I’ll never forget the first time I saw Quinoa. While memorable, it wasn’t exactly love at first sight. I was about seventeen years old, and my Aunt (who has a reputation for being more culinarily adventurous than the rest of the family) brought a box of it over to my house one summer when she was visiting. It was meant for my sister, who is a Vegetarian, but for months, the Trader Joe’s box went untouched. No one had heard of Quinoa, and thus, no one wanted to try it.
I eyed the box for a couple years, while it sat patiently on the second shelf of the pantry. It was hidden behind more popular boxes of pasta and lasagna noodles, and I think most people in my family forgot it even existed.
But the summer before my Senior year of college, I was living at home and wanted to make lunch. Maybe I was sick of the standard salad or sandwich, or maybe my curiosity had just gotten the best of me…But before I knew it, I had removed the box of Trader Joe’s Quinoa from the pantry, and was simmering the grains in a big pot of water.
Because I knew nothing about Quinoa, I only prepared it using water and salt. Therefore, when I tried some fifteen minutes after it was done simmering, I thought it tasted like a watery, gelatinous blob. The texture was interesting, but what could I do to make it taste like something?
My instincts led me to honey and raisins. I stirred honey into the pot, and threw in a handful of raisins. It tasted marginally better, but I think I only ate half of what I made.
It took me about three more years before I learned how to properly cook Quinoa. Unlike pasta, which can often be passed off with just a sprinkling of cheese and olive oil, Quinoa needs some help. Maybe some people eat it plain, but I think it tastes best when combined with other ingredients. Whether you boil the Quinoa in vegetable or chicken stock instead of plain water, or add fresh vegetables and herbs after cooking, it starts to take on limitless possibilities.
I’ve tried everything from Quinoa patties to a standard pilaf, but this recipe for Veggie Quinoa Casserole was the best one I’ve found in awhile. It makes for great leftovers, and actually tastes better the day after (I found this out when I warmed it up in the microwave at work). Tender, juicy asparagus, tangy tomatoes, and salty cheese are the standout ingredients, transforming Quinoa from a boring, tasteless blob into a delicious lunch or dinner option.
Yes, my Mom still pronounces Quinoa “Kwee-NO-nah,” and my sister compares the grain to bird food. But I have become a believer, and enjoy using Quinoa in my cooking…especially during the summer, when I feel like eating lighter, healthier dishes.
I’m glad I opened the box.
Veggie Quinoa Casserole (adapted from Annie’s Eats)
2 cups uncooked quinoa
4 cups vegetable broth
4 oz. asparagus, cut into 1-inch pieces
1 cup baby spinach leaves, chopped
1 pint grape tomatoes, halved lengthwise
4 oz. Goat Cheese crumbles
2 oz. freshly grated Parmesan, divided
- Preheat the oven to 400˚ F. Cook the quinoa according to the package directions, replacing the water with vegetable broth for cooking. Once cooked, set aside.
- Add the asparagus to a small saucepan and cover with water. Bring to a boil and cook just until crisp-tender, 2-3 minutes. Drain well and set aside.
- In a large bowl, combine the cooked quinoa, blanched asparagus, tomatoes and spinach with the Goat Cheese crumbles and half of the Parmesan. Season with additional salt and pepper to taste. Transfer the mixture to a lightly buttered 9 x 13-inch baking dish and spread in an even layer. Sprinkle generously with the remaining Parmesan. Bake for 20-25 minutes or until lightly browned on top. Serve warm.