I always love receiving food as a gift: handmade in a home kitchen; hand-picked from a garden, farm, or market; even hand-carried (and maybe slipped through customs) back from abroad by someone dear.
So I was delighted this past weekend when my stepmother gave me gorgeous heirloom tomatoes from a local farm. They were painted different shades of red, purple, yellow, green. Each a perfectly imperfect sculpture. And then there were chicken and duck (!) eggs, in shades of brown and blue, all freshly laid.
Earlier this summer, my parents-in-law brought me the most beautiful multicolored quinoa from their trip to Peru to visit Machu Picchu.
Quinoa is one of those foods made more delicious by its story. It was first domesticated thousands of years ago by the Inca, who held the crop sacred, and believed it to be “the mother of all grains.” After the empire’s fall, the Spanish conquistadors banned quinoa because of its esteemed place within Inca culture. But quinoa survived high in the Andean mountains in wild form until being cultivated again in recent years. Today, most of the world’s quinoa is still grown in Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador.
Quinoa is often thought of and treated like a grain. It looks like one. But it’s actually a seed. Botanically, quinoa is related to beets, chard, and spinach. The leaves as well as the seeds of the plant are edible (but hard to find commercially). The seeds have a mild, nutty taste and turn translucent when cooked. For me, they taste of earth and of place.
Nutritional tidbit: Quinoa is high in iron, magnesium, and fiber, and it contains all of the essential amino acids, making it the only plant food that can provide a complete protein. A 1993 NASA technical paper says: "While no single food can supply all the essential life sustaining nutrients, quinoa comes as close as any other in the plant or animal kingdom."
This ancient grain from a dusty Andean market sat for a while on my cupboard shelf because I couldn't decide what to do with it that would do it justice. First I poured it into a mason jar to put its texture and colors on display. After admiring it for a while, I decided to make a move and prepare it simply: a summer salad with the vegetables I had on hand from my farm share.
I cooked the quinoa until it grew light and fluffy. I tossed it with finely diced cucumber for a cool, fresh crunch, chickpeas for substance, corn for sweetness and texture, and parsley for a green note. I finished it with a drizzle of olive oil, a big squeeze of lemon juice, a sprinkle of flaky sea salt, and a grind of pepper.
I'm so grateful for these gifts of food. This recipe, born of a gift, is, in turn, my gift to you.
Quinoa salad with cucumber, corn and chickpeas
1 cup quinoa
1 ear cooked corn kernels cut off cob
1 large cucumber, diced
1 ½ cups cooked chickpeas (or 1 15-ounce can, rinsed and drained)
1 bunch parsley, chopped
Extra-virgin olive oil
Juice of 1 lemon
Combine quinoa with 1 ¼ cups water and a pinch of salt in a saucepan. Bring to a boil, reduce heat, cover and simmer until light and fluffy, about 15 minutes. (If quinoa seems wet, cook it a little longer until it absorbs all of the liquid.) Let cool briefly.
Combine the corn, cucumber, chickpeas and parsley in a large bowl. Add the cooked quinoa and mix well. Add a glug of the olive oil, the lemon juice and season to taste with salt and pepper.