QUINOA

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Quinoa is a plant native to the Andes and has been known for over fives thousand years. It was a staple food of the Incas, who considered it sacred, and it was referred to as the ‘mother grain’ (Chisaya Mama) or ‘gold of the Incas’.
It comes in a variety of colours (white, pale yellow, red, brown and black) and nowadays is sold in grains, flour or flakes.

Although generally referred to as a grain (mainly due to its appearance), technically is the seed of a leafy plant called Chenopodium quinoa, which is distantly related to the spinach plant.
The grain itself is small and round, with a fine band around it, which ends with a sort of tiny ‘tail’. This tail is hardly noticeable in the raw grain, but it spirals out when it cooks, making it look like a sort of ring, clearly visible around the grain.

The most interesting thing about quinoa is that it can be considered an almost complete food: very high in proteins, full of vitamins, gluten-free, cholesterol-free and, last but not least, delicious.

Something that needs to be mentioned is quinoa protein content. As you might know, proteins are the building blocks of our bodies, and are made by chains of amino acids. Amino acids can be grouped in non-essential (i.e. those that our body can produce) and essential (those that our body cannot produce and need to be obtained from food).

Animal proteins contain all the essential amino acids, whilst vegetable proteins, in general don’t.

However, quinoa is an exception to this rule as it contains all the essential amino acids, thus providing complete proteins, to the extent that the quality of its protein has been likened by the World Health Organisation as being closest to milk.

This characteristic makes it a very important addition to a vegetarian or (even more) vegan diet, or it can simply be useful for someone who wants to cut down on meat.

In addition, quinoa contains more calcium than cow’s milk, has got excellent antioxidant properties, is rich in fibre, contains more unsaturated fats than any grain plus a low Glycemic index (i.e. the carbs are released slowly and steadily in the blood stream and this gives the body more time to use the energy without turning them into fat).

Having said this about the benefits of quinoa, we can now switch to the culinary part, which is just as important, because the only way to stick to a healthy diet is enjoying it. If eating healthy food is seen as a sacrifice, it will not work in the long run.
Rather than giving a specific recipe, I will explain how to cook the quinoa in its grain form, which is the most common, and for now simply think that you could use it as a replacement for boiled rice, for example. Detailed recipes will come in the next posts.

This is the process:

  • First I suggest that you rinse thoroughly the grains. This is needed because quinoa seeds are covered in a soapy-like substance called ‘saponin’. Saponin is very bitter and prevents birds and insects from eating the seeds.
    Although commercially available quinoa normally comes pre-washed and ready to cook, it is good practice to rinse it. In order to do that, simply place it in a fine sieve and rinse under cold tap water, rubbing it between your finger tips, and drain well.
    Due to the size of the grains, you will need a very fine sieve.
  • The second step is optional, and it is toasting, which adds a nutty taste. To do that, dry-roast the grains in a pan until the start to pop (a bit like pop corn but on a much smaller scale; you won’t need to keep the lid on) and release a nice nutty aroma. White quinoa is ready when it turns golden brown, other colours are more difficult to asses.
    Some people like it toasted, some don’t, and it also depends on what you are using your quinoa for, so I suggest you try both and decide for yourself.
  • Finally, place the rinsed (and toasted if you like it) quinoa in a sauce pan with three parts liquid (water, vegetable stock or even milk), salt to taste, bring it to the boil and then simmer gently until all the liquid has been absorbed (10-15 minutes)
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Your quinoa is now read y to be used as part of another dish, a salad or instead of rice.

Roast Peppers

Peppers are amongst the tastiest vegetables

Follow this simple process to get rid of the skin, and you will have a fantastic taste and texture and they will be easier to digest too. Please note that these guidelines are for red peppers, which are the sweetest and easiest to peel. For yellow and even more for green peppers, you will need to increase the cooking time.

Preheat the oven at 220C

First, I suggest that you trim them before cooking, otherwise they will get sticky and it will be difficult to remove all the seeds: make a circular cut around the stalk and remove it (most of the seeds will come out as well), and remove also the white membranes inside.

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Cut them in half lengthwise and rinse thoroughly, and place them in a baking tray lined with parchment. See below the picture showing the two halves and all the parts that should be discarded:

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Put the peppers in the oven for 45 minutes, checking them very 15 minutes and turning them every 15 minutes to allow even cooking.

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They are ready when they are soft and the skin blisters. It’s also a good sign if they start turning black, it will give a nice smoky aroma.

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Take out of the oven, and now a very important moment: when still piping hot, the peppers need to be placed in an AIRTIGHT container to cool down. What happens is that the steam that generates inside makes the skin separate completely from the flesh.

TIP: A plastic container can be used, but then it will smell of peppers forever, especially if you don’t have a dishwasher. I suggest that you use cook-in bags for this task.

When they are cool they can be peeled very easily (see video below) and eaten as they are (in a salad for example) or used for other preparations.

Sauteed Mushrooms

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Ingredients:

400g closed cup or button mushrooms, sliced
1 tbsp olive oil
2 garlic cloves, minced
1/2 tsp salt
10g finely chopped parsley

First and foremost, since there are many varieties of mushrooms, let me clarify that this very simple recipe works well with button and closed cup mushrooms, which are the easiest to find and also the cheapest. Nevertheless, they will give you a fantastic result.

