Quinoa, the Outcast Indian Maiden

The increased budgetary restrictions imposed by our unwilling ownership of two houses are leading us down some interesting culinary paths. Our latest discovery is quinoa (pronounced KEEN-wah), a South American seed that cooks up into a nutty, flavorful, and filling side dish. I’d heard of it for years but never ventured into making it myself until recently. We found a supply at Costco, ample evidence that it’s made the leap from the Birkenstock and brown rice crowd into the Land of Wal-Mart.

As for the taste, if couscous and brown rice got married and had a baby, it would be quinoa. When cooked, the seeds are roundish like couscous, but the flavor more closely resembles brown rice. We’ve taken to calling this grainy love child “Quinoa, the Outcast Indian Maiden” in honor of Eudora Welty’s bizarre little short story, “Keela, the Outcast Indian Maiden,”  and it’s made many an appearance on our dinner plates as of late.

Here’s a recent, simple version with just onions and garlic, served with a smoked paprika fish.*

*Unfortunately I can’t reproduce the smoked paprika fish recipe, which was thrown together using the juice from Rick’s Pick’s Smokra, a spicy pickled okra heavily infused with smoked paprika. With Smokra at $10 a jar, I try to use every bit of it the few times of year we indulge. A cheaper version of the fish with smoked paprika, garlic, and vinegar is in the works but is not ready for publication.

Like its imaginary parent couscous, quinoa seems to be a very forgiving grain–that, or I’m cooking it badly but liking it anyway. The basic cooking method is two parts water to one part quinoa. You put it in a saucepan, cover, bring to boil, then simmer with the lid on for 15-20 minutes. Taking the lid off and checking it on occasion does not seem to hurt it, nor does my occasional obsessive-compulsive stirring. The instructions on our bag tell you it’s done when “a white spiral-like thread appears on each grain,” and they  also suggest toasting the seeds in a dry skillet before cooking to bring out the nutty flavor. I tried both the toasting and the non-toasting methods and was fine either way. The recipe below omits the pre-toasting.

Quinoa also appears to be a versatile grain, capable of functioning as a breakfast cereal with fruit and nuts or as a vegetable side dish, but not being breakfast eaters we’ve tried only the latter. My favorite has been the recipe below, which is a heavily modified version of the one on the back of the bag. This makes a gentle and unassuming side dish; in fact, if your favorite chicken soup could be transformed into a solid, this would be it. (The chicken broth helps.) It’s a nice accompaniment to just about any basic dish, from roast chicken to broiled fish to pork chops.

Quinoa is an outcast no longer. 

Quinoa with Carrots, Celery, and Onion 

Serves 4 as a side dish

1 tablespoon oil (olive or vegetable)
1 medium onion,  chopped
2 – 3 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 cup carrots, peeled and minced
2 stalks celery, chopped fine
1 tbsp. thyme or herbes de Provence
1 cup dry quinoa
2 cups homemade chicken or turkey broth
Salt to taste

Heat oil in large saucepan on medium-high heat. Add onion and saute until translucent. Add garlic and stir. Add carrots, celery, and thyme and saute until just tender, about 5 – 10 minutes. Add quinoa, water, and salt and stir. Cover and bring to boil. Reduce heat and simmer, covered, for 15-20 minutes, until water has evaporated and quinoa is fluffy, with white spiral-like threads on each grain.

Possibly the Worst Recipe Ever

I’ve lately rediscovered the Treasury of Tennessee Treatsa cookbook put out by grandmother’s church, Keith Memorial United Methodist in Athens, TN. It was first issued in 1957, and my copy is the revised version from 1962. It is so battered that the index, long detached from the binding, is stuffed into random pages throughout. The two pages of pecan pie recipes look like a Jackson Pollock painting.

The book is a testament to small-town life of the late 1950s and early 1960s, when time-honored but time-consuming ways of cooking were slowly giving way to modern convenience foods. There are many gems here–black bottom pie, dozens of lovely cakes, wild goose with apple and sweet potato stuffing, quail pie, chili, stew. But you can also see how cooks like my grandmother were being seduced by the siren song of convenience foods, luring them down some dark paths lined with canned asparagus and cream of mushroom soup.  

The recipe below represents the worst excesses of the era. It’s hard to imagine a combination more hideous than marshmallows, jarred pimento cheese, and Maraschino cherries. But the cooks of Athens, TN, must have been fascinated by the exotic wonder of this salad–which contains real whipped cream only, I am sure, because Cool Whip was not invented until 1966.

I have serious doubts that anyone from Los Angeles ever made this. My guess is that it was some Southern cook’s way of getting back at a snooty California relative.

Los Angeles Salad

1 1/2 lb. marshmallows
Small can crushed pineapple
10 Maraschino cherries
1 4-oz. glass pimiento cheese
1 cup whipping cream

Mix cheese and whole can of pineapple. Add cherries and juice, and marshmallows, cut in small pieces. Whip cream. Add to mixture. Place in ice tray four or five hours. Serve with mayonnaise.

Vegetarian Boston Baked Beans

Every winter the urge for Boston baked beans comes upon me, and with the holiday weekend I decided it was time to make them again. Not able to find my own recipe–a meatless version I cobbled together during my six-month vegetarian phase in 1987–I turned to dear, reliable James Beard.

