I look out into my front yard and see ratatouille - a luxurious French Provenal vegetable casserole that tastes like sun. Bosomy eggplants, heavy, sun-kissed tomatoes, crisp, shiny bell peppers.... A warm summer rain of olive oil from a cloud in the likeness of Julia Child would pretty much complete the picture.
My neighbor tends the garden at our apartment, and with the standing offer to take part in the pickings, I plucked two tomatoes and a bell pepper this morning. Ratatouille seemed right, and only fitting, but with all the physical activity in my life right now, I wanted to bolster the dish with something filling and protein-rich. So I left my neighbor a note saying I had turned his veggies into a ratatouille-themed quinoa salad that I wanted to share in return.
With a nickname like "Incan gold" and a reputation running 5,000 years back, quinoa is clearly a win. Its cultivation dates to the Incas, who were the first to harness its assets in the remote, high altitudes of the Andes. It supplies high doses of protein, and complete protein at that: All nine essential amino acids are present, which is almost unheard of in the plant kingdom.
Despite its moniker, quinoa is not actually a grain but rather a pseudocereal, or seed from the fruiting body of a plant related to chard and beets. There are over 120 species of Chenopodium, but commercially we tend to classify them by color: white (or just "quinoa") and red are the most common. Black is reportedly harder to grow commercially and therefore less available. Other colors may include pink, orange and purple, white being the lightest in texture and black being chewier.
I chose white quinoa for this dish because I liked the idea of making the salad predominantly about the vegetables, with the bonus of having quinoa in the backdrop as an interesting, do-good component in its own right. Win-win.
Ratatouille Quinoa Salad
Makes about 5 cups
- 1 cup quinoa, rinsed and drained
- 2 cups water
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 small eggplant (about 2-1/2 cups), drained and diced
- 1/2 pound or 2 medium vine-ripened tomatoes
- 1 cup onions, diced
- 1 cup green bell pepper, diced
- 1 cup zucchini, diced
- 3/4 cup yellow onion
- 1 tablespoon garlic
- 1/4 cup basil, packed; stems reserved
- 1/4 cup flat leaf parsley, packed; stems reserved
- 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
- 1/4 cup olive oil
- 1/4 cup red wine vinegar
- 1 tablespoon lemon juice
- salt and pepper to taste
Drain eggplant; slice into half-inch rounds and rub with 1 teaspoon salt. Let sit for about an hour, rinse and pat dry.
In a small saucepan, bring quinoa, reserved stems and water to a boil. Lower heat and simmer, covered, about 15 minutes until water is absorbed and quinoa is tender and translucent. Remove stems. Cool; fluff and set aside in a large bowl.
Cook onions over low heat with 1 tablespoon canola oil, about 30-40 minutes until slightly caramelized. Add garlic and cook 1-2 minutes until fragrant. Add to quinoa.
Blanch tomatoes, remove core and, with the tip of a knife, cut a small "x" just through the skin on the bottom of the tomatoes. Blanch in boiling water for a few seconds until the skin just starts to pull away. Shock in ice bath immediately. Remove skins and discard. Remove outer meaty petals of tomatoes from inner seedy flesh with a knife. Dice outer petals and add to quinoa; save juice and inner flesh for another use if desired.
Over medium-high heat, heat 1 tablespoon canola oil and sauté eggplant and bell peppers about 5 minutes until tender and lightly browned. Add to quinoa.
Sauté zucchini about 3 minutes or until tender and add to quinoa.
Toss salad mixture with olive oil, red wine vinegar, lemon juice, parsley and basil. Salt and pepper to taste. Serve chilled.