You can really put anything in a quinoa salad, depending on your taste. (photo from flickr / Marco Verch Professional Photographer)
Until recently, I had a very casual relationship with healthy foods. Neither me nor the veggies/tofu/fruit could commit. But now we’re besties. Not that I have eschewed chips, Cheezies and chocolate, by any means. I’m just branching out.
For decades, my meals could be described as culinary grenades just waiting to go off. If I tried to make something new, it was sure to result in one of two things: either Harvey or I would end up with food poisoning, or the meal would be so unspeakably disastrous that we’d have to go out for dinner or order in.
Then the pandemic happened. With restaurants closed and/or my anxiety in high gear about being around crowds who might spread COVID, we ate at home almost all the time. It came down to this: I could spend eternity eating the same three dishes, or I could start expanding my culinary repertoire (I use the word repertoire lightly). In hindsight, I could have boycotted the kitchen entirely. As it was, I was relying on Harvey to pick up the slack more than half the time, and I didn’t feel that was fair. What I’m trying to say is that I basically kitchen-shamed myself. Looking at friends’ food posts on Instagram and Facebook made me feel unspeakably inadequate. How had I gotten to my late 60s without being able to easily conjure up at least a dozen go-to dishes for dinner on any given night? That’s a rhetorical question, by the way.
Whereas I used to consider my dearth of cooking skills a life choice, now I realize how essential those skills are. Plus, I got tired of eating chicken, beef, fish. There are only so many ways to jazz up that same limited rotation. It was getting old, and so am I.
Enter quinoa, or what a nutritionist I knew once described as “the most complete non-animal protein on the planet.” It’s high in fibre, low in sodium, high in calcium, potassium, iron, magnesium and zinc. And it’s naturally gluten-free. Basically it’s a superfood. Just remember to rinse and drain quinoa well before cooking in order to remove any saponins, which have a bitter, soap-like taste.
It took awhile to be convinced of quinoa’s intrinsic goodness, especially given its unusual smell while cooking. But little by little I warmed up to it, and now it’s indisputably one of my favourite foods. Harvey, however, would rather have the combo platter of a colonoscopy and a dental implant than eat quinoa. We all make choices.
One of my favourite quinoa dishes is a simple salad that could also serve as a main dish, depending on how much stuff you add to it. To make enough for two solid meals, I’ll use about two cups of cooked quinoa (Google directions for cooking), diced cucumber, fresh blueberries and fresh mint, cut up. In the summer I add diced up mango. I’ve also been known to add canned chickpeas, diced tomatoes and pine nuts. I’ve seen recipes that include bell peppers, red onion, grated carrots, dried cranberries, and a variety of herbs. You can really put anything in there, depending on your taste. To boost the animal protein content, you could add tuna, salmon or chicken as well.
What elevates this salad to the next level is the dressing you put on it. In my pre-cooking days, I used to think that olive oil was enough to render any salad palatable. Expanding my dressing and sauces repertoire has resulted in much yummier salads. Here are four dressing options I use regularly.
HONEY MUSTARD DRESSING
1 tbsp grainy Dijon mustard
2 tsp honey
2 tbsp olive oil
juice of 1/2 a lemon
salt and pepper to taste
Combine mustard, honey and lemon juice and whisk them together. Then whisk in the olive oil. Voila!
SESAME GINGER DRESSING
1/2 tsp ground ginger
1 1/2 tbsp maple syrup
2 1/2 tbsp soy sauce
2 tsp white vinegar or rice wine vinegar
1 tsp sesame oil
1/2 tsp sesame seeds
juice of 2 limes
Whisk all ingredients together and enjoy this savoury dressing.
1/4 cup olive oil
grated zest from 1 medium lemon
1 tbsp fresh lemon juice
1 medium clove garlic, minced
1 tsp grainy Dijon mustard
1 tsp honey
1/2 tsp kosher salt
1/4 tsp ground black pepper
Whisk ingredients together and enjoy!
1 tbsp red wine vinegar
1 tsp grainy Dijon mustard
1 clove garlic, minced
2 tbsp capers, drained and chopped (or more, to taste)
3 tbsp finely chopped flat leaf parsley
1/4 cup plus 2 tbsp olive oil
1/2 tsp ground pepper
1/4 tsp salt
Combine all ingredients. This one is a very versatile dressing. I often use it on baked salmon and it’s delicious. It works well on chicken, too. I love capers, so I always add loads, but that’s a taste thing.
Check out Food and Wine magazine’s online suggestions for five ways to dress a quinoa salad at foodandwine.com/grains/quinoa/5-ways-dress-quinoa-salad. They venture into more unusual flavour profiles than I’d be willing to try, but for those of you who are more culinarily adventurous, go for it!
Quinoa is the true tabula rasa of foods, since it’s rarely eaten on its own, and it’s never usually the star of the show. It gets its street cred from its supporting cast of veggies, fruits, proteins and dressings. It can be cast for breakfasts, lunches, dinners or snacks, and it’s equally happy served hot or cold. Unlike some prima donna foods, it doesn’t complain about about uninvited guests. It plays well in the sandbox, and you rarely have to call its parents to come pick it up from school for bad behaviour. I have only good things to say about quinoa, even though it sometimes gets an undeservedly bad rap. And, bonus, it lasts well in the fridge for a good week, unadorned. Case closed. Eat your quinoa.
Shelley Civkin, aka the Accidental Balabusta, is a happily retired librarian and communications officer. For 17 years, she wrote a weekly book review column for the Richmond Review. She’s currently a freelance writer and volunteer.