I'm a bit of a skeptic when it comes to whole grains. You know the ones I mean: Amaranth. Millet. Quinoa. Teff. They sound faintly exotic, like semiprecious jewels or new colors from the Pottery Barn paint collection. But they also have a hippie-dippy air about them, and I like my food full of flavor (and my underarms shaved, thank-you-very-much).
With superstar bloggers like Heidi Swanson constantly singing their praises, though, lately I've started to waver. But something held me back. And then I went out and ate nine desserts in one sitting -- a feast so ridiculous even Dionysus himself would have surely chided me for it -- and I began looking about for ways to eat healthier. As luck would have it, The Wheat-Free Cook (William Morrow, $24.95) arrived in my mailbox during this moment of curiosity, and the first recipe to catch my eye was quinoa salad with cucumber, tomato, and mint.
Since that sounded like a dish for a warm, sunny day, I decided to call up the book's author while I waited for such a day to appear on San Francisco's foggy horizon. Jacqueline Mallorca is a local food writer who started her career by writing the first ever Williams-Sonoma catalog and later became an editorial assistant to James Beard and a San Francisco Chronicle food columnist. She now has more than 11 cookbooks to her name.
A little over ten years ago, Jackie was diagnosed with celiac disease. For Jackie and 1.5 million Americans, that means gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley, and rye, makes them sick. Like most newly diagnosed sufferers, she was taken aback by all the foods she could suddenly no longer eat -- bread, pancakes, crackers, cereal.
"Being a cook, a foodie from way back, I laughed heartily at the diet sheet I was handed, and said, 'Oh no, I can do better than that.' I started reinventing the way that I cook," Jackie told me over the phone.
That meant shifting to nut flours for cakes and cookies, rice flour for things like pasta or bread, and the aforementioned hippie-dippy grains I've been suspiciously eyeing for years. After spending a decade cooking gluten-free, she collected some of her favorite recipes in The Wheat-Free Cook.
Even though I can eat gluten, flipping through those recipes made my tummy rumble. They looked simple and sounded delicious: onion-Gruyere tart, Asian stick noodles with pork and asparagus, cornmeal and cheese shortbread.
Jackie says that her restrictions have actually made her cooking better. "A lot of the time, particularly if I'm making cookies and little petit fours and cakes with nut flours, they turn out much more delicious than the original versions because you're using such fine ingredients. Cakes made with ground almonds and the best quality [cocoa] powder and three or four eggs taste wonderful because they taste of the almonds and the good stuff," she reported.
I wanted to know more about all the funky grains that peppered the book, so I asked her what she couldn't do without, even if she could eat gluten again. "I'd never stop using quinoa because it cooks up very fluffy, and it makes the best grain salad because it doesn't go hard like rice does when it's chilled. I wouldn't give up on millet because it makes a really terrific pilaf. I wouldn't give up on teff flour because it makes the best brownies under the sun," she readily answered. "I find it's like cooking in color instead of cooking in black and white."
The sheer poetry of her answer inspired me to dig deeper into the cookbook. I went out and bought white rice flour to use for dredging sautéed foods in based on Jackie's observation that it's less gummy than flour. I dog-eared a recipe for peanut butter-chocolate chip cookies and another one for chocolate-hazelnut truffle cake (healthy eating having been long forgotten at this point). And yes, I bought some red quinoa.
A sunny day finally appeared, and I set to making the salad. I tossed in a bit of roasted chicken to make it a meal, subbed some spicy cayenne pepper for fresh ground black, and let it sit in the fridge so the flavors could introduce themselves. "Hiya," I imagined the cucumber saying. "How fresh!" would be the radish's sharp reply. But the quinoa just sat there, still and gentle, subtly flavorful, and down-to-earth. Yum.
Quinoa Salad with Cucumber, Tomato, and Mint
Recipe adapted and reprinted with permission from The Wheat-Free Cook by Jacqueline Mallorca, William Morrow, $24.95.
2 cups gluten-free vegetable broth
1 cup red or yellow quinoa, rinsed and drained
1 cup shredded roasted chicken
1 cucumber (about 8 ounces), peeled, seeded, and chopped
2 large, ripe tomatoes, finely chopped, preferably heirloom
4 green onions, thinly sliced
8 radishes, finely chopped
¼ cup chopped mint
½ cup chopped parsley
1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
Fine sea salt and cayenne pepper
1. Bring the broth to a boil over high heat. Add the quinoa, reduce the heat to low, cover, and simmer until the grains are tender and the liquid is absorbed, about 15 minutes. The grains will turn transparent, and the white germ ring will show. Transfer to a large bowl and let cool.
2. Add the chicken, cucumber, tomatoes, green onions, radishes, mint, and parsley. Whisk together the olive oil and vinegar, and season to taste with salt and cayenne pepper. Pour over the quinoa and vegetables, and mix gently but thoroughly. Taste for seasoning and adjust as needed. Serve at room temperature.