceful, less spendy.

So to honor the palate and soul while minding the wallet, I share Bittman's scaled-down but perfect Lentils and Potatoes with Curry (from How to Cook Everything Vegetarian). It's tasty, nutritious, quick to make and the short list of mostly cheap ingredients can be stored for a long time.

Vital Stuff:

1 cup dried red lentils (masoor dal) or brown lentils
3 1/2 cups water, coconut milk, veggie stock (I use equal parts coconut milk and water)
2 medium russet potatoes, peeled and cut into large chunks
1 tablespoon curry powder
Salt & pepper


Yogurt (plain) for garnish
Minced fresh cilantro
chopped fresh tomatoes
Butter (about 2 tablespoons)

What to Do:

(1) Combine lentils, liquid and curry powder in a medium saucepan, bring to boil over med-high heat. Turn heat down to med-low so it bubbles gently, cover partially and cook (stirring occasionally) until lentils start to absorb the liquid, about 15 minutes.

(2) Add taters and cover pan completely, cook undisturbed for about 10 minutes, then stir gently and add a little more liquid only if they're too dry. Add salt as they get tender.

(3) Cover and cook some more -- about 5 to 10 minutes -- until lentils are soft enough to get mushy and taters are tender at the center (use a fork). Add lots of black pepper, stir, add garnish if you so choose and serve.

It's a staple here because it's cheap and easy, and you can play around with spices, garnish, etc. Bittman's good for those perfectly simple recipes that still sport a gourmet pedigree. Just because times are tough doesn't mean we have to eat crap, right?