Sunday, March 4, 2012

Quinoa Salad with Golden Beets & Avocado

I recently purchased a copy of Yotam Ottolenghi's new vegetable cookbook Plenty. I have occasionally picked it up to glance through it, but I really hadn't had time to examine it carefully until last week. What a pleasure it was to look through! Like his first book Ottolenghi: The Cookbook (co-authored with Sami Tamimi), Plenty is filled with page after page of recipes and photographs of the beautiful, exuberant and inspiring food served at the restaurant Ottolenghi in London.

I am particularly attracted to the interesting and inventive ways Ottolenghi uses grains in salads and pilafs, and when I turned to the chapter on grains I was immediately drawn in. On the first page was a colorful salad of quinoa and avocado, bursting with fava beans, radishes and purple radish cress. I really wanted to make that salad. Unfortunately I rarely have access to large quantities of fava beans...and in any case, they aren't in season yet. But avocados are in season, and I just happened to have a large bag of them sitting on the counter. I immediately began to think about how I might make a quinoa and avocado salad with other things that are in season.  

As I pondered the possibilities, beets immediately came to mind—gold ones, since red would dye the salad pink. I could of course have used red and made a layered salad, but I liked the idea of tossing everything together.

Avocado has an affinity for all kinds of citrus. The original salad used 2 whole lemons—peeled, segmented and juiced. I love this idea, but since beets are good with orange, I thought I would use oranges instead. This would give me the chunks of citrus (albeit, in a much milder form), and would repeat the golden color of the beets.

At this point, the rest of the salad fell into place. Shaved fennel is wonderful with both beets and orange. It adds sweetness and a needed crunchy element. Arugula adds freshness and a mild bite and olives provide some salty interest. To pull the salad together I added lemon juice, garlic and olive oil for balance, flavor and moisture.

My avocado and quinoa salad turned out to be astonishingly satisfying. It practically danced with flavor and texture. And the combination of the buttery avocado with the nutty quinoa was a revelation—I'm not sure I would have ever thought to put these two ingredients together. We enjoyed the salad for dinner one night and I had the leftovers for lunch the next day.

I was surprised at how well it held up. It would definitely make a good salad to pack in a lunch and it would be beautiful mounded on a large platter on a buffet.

The salad also turned out to be a perfect meal for an unexpectedly warm day. The thermometer hit 70° that day (on March 1!) and I picked the first of our daffodils (the earliest I ever remember having them).

I'm not saying that the salad wouldn't have tasted good if it had been cold and wet...but it wouldn't have been nearly as appropriate. Since the weather in Kansas City is highly variable in February and March—cold and icy one day, warm and windy the next—I'm sure this bright and hearty salad of winter one form or another....will show up again and again on my late winter table.

Quinoa Salad with Golden Beets & Avocado

4 medium-sized Golden Beets (about 2- to 2 1/2-inches in diameter), trimmed
Sherry vinegar, to taste
1 1/4 c. water
1 c. Quinoa, rinsed and drained
2 large oranges (I used Cara Cara)
2 T. freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 clove garlic, peeled and smashed to a purée with a pinch of salt
2 medium Avocados
1 medium head fennel, trimmed, halved and cored
2 large handfuls Arugula (about 2 oz.)
1/2 c. pitted Kalamata olive, halved lengthwise
1/3 c. Extra Virgin Olive Oil

Scrub beets and place in a shallow baking dish. Add a quarter inch of water, cover tightly with foil and transfer to a 375° oven. Roast until tender to the tip of a knife—this will be anywhere from 45 minutes to an hour and fifteen minutes, depending on the beets. Uncover the beets and let cool. When cool enough to handle, trim the stem and root away. Rub the skin off using a paper towel. Cut the beets into 8 wedges and place in a small bowl. Taste. If the beets aren't very sweet, drizzle a little Sherry vinegar over them...this will accentuate their sweetness. (When I made this salad I added a teaspoon or two of Sherry vinegar). Season with salt and pepper. Set aside. (See notes.)

In a small saucepan with a tight fitting lid, bring the water to a boil over high heat. Add the quinoa along with a pinch of salt. Return to a boil. Reduce the heat, cover and cook until tender—12 to 15 minutes. Remove from the heat and let stand for 5 minutes. Spread the cooked quinoa out on a baking sheet to cool.

Zest one of the oranges and place the zest in a large bowl. Cut the stem and blossom ends from the oranges. Working with one orange at a time, place the fruit cut side down on the cutting board and following the contour of the fruit with your knife, remove the peel and cottony pith—working from top to bottom, and rotating the fruit as you go. When both oranges are all peeled, hold them one at a time over the bowl (to catch the juices), and carefully slice between the membranes and the fruit to release the segments. When all of the segments have been released, squeeze the membrane to release the juices into the work bowl. Repeat with the second orange.

Add the lemon juice and the garlic to the orange segments and juice. Halve the avocados and remove the pit. Scoop each avocado half out of its peel in one piece (use a large spoon). Place each half face down on the counter and cut cross-wise into 1/3-inch thick slices. Transfer all of the avocado slices to the bowl with the citrus and toss so the avocado slices are dressed with the citrus juice. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Using a mandoline, thinly shave the fennel halves cross-wise. If the arugula leaves are very large, run your knife through them a couple of times to create pieces that are more bite-sized. Place the beets, cooled quinoa, shaved fennel, arugula and olives in the bowl.

Drizzle the olive oil over all and season with salt & pepper. Gently toss the contents of the bowl, being careful not to break up the avocado. Taste and correct the seasoning with lemon juice, sherry vinegar, salt & pepper and olive oil—the salad should taste lively and bright. Serves 6.

• If you like, dress more arugula with a squeeze of lemon, a drizzle of olive oil and salt & pepper. Serve the salad on a bed of the dressed arugula.
• The beets can be made ahead and refrigerated. If the beets are already roasted, this salad can be made from start to finish in about half an hour.
• Please taste and carefully adjust the lemon and sherry vinegar in this salad. The amounts needed will vary greatly depending on the variety and sweetness of the oranges and beets that you choose to use.

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