Monday, April 23, 2012

Protean Protein

Winter may be over, but I struggled with seasonality quite a bit this past season. Long-time readers may recall that I usually spend this time of year complaining about how I'm totally over winter vegetables and how I couldn't possibly think of another way to use them. But this year something strange happened: there were no winter vegetables! There's been a rabid heatwave over the last several months here on the east coast, whih led to a lack of winter produce. Winter vegetables typically get their distinctively sweet flavors by growing in frigid temperatures, which in turn develop their natural sugars. Carrots, beets, celeriac, winter squash, parsnips, and black kale are among some of my favorite winter veggies not to be found at the farmers market this winter. How did I cope without winter veggies? By eating lots of meat.

Without seasonal veggies as a default side dish to lighten my many meats, I began to play with alternatives. After tearing through pantry staples and the usual starchy suspects (rice, mashed potatoes, pasta, orzo, couscous) I turned to the much lauded and much healthier "ancient grains". The category (actually a misnomer since many are in fact not actual grains) includes kamut, barley, oats, millet, farro and one of my favorites, quinoa. What's important about these is that while they're not all necessarily grains, they are indeed ancient, which is to say that they have not been genetically modified in any way since they were first cultivated thousands of years ago. Much of our modern day grains have had their structure (their nutrient balance, essentially) altered over the years for a variety of reasons. What quinoa, for example, can offer is a complete protein profile, that is to say it has a good balance of protein, carbohydrates and fat.

If you're looking to get a variety of nutrients (including iron) or to reign in a portion control issue, quinoa is the perfect foil. Because it has a slightly higher fat content compared to other grains (but is not a fatty food) and because it's so high in protein, eating just a small amount of it will help you feel full, while giving you a day's worth of protein with just a one-cup serving (it's a great choice for vegetarians or for a meatless meal). So whether you eat it alone, mixed with a few vegetables, or as a side dish, you'll end up satisfied while eating less. Nutritional benefits aside, quinoa is also quick cooking (who doesn't love that?) and delicious. I like to cook mine in stock instead of water for a little added flavor, and if I do happen to have vegetables on hand, will fold in some sauteed spinach and thinly sliced leeks (both finally available at the farmers market). Quinoa's great at absorbing flavors, so I love to serve it alongside a roast with plenty of sauce (it's pictured above alongside an oven-roasted chicken leg) or as a salad (unlike other grains it drinks up dressing). This warm recipe has leeks and overwintered spinach, but any of your favorite veggies will work. 

Quinoa with Spinach and Leeks 

1½ cups quinoa 
3 cups low-sodium chicken, vegetable or beef stock
½ tsp kosher salt
4 cups spinach, roughly chopped
2 leeks, thinly sliced
1 garlic clove, very finely minced
2 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil

1. Combine quinoa, salt, and stock in a medium saucepan and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to a simmer and cover. Cook 10-12 minutes until all of the liquid has been absorbed and quinoa is tender.

2. Meanwhile, heat garlic, leeks and olive oil over low heat in a large non-stick skillet, about 30 seconds. Add spinach (in batches if necessary) and continue cooking, stirring frequently, until wilted. Fold in cooked quinoa until well combined. Serve and enjoy!


1 comment:

Kathryn said...

This looks delicious. I can't wait to try it!