Saturday, June 26, 2010

A Quinoa and Vegetable Pilaf—Good Food without a Recipe

In my cooking classes I frequently encourage people to think of the recipes that I teach as templates. The reason for this is that my goal is always to teach technique—not just recipes. I want someone to be able to go home with a recipe I have taught and use that recipe to feed themselves and their friends and family—whether they have the exact ingredients for the specific recipe or not.

I thought I would write a short post to illustrate what I mean by this in practice. Yesterday evening, I got home late and didn't have a lot of time to think about what to make for dinner. Furthermore, it was Friday. Which meant that I would be going to the farmers' market the following morning. I always want to use up, if possible (sometimes it isn't), any of my produce that is left from the previous Saturday when I make dinner on Friday.

When I got home, I pulled everything out of the produce bin and spread it out on the counter: a bunch of Swiss Chard, plus a few odds and ends of beets, turnips, summer squash, summer onions, green beans and peas. Obviously, I couldn't eat all of this in one meal. I decided to use the chard for sure—to basically use it as my starting point. I then put the beets and turnips back. They go well with chard, but they will continue to keep a bit longer and I was more interested in going in the direction of the quick-cooking beans and summer squash.

As I looked at what I had left on the counter, a grain pilaf began to take shape in my mind. I wrote about just such a pilaf a couple of months ago—Bulgur Pilaf with Chickpeas and Spinach.  A pilaf like this one is quick, nutritious, and takes well to a medley of vegetable additions (which is what I had in front of me).

The idea of that recipe is to make a grain pilaf and then garnish it with some cooked, chopped greens, sautéed/blanched/roasted vegetables, herbs and spices, as well as some dried fruits & nuts if you are so inclined. At that point, all I really had to do was settle on the grain. I thought about couscous and bulgur, but I ended up using quinoa, which I particularly like with summer squash.

I made my quinoa pilaf by sweating a small summer onion in some butter. I added cumin and cayenne before adding the quinoa (make sure you rinse quinoa to rid it of the bitter saponin). As the onions and then quinoa were cooking, I blanched the green beans and then steamed the chard until it was tender over the water the beans had been blanched in. After the chard cooled, I squeezed it out and chopped it coarsely. I sautéed some sliced zucchini and yellow squash in some butter. Mint from the garden, chopped toasted pistachios and golden raisins pulled it all together.

Incidentally, you may have noticed that the peas did not make an appearance in my pilaf. I think it's important to always make an effort to combine ingredients with care and not just throw things in because they are there—it is easy when cooking extemporaneously, so to speak, to get overly exuberant and end up with a hodgepodge that has little coherence. The peas just didn't seem like a great fit for this particular combination. Besides, they can be frozen or made into a quick pasta, or side dish, in the next day or two.

To prepare my pilaf, I didn't really measure any quantities. I could have pulled out the "original" recipe, but it probably wouldn't have changed my results too much. I had what I had, so that is what I used—a handful of green beans, what looked to be 2 or 3 servings of squash, one bunch of chard and a small onion. I used enough quinoa to support my chosen additions (in this case 2/3 cup—but the only reason I measured it was to know how much liquid to use). We had more than we needed for dinner, but there was just enough leftover pilaf to make a nice lunch for someone the next day.

My goal—and this should always be your goal when cooking—was to produce food that tasted good. And if you have learned and practiced the basic techniques of good cooking—and paid attention to flavor combinations that you have liked in the past—it isn't really necessary to pull out a recipe to be able to cook food that tastes good. This is really what cooking is all about—applying good techniques to ingredients that have been chosen and combined with care.

While I was cooking my pilaf, I pulled my beets back out of the refrigerator and threw them in the oven. They made a great little side dish to accompany my leftover pilaf for lunch on Saturday.

Basic Cooking instructions for Quinoa:  Rinse the quinoa well.  Simmer, covered, for 12 to 15 minutes in 1 1/4 times the amount of liquid as you have quinoa.  Remove it from the heat and let it rest, covered, for 5 minutes.  Fluff and serve.  Use these quantities and times whether you are simply boiling the quinoa or are making it in the pilaf style.

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