This recipe is truly Italian in its concept, since it achieves a great taste using few ingredients and a very simple process; mushrooms have a very distinctive savouriness, so they do not really need much to be added: just some garlic,parsley if you like it and some salt to enhance the flavour and also to draw out the water:

  1. If necessary trim the stalks
  2. Rinse the mushrooms to remove any dirt
  3. Slice them (about 3 mm thick)
  4. In a large frying pan or skillet, heat 1 tbsp of olive oil
  5. Sautee the garlic for 1 minute, being careful not to burn it
  6. Add the musrhrooms
  7. Add the salt and stir
  8. The mushrooms will start releasing their water (in general, the better the quality, the less water they release)
  9. Cook on high heat until all the water has evaporated
  10. Turn the heat down and cook on medium heat for 5 minutes, stirring to allow even cooking
  11. Sprinkle with finely chopped parsley (optional)

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Melanzane alla Parmigiana (Aubergine bake)

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Melanzane alla Parmigiana is an aubergine bake very popular in Italy.Its main ingredients are aubergines, tomato sauce, mozzarella cheese and Parmesan.
The standard recipe requires deep fried aubergines – in some parts of Italy aubergines are even coated in beaten egg before being deep fried, resulting in a very tasty dish but also a calory bomb.
I will show here a lighter version of it that uses grilled aubergines instead; furthermore, you can reduce the quantity of mozzarella or even make it without (even if I do not recommend it); you should not eliminate the parmesan though since, like the name suggests, it is what really gives character to this dish.
NOTE: I am describing the process like we are doing it from beginning to the end at once. If you have enough time or can plan in advance, you can also prepare the grilled aubergines and the tomato sauce beforehand and put everything together and bake later.
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Ingredients:

For the Sauce (see also Tomato Sauce  in Basics):

2 tbsp. Olive Oil
1/2 Onion, finely chopped
4 cloves Garlic
Peeled Tomatoes
Basil (about 20 lieaves, or to taste)
Salt & Sugar

For the grilled aubergines (see also Grilled Aubergines in Basics):
1 kg Aubergines
Olive oil, to brish
Salt

250 g Mozzarella, grated
200g Parmesan or Grana cheese, grated
Breadcrumbs (optional), to sprinkle

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First, slice the aubergines, rub them with salt and put them in a colander to purge (see Grilled Aubergines)
Then, make the Tomato Sauce, as in Basic but adding the shredded basil leaves at the end:
Sweat the onion in 2 tbsp olive oil
Add the garlic and cook for 1 minute
Add the blended tomatoes, using a fine sieve
Add water
Simmer for 60 minutes
Towards the end, add the basil
Add Salt & sugar

While the sauce is simmering, grill the aubergines:

Pat them dry
Brush with oil on one side
Place in a very hot pan, oiled side down
Brush the upped side with more oil
When the first side is nicely coloured, turn them to cook the other one

When both the sauce and the grilled aubergines are ready, put the ingredients together in the baking tray:
Spread some tomato sauce on the bottom of the tray
Make a layer of grilled aubergines, making sure they slightly overlap each other
Cover with more tomato sauce
Sprinkle with the grated cheese.
Repeat the operation, making more layers until you use all the ingredients
If you like, sprinkle some breadcrumbs on the top
Bake at 180C for 30 minutes or until the top is nice and crispy.

Rest for at least 30 minutes before serving – this dish is actually better if you let it cool down completely and then reheat it

Tomato Sauce

Tomato sauce is one of the most popular sauces in Italian cooking. It is normally served with pasta but can be used in many different recipes.
What I describe here is the most basic and, so to speak, neutral tomato sauce. Other ingredients can be added depending on what the sauce is for, but these are the steps to obtain a very good base.

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INGREDIENTS

800g peeled tomatoes
400ml water
2 tbsp olive oil
1/2 medium onion, finely chopped (See: how to Chop an onion in Basics)
3 garlic cloves, finely chooped
1 tsp salt
2 tsp sugar
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A consideration on the tomatoes: you might use fresh tomatoes instead, but since not all tomatoes are suitable for a sauce and they need to be treated before cooking, we can stick to peeled tomatoes for now as they guarantee consistent results, as long as you buy good quality ones.

First, sweat your onion in two tablespoons of olive oil, on a very low flame, and after 4-5 minutes, add the garlic, being careful as it will burn very quickly if the oil is too hot. A minute or so should be enough for the garlic, and now it’s time to add the tomatoes.
When adding the tomatoes, what we want is to get rid of the seeds and the bits of skin still attached to them. Back in the days, a vegetable mill was used; although it is still a good tool to have, it is pretty time consuming to use and to wash, and people simply prefer using a hand blender.

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The problem using a hand blender is that the seeds will stay intact; therefore, what I normally do, is to blend the tomatoes and them pass them through a sieve:

You can see below all the seeds that would otherwise have gone into your sauce:

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As you can see, I’ve added some water at the end; all recipes that you will see call for a fairly long cooking time, from 30 to 90 minutes let’s say: if you don’t add some water to open up your sauce it will become too thick, will stick to the bottom of the pan and eventually burn.

The quantity of water can vary depending on how long you want to cook the sauce for, how thick you want it to be , but half of the weight of the tomatoes is a good starting point.
After adding the water, bring the sauce to the boil quickly and then turn down and simmer gently for at least 40 minutes or until the sauce reaches the desired thickness. I also suggest that you skim the surface every now and then as a foam will form:

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Towards the end, add the salt and sugar
NOTE: the above quantities of salt and sugar are only a rough guideline, and I suggest that you add them little by little and taste the sauce; with a bit of practice you will know what the right quantity is. Also, some people don’t add sugar to their tomato sauce; I do it firstly because tomatoes have their own acidity and the sweetness of the sugar counterbalances it very well; furthermore, if I’m using peeled tomatoes this is even more important as citric acid is added to them as a preservative

Another important thing to take into account is that this sauce tastes better if you let it cool down before using it