Quinoa takes some getting used to. Its righteousness precedes it by a lot, so when you’re first cooking or tasting it, it’s hard not to let the health advantages completely overwhelm your dining experience (quinoa is nature’s “complete protein,” as you surely already know if you’ve ever opened up a vegan or vegetarian cookbook). My first few times eating it, I wasn’t especially won over. I did like it in Deborah Madison’s Quinoa Muffins—the quinoa is buried beneath warm spices and brown sugar—but there’d always be a bit of leftover cooked grain when I made that recipe, and I wasn’t so eager to scarf it down. I found that it tasted like grass, and not in an especially appealing way.
Over time, my impressions have changed a lot. The grassiness that originally overwhelmed me, which I’ve even come to like a bit, has given way a bit to a complex nutty flavor. And the texture is special—I always think of little radioactive bubbles. You’ll first notice this when you pour the uncooked quinoa into a measuring cup; it’ll try your patience, as it scatters all over the kitchen due to its weird electric charge. And the cooked texture is tender, but with a distinctive, slight crunch.
So if you’re on the fence with quinoa, I’d recommend checking out those Quinoa Muffins, from Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone. It’s a good gateway recipe. And after you’ve built up a tolerance, this quinoa bake ought to be next on your list. It fits the bill for the coming cold months—hearty, spicy, utilizing of the oven. I almost called this a “Mexican Quinoa Bake,” and I suppose that’s kind of what it is. There’s cumin seeds, jalapenos, oregano, and pumpkin seeds, which are some prominent Mexican elements, and I stirred in a generous crumble of cotija cheese, a common cheese of Mexico. But then I wanted to give it a topping, and it occurred to me that what I was making was something of a gremolata of oregano, pumpkin seeds, lemon zest, and salt. “What about ‘Mexican Quinoa Bake with Pumpkin Seed Gremolata’?!” I thought. Gremolata, of course, has Italian origins, and immediately I knew I was getting carried away. To settle the matter I stripped the dish of its nationalities.
It’s elegant enough for a dinner party or the Thanksgiving table, deceptively filling—quinoa is a deceptively filling grain—and a dish that leaves you lots of room to improvise. I used red quinoa, because that’s what I have on hand, but use whatever color you please. And substitute spinach or kale for the chard. Scale the heat up or down. Try a different flavor profile—perhaps add some grated ginger along with the garlic, and then a teaspoon or two of your favorite curry powder along with the onion (and I’d remove the oregano of you try something like that). Or maybe you’ll nix the eggs and the oven completely—then you have a terrific salad to pack for lunch! And about the eggs: In my first batch I left them out and it was perfectly fine, but they do give the dish structure. If you prefer cohesion, I’d use them. In any event, let’s hope this recipe helps you flex your quinoa muscles.
Quinoa Bake with Pumpkin Seed Topping
Serves 4 to 6
This recipe is a great contender in Cathy’s Healthy Thanksgiving Challenge—check it out if you’re hoping to have a somewhat more sensible Thanksgiving this year.
1/4 cup raw, unsalted pumpkin seeds
1 bunch Swiss chard (about 12 ounces), stemmed and roughly chopped
1 tablespoon olive oil, plus additional
2 teaspoons whole cumin seeds
1 medium white onion, diced
1 tablespoon tomato paste
2 jalapenos, diced (seeded for a milder heat level)
2 plump garlic cloves, minced
1-1/2 cups quinoa, rinsed
3/4 teaspoon fine-grain sea salt
6 ounces mild, crumbly white cheese such as cotija, feta, or ricotta salata, diced or crumbled
2 eggs, beaten
1 tablespoon fresh oregano
1 teaspoon freshly grated lemon zest
1. Preheat the oven to 350° F. Grease a medium casserole or 4 individual gratin dishes (or equivalent) with a bit of olive oil.
2. Heat a dry, deep skillet over medium heat. Add the pumpkin seeds and toast until lightly browned, puffed up a bit, and fragrant, about 2 minutes, shaking the pan as needed. Transfer to a plate to cool.
3.Fill the skillet with an inch or so of water, fit with a steaming insert, and bring the water to a boil. Add the chard, cover the pan, and steam until tender and collapsed, 4 to 6 minutes. Transfer to a cheesecloth-lined colander to drain, then when cool enough to handle, gather up the greens and wring out as much excess liquid as possible. Chop the chard finely.
4. Combine the quinoa and 3 cups water in a saucepan. Bring to a boil, add 3/4 teaspoon salt, then cover, reduce the heat, and simmer until the water is absorbed and the germ of the quinoa is exposed, about 15 minutes.
5. Meanwhile, wipe out the skillet and heat 1 tablespoon of the olive oil over a medium flame. Add the cumin seeds, stirring for 20 seconds or so until fragrant, then add the onion. Cook until soft and translucent, but not browned, reducing the heat if needed, about 8 minutes. Add the tomato paste, jalapeno, and garlic, and stir for a few moments until fragrant, a minute or so. Stir in the chopped chard and a pinch or two of salt, then remove from the heat.
6. Add the quinoa to the vegetable mixture and fold until combined. Stir in all but 2 tablespoons of the cheese and a glug of olive oil. Let cool a bit while you make the gremolata.
7. Make the gremolata: Mince the remaining garlic clove. Gather the toasted pumpkin seeds, the oregano, and the lemon zest with the garlic on a cutting board. Mince the mixture with your chef’s knife until finely chopped.
8. Fold the beaten eggs into the quinoa, then transfer the mixture to the prepared dish(es), pressing down with a spatula to fit it all in. Sprinkle the gremolata on top, followed by the remaining cheese, then drizzle with a bit of olive oil. Cook in the oven for 15 minutes, until heated through and slightly browned on top. Serve warm.