But I was dismayed to discover that my beloved Beard did not like Boston baked beans: “The worship of Boston baked beans,” he writes, “is a mystery to me, since my palate cannot reconcile the sweetness of syrup or molasses and the simple hardy flavor of pork and beans.”

My palate has no problem with this, and it should be no mystery why a nation that adores honey roasted peanuts and chocolate covered pretzels would love the salty-sweet combination offered in this dish. The traditional version calls for salt pork, which adds a rich, flavorful smokiness. Not having any salt pork on hand, I considered using the applewood smoked bacon in our freezer. Bacon that costs $8.00 a pound,  however, deserves a more prominent place in a recipe. And with no extra cash in our budget this month, I couldn’t spring for even a few ounces of salt pork. So it was back to the vegetarian version.

Beard’s recipe called for maple syrup, which I knew was not part of the recipe I’d lost. So I left him to huff over America’s proletarian taste buds and turned instead to Fannie Farmer (13th edition), where I found what looked like the right proportion of sweetener (in this case, molasses) and dry mustard. I also liked her addition of brown sugar, since the organic molasses on my shelf–bought in desperation one day at Whole Foods–has a bitter taste. The addition of onions, garlic, and extra kosher salt adds enough flavor to make up for the lack of salt pork. Almost.

But perhaps the best part of making Boston baked beans is that I get to use my grandmother’s bean pot–a simple brown clay vessel that she never used much but which looks great on the shelf, like you really know what you’re doing in your kitchen.

 Vegetarian Boston Baked Beans

3 tbsp. canola or vegetable oil
1 medium onion, finely chopped
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 tsp. kosher salt
2 cups white beans (navy or Great Northern)
2 tbsp. dry mustard
5 tbsp. dark brown sugar
4 tsp. molasses

Soak beans in water overnight or use short method. For short method, place beans in a covered pot with water twice the depth of the beans. Bring to a boil. Cover and let sit for one hour, then follow directions below.

Preheat oven to 300. Drain beans, reserving liquid. Put beans in bean pot or tall casserole dish. Saute onion in oil on medium high heat. Add garlic and stir. Remove from heat. Add to bean liquid along with remaining ingredients and stir until mixed. Pour over beans.

Bake 6 hours, checking every hour or so to make sure there is enough liquid in the pot. I like my beans to be coated with a gooey, sugary paste, so I typically don’t add water. If they begin to reach this state before the last 30 – 60 minutes of cooking, however, more water should be added to keep them from drying out.

Warm Food for a Chilly New Year

We are back for 2010, after a long vacation over Christmas that included our third wedding anniversary and a week in Jackson Hole, WY, with family. We limited the possibility of injury by sticking to snowshoeing. Fred also took his first cross-country ski lesson, during which they taught him to fall down. He was so pleased that he practiced falling down quite a bit thereafter, and seems to have mastered the technique quite well. 

I was also reminded why I married him, because he is the only man I know who would bring a copy of Poetry magazine on a snowshoeing excursion. (I post this photo as a tribute to Ruth Lilly, the benefactor of the magazine, who died while we were on the trip.) 

Returning to Durham, we were surprised to find the temperature was very nearly the same as it had been in Wyoming. The cats responded appropriately. See if you can spot which one made herself at home in our sweater drawer.

And finally, I made this delicious pork and bean soup. I post it despite my concern that it’s not possible to replicate it. For starters, the broth I used was from a Cornish game hen I roasted over Christmas. The hen was stuffed with sage dressing, and the flavors may have infused the broth. 

Second, the pork came from a container of pulled pork “barbecue” from Whole Foods. As barbecue, it was lousy–tender but lacking anything in the way of zip, zing, or flavor. Not even worthy of a sandwich, it was heartlessly tossed into the pot, where it took on a new life so tasty that it may convince me to buy it again for the sole purpose of making this soup.

Pork and Northern Bean Soup

Makes 3 – 4 servings

About 1 quart chicken or other poultry stock
1 medium onion, chopped
3 – 4 cloves garlic, minced
1 cup dry Great Northern beans
1 cup small carrots, sliced
1 tbsp. herbes de Provence (could substitute a mix of sage and thyme)
1 cup mild pork barbecue, shredded or chopped*
1 small can evaporated milk, or more to taste
Kosher salt and pepper to taste

*Note that this is North Carolina-style barbecue, which is vinegar based and uses no tomato. If this type of barbecue is not available, I would substitute leftover smoked pork shoulder, pork chops, tenderloin, or even ham.

Put enough chicken stock in bottom of soup pot to cover and saute onion on medium high heat. Add garlic and stir. Add beans, remaining chicken stock, and a large pinch of kosher salt (a teaspoon or so–it really does not matter as long as you don’t overdo it, since seasonings will be corrected at the end.) Bring to a boil and let boil for 1 -2 minutes. Cover, reduce heat to medium low, and let simmer until beans are just tender, about 1 1/2 to 2 hours. Check every half hour or so; add water or more stock if liquid level begins to get low, enough to keep ingredients well covered. Add carrots and herbes de Provence. Cover and continue to simmer until carrots are tender, 15 – 30 minutes. Add pork and evaporated milk and stir. Remove from heat immediately or when soup is sufficiently warm; do not overcook the pork. Add more salt to taste and pepper if desired. Serve immediately.