Although some might call quinoa a fad by now, it really has its place in an anti-inflammatory kitchen. It just so happens that the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization has deemed 2013 the “International Year of Quinoa,” so I guess it’s doing something right.
It’s cooked and served as a grain, but quinoa is really a seed, and therein lies the secret to its nutritional value. Like most seeds, it contains everything needed to grow a new plant: it’s like the plant version of stem cells. According to the Year of Quinoa site, the seed has several advantages over traditional grains: it’s higher in protein, calcium, healthy fats, iron, zinc, vitamin C, vitamin E, beta carotene, and vitamins B2 and B3 than your everyday whole wheat.
In addition, the World’s Healthiest Foods highlights quinoa’s impressive antioxidant phytonutrient profile, all of which helps to control inflammation. Fair warning: I’m going to get a little nerdy on you here. Here’s how that actually works. The cells in your body are in constant transition in response to oxygen, even more so if you’ve got a chronic or acute disease or injury (like my ITBS). Yep, that little molecule we need to breathe and survive can also be the root of all evil in our bodies. You know how apples, bananas, and avocados turn brown, or metal rusts, all when exposed to oxygen? That’s basically what happens on the cellular level inside us. (source)
Anyway, so oxidation occurs, but the body responds by building new cells to replace the oxidized ones. But sometimes, the new cells contain molecules with missing bits of information: these particular molecules are called free radicals. And they just float around looking for something to fill in those missing pieces. Here’s the thing: you don’t want them to go and leach that missing piece off of healthy cells, because you know the saying, “One bad apple spoils the bunch”? Yeah, it’s like that. So that’s where antioxidants come in: they bind to those free radicals before they can go spoil healthy cells, leading to more inflammation and disease. (source)
Going back to the brown apple analogy, you may be familiar with the technique of using lemon juice to delay browning. You know why that works? You guessed it: vitamin C, a much-revered antioxidant. Turns out there are many, many other antioxidants/phytonutrients out there that all help to control those free radicals in our bodies, some of which you can find in quinoa (and actually, in most plant matter, including the other ingredients in this recipe).
Whew. Science aside, this dish is not only good for you, it’s just plain good. It’s perfect on its own for a light, summery meatless meal, or you can add a protein for something more substantial. I haven’t tried it yet, but I bet well-seasoned grilled chicken would make a great addition for when I’m a little more lenient on this anti-inflammatory thing. I’ve said it before, but I love how pillowy and fluffy quinoa gets, and its nutty taste is offset by the sweet, juicy blueberries (which are in season now!) and the chewy, slightly bitter greens. The pistachios add a slightly exotic umami to the mix, and you can even add cheese if you’re eating dairy.
Quinoa, Blueberry, and Pistachio Salad Over Greens
(Inspired by Yummy Mummy Kitchen)
1 cup quinoa, rinsed well
2 cups stock (chicken, vegetable) or water plus aromatics (dried minced onion and garlic)
¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil, plus 1 tablespoon for saucepan
¼ cup aged balsamic vinegar
4 heaping cups greens, such as baby spinach, kale, or your favorite salad greens
2 cups blueberries, washed
¼-½ cup shelled pistachios
Goat cheese (optional)
Heat 1 tablespoon olive oil in a medium saucepan. Add quinoa and toast, stirring often, until it starts to stick to the pan. Pour in stock or water. If using water, add salt to taste and a few shakes of dried minced onion and a bit of dried minced garlic. Cover, bring to a simmer, and cook about 15-20 minutes or until liquid is absorbed. Remove from heat, fluff with a fork, and set aside to cool.
Meanwhile, whisk together ¼ cup olive oil and balsamic vinegar until emulsified. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Lightly dress the greens with some of the dressing.
To assemble: divide dressed greens among four plates. Top each plate with quinoa, then blueberries and pistachios (and goat cheese, if using). Drizzle any remaining dressing over, to taste. If not using the cheese, finish with a coarse finishing salt, such as Maldon.
Note. If you use a sturdy green like spinach or kale, this keeps very well as leftovers.