It took me a long time to warm up to quinoa. I felt like I was the only one not on the super-grain-(that's-not-really-a-grain-but-who-cares) bandwagon. But my attempts at quinoa had all turned out sticky and faintly bitter, a health food to choke down. So how did I get from there to here, to this lemon-scented golden salad with crunchy bits of cucumber, radish, and almonds? (There are dates, dill, and Parmesan in there too, plus a secret ingredient that really makes it sing.) It only takes one quinoa dish, it turns out, to make a difference.
Appropriately enough, my turning point with quinoa came in my direct line of work for The Kitchn. When I visited and shot Lilian's gorgeous sunlit kitchen last year, she fed me a giant green salad with quinoa tossed throughout. But this wasn't the quinoa I knew (and loathed, faintly). The grains were tender and pearly, like couscous but far more delicate and delicious, without even a hint of bitterness. The flavor and the texture were both perfection.
I asked Lilian how she got her quinoa so delicious, and she described how she rinsed even pre-washed quinoa for several minutes to remove all traces of the bitter coating. She also cooked the quinoa in a little less liquid than I usually did. (Find Lilian's salad here: Quinoa arugula salad at Chinese Grandma.)
After that experience I was hooked! I started washing my quinoa much more thoroughly and found it made a difference in both texture and taste. I also found that the flavor of quinoa is greatly enhanced by cooking in broth, and quinoa cooked in chicken broth is now a staple of our weeknight dinners.
It also forms the base of this salad, which made from savory quinoa and crunchy bites of summer vegetables, with shallot, dill, and lemon as aromatics, and nuts and dates to round it out into a satisfying lunch dish. I have made this over and over again this summer, and it never gets old.
The secret ingredient, besides well-cooked quinoa, is smoke. Just a hint of smokiness in the dressing pulls everything together and makes it sing. The first time I made this I used smoked olive oil, which if you have works very well. But it's expensive, so I also tried this with a dash of natural liquid smoke, and it had the same effect. Try it — the salad won't taste smoky, just a little deeper and fuller.
Golden Quinoa Salad with Radish, Dill & Avocado
Serves 4 to 6 as a side dish
1 cup golden quinoa
1 3/4 cups chicken or vegetable broth
8 small red radishes, well-cleaned and tops removed
1/3 seedless English cucumber, about 1/4 pound, unpeeled
1 large shallot
2/3 lightly filled cup dill fronds, without stems
1/2 lemon, zested and juiced, about 1 1/2 tablespoons
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
1/8 teaspoon liquid smoke*
1/2 cup sliced raw almonds
1/2 cup pitted dates, roughly chopped
1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese (omit for a vegan adaptation)
Flaky sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 ripe avocado, to serve
Rinse the quinoa for 2 to 3 minutes in a fine mesh strainer, rubbing vigorously. Drain. Heat a 2-quart saucepan over medium-high heat and add a drizzle of olive oil. When the oil is hot, add the quinoa and cook, stirring, for 1 minute. Pour in the broth, bring to a boil, cover, and turn the heat down to low. Cook for 15 minutes. Turn off heat and let sit, covered, for 5 minutes.
Line a large baking sheet with parchment and spread the cooked quinoa over it in an even layer. Let cool while preparing the vegetables.
Dice the radishes finely — about 1/4-inch to a side. Do the same with the cucumber. Finely dice the shallot. Finely chop the dill fronds. Toss with the quinoa in a large bowl.
Zest the lemon right into the bowl and fold in the zest. Juice the lemon half and whisk the juice together with the olive oil, balsamic vinegar, and liquid smoke until emulsified and thick. Toss this with the quinoa.
Fold in the almonds, chopped dates, and Parmesan. Taste and season to taste with salt and pepper. When ready to serve, top with chopped avocado.
*Note: 1 tablespoon smoked olive oil, such as The Smoked Olive's Sonoma oil, can be substituted for the liquid smoke and 1 tablespoon regular olive oil.
Related: How To Cook Quinoa
(Images: Faith Durand)