Wednesday, December 12, 2012

The Quinoa Diaries

I don't know about you, but quinoa (pronounced "keen-wa") has been one of those rare foods that I've struggled to like. Every so often I'll give it a try...and it's always been disappointing. Until recently, that is.

First of all, a bit of quinoa history, because it's interesting:

Quinoa was first domesticated about 4,000 years ago so it's an ancient grain. It is grown at high altitudes in the Andes mountains of Chile, Bolivia, and Peru, and the plants remind me somewhat of amaranth or sorghum. With their long flower stalks, they are quite lovely in a frousy sort of way when in bloom. Although quinoa is considered a whole grain it's actually the seeds that are harvested. It's possible to eat the leaves like you would any greens, but it's the seeds that make it commercially viable. Quinoa is closely related to beets, spinach, and...tumbleweeds! (Fascinating piece of semi-useless information!)

Using Quinoa

The easiest and tastiest ways I've found for using quinoa is to cook the grains thusly:
1) Rinse the quinoa well; drain.
2) Combine 1 part quinoa to 2 parts water or broth in a pot.
3) Bring to a boil; reduce heat, cover, and cook for 15 minutes.
4) Let cool for 5 minutes and then fluff with a fork.

I use cooked quinoa as a salad ingredient (sort of like pasta salad). I cool the quinoa and then add chopped onion, celery, tomato, cucumbers, olives...whatever I have and whatever sounds good. Next, I "dress" it. My favorites are malt vinegar and olive oil, rice wine vinegar and olive oil, or balsamic vinegar and olive oil. I add a bit of salt and pepper to taste, and sometimes I throw in feta cheese chunks. It's good!

Another way to use quinoa is as stuffing for zucchini or bell peppers. Mix together cooked quinoa, cooked hamburger meat, tomato sauce, and spices of your own imagining. (I like to use minced jalapenos, cumin, garlic, oregano, and chili powder.) Stuff parboiled bell peppers or hollowed out zucchinis that have been cut lengthwise, top with cheese, and bake until heated through and the cheese is bubbly.

I haven't tried this idea yet, but I want to mix together cooked quinoa, chopped onions, chopped celery, chopped spinach, a couple of eggs, and maybe a half cup of milk or cream. Then I'll bake it like a quiche (you could use a crust or go crustless) until it's set.

I've been sitting here thinking about using quinoa, and I had to ask myself why I keep trying to like the stuff. There are so many other grains that I'm used to and I like, so why go through this struggle? I think it's because I get such great satisfaction from experimenting and trying new things. Granted, it's nothing earth shattering, but I take great joy in learning, and spending time in my kitchen blesses me as it (hopefully) blesses others.

Experiment! Try something new! Who knows but that it could become a new family favorite.

Pork Chops and White Bean Casserole

Winter greetings! When the cold days of winter set in, I love to put on a pot of beans to simmer for hours. Beans are definitely perfect winter fare--their rich, rib sticking goodness is just right for keeping the cold at bay. Make a batch of cornbread to go with them and you have a well balanced and tasty meal.
The recipe I'm going to share with you today comes from my mother's kitchen from many years ago. It's not a fancy recipe, but the combination of spices makes this bean stew a real standout. I hope you give it a try!

Pork Chops and White Bean Casserole

2 cups (1 lb.) white beans (I usually used Great Northerns or the smaller navy beans)
2 tsp. salt, or to taste
1/4 tsp. pepper
2-3 cloves garlic, minced
2 bay leaves
1 T. butter
2 cups finely chopped onion
2 cans tomatoes (the size of soup cans), chopped, including liquid (Instead of store-bought cans of tomatoes, I use a quart jar of my home canned tomatoes including liquid.) or, use 5 large tomatoes, chopped
1 tsp. oregano
1 tsp. thyme
6 thin pork chops

Early in the morning: Cover beans with cold water, cover, and refrigerate all day. (You could always let the beans set overnight instead if you want to cook them in the morning for a midday meal.) Drain. Put the beans in a large pot; add 5 cups water and the salt, pepper, bay leaf, and garlic. Bring to a boil; reduce heat, cover, and simmer 1 hour, stirring occasionally. Drain again. Place beans in a large ovenproof casserole dish or dutch oven.

Meanwhile, saute in butter the onion, tomatoes, oregano, and thyme and cook the mixture for several minutes until heated through. Stir this mixture into the beans that are in the ovenproof container.

Next, brown pork chops in a skillet and then tuck them into the beans, covering them. Bake, covered, at 350 degrees for 1 1/2 hours, then uncovered for 15 minutes.

This is how the recipe is written, but what I do in actual fact is, I brown my pork chops in the cast iron pot I plan on using to bake the beans. That way, I get all the tasty bits from browning the meat incorporated into the stew. I think it makes a difference.

These beans reheat well, and I always hope there's enough left over for lunch the next day. Comfort food at it's tastiest best!.