I came late to the quinoa love-fest. Technically, this high-protein, high-fiber, gluten-free superfood from the Andes is not a grain, although it acts like one in the kitchen. When I was a UCSC farm and garden apprentice, we made a lot of quinoa pancakes (not bad) and quinoa tabbouleh (surprisingly good). But too many times, I’ve had it served plain as plain and here, I must tell you: Quinoa, You’re No Rice. Sad to say, you’re not even couscous. To me, unadorned quinoa tastes like it came out the wrong end of the flavor-extraction machine, pleasantly fluffy but free of taste.
So, the trick with quinoa is to treat it like tofu: as a nice, neutral backdrop just aching to become a Jackson Pollack. In other words, throw a lot of big, bright stuff at it, and you’ll get something worth eating. Unlike, say, pasta, which gets exponentially tastier the more cheese, sausage, and cream you toss into it, quinoa’s best partners are stubbornly healthy.
Which brings us to that staple of Bay Area life, the potluck. And especially, the potluck with the vegan/vegetarians, half of whom have recently gone gluten-free. I’ve already given out my potato-salad tips, which could be adapted to use a vegan egg-free mayonnaise like Nayonaise, or the tofu version in Mollie Katzen’s Still Life with Menu.
The tininess and cool purplish color of cooked adzuki beans work well with the colors and general small scale of everything in this salad, but you could, if pressed, use another small bean from your Mason-jar arsenal. If at all possible, soak and cook the beans yourself; canned beans are really too mushy to make a decent showing in any salad.
But who am I kidding? You’re already looking at those half-dozen cans of organic black beans in your pantry and thinking, “Burn through gas and raise my blood pressure angling for a parking spot at Berkeley Bowl just to get a half cup of some weird bitty bean? Not a chance!” Okay, sister, I hear you. But at least drain and rinse those beans really, really well to get all the slimy can-muck off. (And by the way, if you’ve ever had a moon cake stuffed with red-bean paste, you’ve had adzuki beans; in Asia, where this bean originated, its nutty-sweet flavor is highly prized for use in desserts and other sweets.)
This recipe is a mash-up of inspiration from two different recipes, Tangerine Quinoa Pilaf from The Sunset Cookbook and Curried Couscous Salad in The Barefoot Contessa Cookbook. A small amount of beans and quinoa turns into a satisfyingly generous (and protein-rich) amount of salad, and it can easily be made a day or two in advance. If your favorite farmers’ market vendor has carrots in groovy colors like purple and burgundy, by all means buy them instead of the usual orange ones. You’ll lose a lot of the color if you peel, so just wash well and dice.