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Quinoa for the single cook

A flavorful boost for one-bowl meals.

By Jenny SawyerCorrespondent / February 4, 2009

Seed Power: Quinoa is a seed that is high in protein and has a mild, nutty flavor that makes an interesting alternative in most dishes that call for rice or other grains.

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Most people would have learned something from a bottomless pot of chickpea stew. That is to say that most people would have learned that cooking a recipe that serves 10 to 12 is best done when you have 10 or 12 to serve.

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Not me.

Call it what you will: overexuberance, the naiveté of youth. I was freshly out of college and living on my own when I cooked a chickpea stew that I ate for lunch and dinner 10 days running. And even that experience wasn’t enough to teach me the wisdom – or pleasures – of cooking for one.

No, it’s taken years of labor-intensive recipes and stalwart leftover-eating to get me to even contemplate the one-night dish.

And even though I like to cook, until recently, I hadn’t yet become friends with quinoa.

Quinoa (pronounced “keen-wah”) just might be the single cook’s secret weapon. It’s quick. It’s easy. It almost magically multiplies when simmered: One cup of dry quinoa produces four cups cooked.

Quinoa is actually a seed, not a grain, which means it’s packed with protein, another point in quinoa’s favor.

But what really won me over is this seed’s extraordinary versatility. You can eat it unadorned, like the Incas and their descendents, who’ve considered quinoa a staple for more than 5,000 years. Or if you’re feeling more gourmet, add quinoa to soups, use it to thicken a stew, or chill cooked quinoa and use it as the base for a salad.

Quinoa’s mild, nutty flavor goes well with almost anything and offers the perfect blank canvas for any number of savory additions. You can even bake quinoa into a casserole-type dish. But be forewarned: this could lead to leftovers.

For a really quick meal that’s perfectly suited to one, I’ve taken to cooking up a small serving of quinoa and adding it to my favorite soup. The quinoa adds body and texture – not to mention an oomph that transforms something lackluster from a can into an enjoyable meal.

If I’m feeling in the mood to plan ahead – and to go to a little bit more trouble – I grab a protein, some vegetables, and the makings for a dressing, and use quinoa as a vehicle for whatever ethnic flavors I’m craving.

Middle Eastern? Try a bowl of quinoa with chickpeas, tomatoes, parsley and mint. If you’re feeling industrious, add a diced and sautéed baby eggplant to the bowl. Finish with a lemon-tahini dressing accented with garlic and salted to taste.

Greek? Try adding chopped tomatoes and feta to slightly warm quinoa. Dress with lemon juice and olive oil, plus lots of fresh oregano. Or try an Asian-inspired quinoa bowl. I like to cook the quinoa with a few spices to approximate the flavors of Vietnamese Pho – then finish by topping with the fresh, crunchy bits (bean sprouts, mint) and hot sauce that traditionally make this dish both bright and lively (see recipe below).

The fact is, quinoa isn’t picky. You can make it vegetarian (cook in salted water) – or not (cook in chicken broth). You can trot it out as something exotic and fancy, or you can toss in those leftover roasted or grilled veggies and chicken and call it simple but satisfying.

Best of all, quinoa is suited to any size meal for any size appetite.

If you can remember these simple proportions – three cups liquid to one cup quinoa – you can scale down for a quick and easy dinner for one, or scale up for enough quinoa to feed a hungry crowd.

Or choose an amount that’s right in the middle and enjoy just enough leftovers for lunch the next day.

Now that sounds like the kind of recipe that’s perfect for a single cook like me.

Vietnamese quinoa bowl

This recipe has several steps, but each one only takes 10 to 15minutes of hands-on time and some of the cooking can happensimultaneously. Total time from start to finish: about 45 minutes.

For the quinoa:

1/2 cup quinoa

1-1/2 cups water

6 to 8 ginger root "coins" (round slices about the thickness of a quarter)

Ground coriander, to taste

1-1/2cups water plus 1 teaspoon Better Than Bouillon (chicken flavor); OR1-1/2 cups water plus 1/4 teaspoon salt; OR 1/2 cup water plus 1 cup chicken broth.

For the cucumber salad:

1/8 cup water

1/4 cup rice vinegar

Scant 1/4 cup granulated sugar

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 English cucumber or 2 baby/Persian cucumbers, cut in a medium dice

1 small shallot, minced

1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes (more to taste)

For the protein:

1/4 to 1/3 block extra-firm tofu, cut into small cubes, or 1 small chicken breast, cut into small cubes

1 tablespoon hoisin sauce

1/2 tablespoon sesame oil (optional)

For the toppings:

Bean sprouts

Julienned carrot

Chopped peanuts

Fresh mint leaves, torn

Lime wedges

Siracha hot sauce

To cook the quinoa:

Rinse the quinoa in a fine mesh strainer and set aside.

Combinewater, ginger root coins, and 2 generous dashes ground coriander in amedium saucepan over medium-low heat. Cover. Bring to a simmer (do notboil) and cook for 10 minutes.

Add Better Than Bouillon, or salt, or chicken broth and whisk to combine. Turn heat to medium, and bring to a boil.

When the mixture is boiling, add the rinsed quinoa. Cover, reduce heat to low, and simmer for 15 minutes.

Whenthe quinoa is cooked, drain excess liquid and remove ginger root coins.Return quinoa to pan (off heat) and let sit for 5 minutes.

To prepare the cucumber salad:

Whilethe liquid for the quinoa is simmering, combine water, rice vinegar,sugar, and salt in a separate small saucepan over medium heat. Stirfrequently until the mixture boils and the sugar dissolves (about 5minutes).

Meanwhile, chop cucumber (medium dice) and shallot (fine dice) and combine in a bowl.

Whenthe liquid mixture is ready, pour over cucumber and shallot. Add redpepper flakes, stir, and refrigerate until ready to use.

To prepare the tofu or chicken:

Ina small bowl combine hoisin (or whisk the hoisin with 1/2 tablespoonsesame oil if the hoisin seems too thick) and tofu or chicken cubes.Toss to coat thoroughly.

Add the mixture to a smallfrying pan over medium heat. Sauté, stirring frequently, until proteinis cooked and the outside is seared a nice golden brown. Remove fromheat.

Finally, assemble everything:

Fill abowl with the quinoa. Add the prepared tofu or chicken, the cucumbersalad, and veggies of your choice. Drizzle with Siracha, squeeze onsome lime juice, and top with torn mint. Serves 1.

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