Monday, April 15, 2013

UnRecipe: It's Gettin' Real With the KEEN-wah

Quinoa. It's one of those words where you look at it for a long time and wonder how the hell its pronunciation ever came to be. If you currently live or have ever lived in Washington State, you'll be familiar with this stare-too-long-and-the-word-is-just-wrong phenomena, given our wealth of pronunciation-conundrums like Puyallup (pew-allup), Sequim (squim), and Issaquah (issa-quah, but say it fast, the emphasis is on the first syllable). I actually think the pronunciation of quinoa would make for a great rap name, because Keen-Wah, would sound pretty cool and about as superstar as the actual whole grain itself. Kanye, introducing Keen-Wah, throw your hands in the air and say YEAAAAAAAAAAAAAH!

Fried rice made with quinoa and brown rice - SUPAHSTAAAAAAAAH - Photo by Wasabi Prime

Quinoa is actually the edible seed of the grain-based species of goosefoot plant, which is itself more related to spinach or tumbleweeds, oddly enough. And you think your family's a bunch of oddballs. So quinoa is technically not a real whole grain, but the fact that it's a seed is what makes it such a great gluten-free side dish. It's also got a nice high protein content, as compared to something like rice, and it can be eaten in both sweet and savory dishes. I've seen people swap out oatmeal with quinoa and add a little honey, dried fruit or sugar with milk, to make a sweetened quinoa porridge. Definitely more protein than even steel-cut oats. I've been using quinoa mixed with brown rice or as a total rice substitute, which is helpful when you do a lot of stir fry dishes. I love rice, don't get me wrong, but even switching to all brown rice, with only the occasional use of a short-grain white rice, a little extra bit of protein mixed in doesn't hurt.

Inspired by Spam, but no actual Spam in this fried rice (or Spam Mints) - Photos by Wasabi Prime
I'm sucker for fried rice. And really, who isn't? It really should just be renamed: Leftover Rice With Random Chopped Stuff In It. Because if you go to most restaurants, that's what their fried rice will have -- odds and ends, chopped into bits and wokked with some stale, cold rice. Waste not, want not, it's kind of a perfect dish, which is how my version of fried rice with quinoa and brown rice came about. I had such a Rogue's Gallery of leftovers at one point in the fridge -- scraps of fatty ham, half of a Portuguese sausage (aka, linguisa), and some pantry and freezer basics I could pull in, like frozen peas and a lowly onion. I cook quinoa in the rice cooker, with the same water ratio as I would with rice. It gets a little extra-soft, but most times I've got a 1 to 1 ratio of quinoa to brown rice being cooked together, and that mix of softened quinoa and toothy brown rice makes for a good balance.

Slightly less-guilty fried rice - Photos by Wasabi Prime
I cooked off all the meat and onions in a wok, until they got crispy-good. I sometimes scramble some eggs and mix those in as well. I added the seasoning, which for me is just watered-down soy sauce (if you're trying to control your salt, otherwise, go nuts) and maybe a splash of fish sauce or oyster sauce for depth of flavor. Worcestershire sauce works, too. The quinoa and brown rice can be added cold or warm. Sometimes cold is better, it keeps everything from turning into mush, but the nice thing about brown rice is its sturdiness, so even slightly cooled from the rice cooker, it holds its shape well enough. I added the frozen peas last, since they thaw quickly from the heat of the food. Even if you're not a big brown rice fan, or unsure about quinoa, this is a good way to eat them both, in a familiar dish with strong enough flavors where you don't notice the earthiness of both the rice and quinoa.

Quinoa risotto, anyone? - Photo by Wasabi Prime
I wanted to keep pushing the boundaries of Rap Star Keen-Wah's abilities, I knew a Platinum Record was in his future. I'd seen a few recipes for a quinoa risotto and was "keen" on seeing how it would do as a replacement for Arborio rice. Bottom line -- it won't be as creamy-dreamy as true risotto. Don't think you'll take a bite and slap yourself on the head saying, "My God, I'll never crave starchy, short grain rice again!" That's just crazytalk. Consider this the healthier way station for risotto craving, until you hit your favorite Italian restaurant who will cook it Like a Boss.

I used this recipe from Bon Appetit for Quinoa Risotto with Mushrooms and Thyme as a baseline and I had my own additions to work with. Because quinoa doesn't have the high starch content of Arborio rice, you have to substitute that creaminess that develops in risotto with something else. Sure, you could use cream, but I ended up adding a few spoonfuls of plain, unsweetened low fat yogurt -- Winning. I always keep a container of it in the fridge, it's another one of those ingredient basics that is great for subbing-out things like sour cream, even actual cream, like if you want to thicken a soup (but mix it in with a hand blender to make it smooth), plus yogurt has a nice tartness which helps cut a little of the richness of dishes. And if there's any leftover plain yogurt, just put the rest in a bowl, drizzle a little honey on it, and it's an instant breakfast or dessert. I know, not as good as a giant slice of chocolate cake (yes, even for breakfast), but when we save our indulge moments for the truly indulge-worthy things, they taste so much better.

You rock my world, Keen-Wah -- PLAY FREEBIRD!! - Photos by Wasabi Prime
The well-stirred pot of yogurt-creamed quinoa risotto was mixed with sauteed mushrooms, wilted spinach, Parmesan cheese, plenty of parsley and the familiar frozen peas showed up again at the last minute, just to add more texture. Those frozen peas -- fashionably late, every time. I paired the quinoa risotto with some seared medallions of pork tenderloin in a lemon and wine sauce. I added a little lemon zest to the risotto as well, but it's fine without it. Dinner felt like a treat without that heavy feeling afterwards, like if I had made things with the more traditional ingredients. And it felt less food-guilty, not that we should feel shame about eating what we want, but for an everyday meal, we want to feel like we're striking a balance between doing right health-wise and not punishing our tastebuds with something boring.  

The only thing that left me wanting was the lack of Rap Superstar props to Keen-Wah, who has clearly shown his stellar talent to the food world. Nothing so clearly represents quinoa so eloquently as that much-favorited video by Fog and Smog Films, It's Gettin' Real in the Whole Foods Parking Lot. Because, seriously... it got real on my dinner plate, yo. PROPER.

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