So apparently I’m 2-for-2 on delicious gluten-free Passover dishes that might not actually be kosher for Passover. But nevermind that. Let’s talk about quinoa.
I’ve been vowing for years to get more quinoa in my diet. If all those breathless news articles are to be believed, it’s a new superfood. It’s exotic–all the way from Peru! It’s ancient–the Inca ate it! It’s full of protein and wholesome whole-grain goodness! What’s not to like!
I’ve been making tentative progress. In college, I would mix red quinoa and ranch dressing into a bowl of mashed potatoes. Somehow I managed to convince myself that the little extra protein boost from those little scarlet orbs canceled out the giant gummy forkfuls of potato I was stuffing into my face. As I got more, um…sophisticated, I started encountering quinoa salads, pleasant little pops of grain swarming around beans and green vegetables and even tofu, overwhelming me with texture and freshness and wholesome earnest appeal.
But on its own, as a stand-in for less virtuous starches, quinoa was…lacking. I’ve never been much a fan of food that pretends to be something it’s not, and when I was faced with tiny hardy orbs, heaped sheepishly in a bowl, almost apologetic for not being rice or couscous, I was understandably nonplussed.
Stand alone, I silently implored the quinoa. Make something of yourself. Don’t be shy.
Foodstuff telepathy aside, quinoa is best approached as its own appealing beast. Those itty-bitty morsels plump and firm as they cook, releasing a telltale white spiral around each circumference when they’re ready to eat. Their flavor is less-than-mutable: nutty, earthy and deep, not quite the amiable self-effacer. There’s really nothing quite like it, and I like it that way.
But where quinoa is most decidedly not rice, it can benefit from some of the same treatments. As with rice, simply boiling, salting and fluffing will do little for the mouth-appeal. But it can be stir-fried and lightly crisped, or stirred into a brothy soup, or turned into a lively pilaf with seasonal vegetables. I decided to creep up on the quinoa as if it were a risotto base, bathing it gently with small doses of seasoned vegetable broth and coaxing out the creamy starches within.
This was not an unqualified success–I can say, with the weight of experience, that quinoa will never get as creamy and lush as short-grain rice. And I also forgot just how goldurn much time risotto takes to make. After about 20 minutes, with time running short, I gave up and dumped in the remaining broth in one go. This was not the canvas on which I was destined to paint my world-illuminating, illusion-shattering quinoa masterpiece. But you know what? It was still perfectly lovely.
With a healthy dose of lemon and some ribbons of fresh mint, my almost-“quinotto” became light and playful and invigorating, in a way that risotto with rice can never be. And as a side dish for an already-groaning festival table, it served ideally.
Lemon-Mint “Quinotto” (serves 6)
Inspired by Petite Kitchenesse
1 1/2 cups quinoa, thoroughly rinsed and drained
1 small red onion, finely diced
Pinch of red chili flake
Splash of white wine
4 cups of vegetable stock + 1/2 cup water
Juice and zest of two medium lemons
2 1/2 tbsp chopped or chiffonade mint leaves
3 tablespoons grated parmesan cheese (if you like)
Olive oil for the pot, plus more for finishing the dish
Salt and pepper to taste
In a small saucepan, bring the stock and water to a simmer and keep warm. I added a bay leaf and a small hunk of parmesan rind–both of these are incredibly optional.
In a medium pot, heat olive oil over medium-high heat. Add onions, red chili flake, and a pinch of salt, and sweat the onions until they’re translucent, about 5 minutes. Add the quinoa, and cook, stirrring frequently, for another 10 minutes or so, until the quinoa grains are fully coated in the oil and start to smell delightfully nutty. Add the wine and stir until it’s all cooked out.
Add the hot broth to the quinoa, a ladleful at a time, stirring between each addition until the liquid has been fully absorbed. This will take longer and longer with each addition. The risotto is ready when the quinoa has absorbed all the liquid and a small white spiral appears around the rim of each grain. (Keep an extra cup or so of water on hand, in case the quinoa needs it.)
Remove the quinoa from the heat and add lemon, mint, a drizzle of olive oil, and parmesan (if using). Serve warm, as part of any hefty meal that needs a little brightening.