Quinoa (keen-WAH) is one of those exotic supergrains that everyone knows is good for you, but no one knows how to use. I speak for myself, anyway.
This dish showed me that quinoa is an easy, delicious menu addition, with a full, nutty flavor and seeds that pop roundly under the tongue. It soaks up flavor and makes a wonderfully satisfying filling for the zucchini boats.
A couple more quinoa facts: It's another ancient New World food, considered the "mother of all grains" by Incan civilizations, and it has very high protein content. The grains are coated with saponins, a bitter protective coating that can be removed by soaking and rinsing.
Quinoa and Mushroom Stuffed Zucchini
1 cup quinoa
2 cups chicken stock (optional)
1/3 cup pinenuts
4 zucchini, cut in half along their length
4 large garlic cloves, minced
2 medium shallots, chopped
Stems of three large portabella mushrooms, chopped
Fresh sage leaves
Fresh or dried thyme leaves
Salt and pepper
1 cup whole-milk ricotta
Rinse the quinoa repeatedly in a fine mesh strainer. Let drain. Toast the drained quinoa in a hot pan over medium heat for about five minutes, or until it smells nutty.
Bring two cups of water to boil in a medium saucepan. Or, if you're not making a vegetarian dish, use chicken stock. Add a pinch of salt and the toasted quinoa. Cover tightly, lower the heat to simmer and cook for about 20 minutes.
While the quinoa is steaming, use the same skillet you toasted the quinoa in to carefully toast the pinenuts. These burn easily so shake the pan often and watch closely! They should be golden brown and toasted when you're through. Set aside.
Heat oven to 350° F. Scrape out and reserve the insides of the zucchini, leaving about half an inch of flesh inside. Put the hollowed out zucchini on a cookie sheet in the oven for about 20 minutes or until softened and tender.
Chop or shred the zucchini innards. Mince the garlic, shallots, and mushroom stems. Chop the herbs and set aside. Heat a heavy skillet over medium heat with a little olive oil. Sauté the garlic and shallots until golden, then add the zucchini and chopped portabella stems, along with the herbs. Sauté, stirring often, until most of the zucchini's moisture has evaporated and the mushroom stems are tender. Add the herbs and season to taste. Remove from the heat and cool.
When the quinoa finishes cooking it should be soft yet nutty. Fluff with a fork and put in a large bowl. Add the ricotta, cooked zucchini, quinoa and pinenuts. Stir well and add salt and pepper to taste. Your stuffing is now ready.
Heap the stuffing in the cooked zucchini shells. Sprinkle some fresh Parmesan on top of each then return to the oven for about 5 minutes to rewarm. Serve immediately.