We have just one rule when it comes to summer meals: they have to be quick. From June through August, we’re cramming in as many warm-weather hijinks as possible, often falling through the doorway at dinnertime with sand-covered, hungry children in tow. More than ever, our schedules require dinner in 30 minutes in order to satiate our penchant for more fun at the end of a workday. Swift preparation, high standards for deliciousness and expectations that dinner can fall from our pantries means we rely on grain salads that can hold up in the refrigerator and require little more than maybe a piece of grilled chicken or tofu to deem it dinner.
To accomplish these can’t-wait-to-eat, fast-to-prepare summer grain salads, we keep 3 mason jars handy in our pantries: couscous, quinoa and bulgur wheat. Their contents are interchangeable in recipes and they all produce meals that are light and refreshing, yet filling enough to keep us perky during bike rides, beach trips and cheering at late-night softball games. Any extra time we gain from our quick dinner preparation can be spent sippin’ Lakefront beer on the porch or vacuuming sand from our couch cushions.
The speediest to make of the three is couscous, which is handy for keeping the kitchen cool; no wonder it’s a staple in the balmy kitchens of Africa and the Middle East. Like pasta, it’s made from durum wheat, but couscous takes just 5 minutes to cook after bringing it to a boil. We keep it in our pantries because it’s light, fluffy and serves as a delicious, quick alternative to rice or pasta. Chasing kids and twilight socializing requires a great deal of vivacity. Good thing that couscous is a good source of complex carbohydrates; the good kind that take a long time for your body to break down, thus providing a steady supply of energy blood sugar. And just three ounces of dry couscous provides over 49% of your protein for the day. Consider the hijinks a couscous, garbanzo bean and vegetable salad would fuel!
Quinoa, a favorite for our pals who don’t eat wheat or gluten, was called the “mother grain” by ancient Incas and is one of the oldest cultivated foods we know of. Arguably one of the most nutritious grains out there, quinoa is high in calcium, vitamins and minerals and is a complete protein, containing all the essential amino acids. An essential quick rinse before cooking washes away any remaining saponins (a natural coating the plant produces to protect it from birds and environmental conditions) and results in a delicately sweet flavor – skipping this step would result in a disappointing, soapy flavor. When quinoa is cooked, the germ of the grain uncurls producing what looks like a tiny tail or spiral. We’re not sure if the tiny tail makes it more delicious, or just more fun, but this cute characteristic differentiates it from other grains, along with its mother-load of nutrients!
Because the co-op’s local produce selection changes daily and our backyards yield sporadic vegetable harvests, we’re leaning toward recipes that can be easily changed up. These speedy, thrifty, delicious salads are a meal unto themselves. Whipping up a few scrumptious and versatile grain concoctions, that will be complimented by just about anything you throw at them, is the perfect answer to all your summertime dining and schedule needs – leaving ample time to amuse yourself or others.
Balsamic quinoa salad
We really mean, it – couscous or bulgur both play just as well in this salad as quinoa. Use whichever jar is handiest. We chose red quinoa because it’s so pretty, but white, black or a medley of all three work just the same. This is a fantastic meal-in-a-bowl salad – but even more impressive as a dish to pass when someone else is firing up the grill. Our very favorite time to throw this salad together is on a Thursday afternoon while dancing along to Dori’s show on WMSE. Then stash the bowl in the fridge and it’s ready for when the dinner bell rings!
Serves 4 for dinner, 6 as a side
1 cup red quinoa (or couscous or bulgur)
2 cups water
2 cups cherry tomatoes, halved
2 avocados, diced
1 cup canned artichoke hearts, drained and rough chopped
1/2 cup fresh basil
2 tablespoons pine nuts, toasted
2 tablespoons capers, rinsed
3 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
2 tablespoons, fresh lemon juice
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
salt and pepper
1. Rinse the quinoa by swirling it in a pot of cold water, draining and repeating one or two more times until the water drained off is clear. Strain off excess water and add back to the pot with 2 cups of water. Bring to a boil, cover and turn off the heat, steam for 15 – 20 minutes. Water should be absorbed, if not drain off and fluff with a fork. Its texture is similar to al dente pasta. (If you prefer cold salad to room temperature salad and are serving immediately, you’ll need to rinse the quinoa under cold water and strain before proceeding.)
2. While the quinoa is cooking, prepare the vinaigrette by combining the balsamic, lemon juice and minced garlic in a bowl. Slowly whisk in the olive oil. Add salt and pepper to taste.
3. In a large bowl, toss the quinoa with the vinaigrette and the remaining ingredients. We love this topped with little balls of fresh mozzarella with a grilled something-or-other on the side.
This salad makes for a beautiful presentation that’s as pleasing to the eyes as it is to the tastebuds. Any dried fruit is great in this recipe; we’ve loved apricots, currants or blueberries as stand-ins for cranberries. Quinoa and whole wheat couscous pass the deliciousness test if you’re not as enamored with bulgur as we are (oh but really, it’s so loveable, we wouldn’t steer you wrong). Whichever grain and fruit combination you choose, it’s hard to not scoop a few spoonfuls into your mouth while dishing this up.
Serves 4 as a main course or 6 as a side
1 1/2 cups bulgur
3 cups boiling water
3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1 teaspoon honey
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper, more or less to taste
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup olive oil
1 can chickpeas rinsed and drained
1/2 cup dried cranberries or dried/fresh fruit of choice
1/2 cup quartered cherry tomatoes (you can use red or yellow peppers, zucchini, cucumber or whatever else is abundant and delicious sounding)
1 small red onion, finely chopped
1/4 cup minced parsley
Boston or Romaine lettuce leaves and pita bread for serving
1. Bring the water and bulgur to a boil. Stir it, cover it and turn off the heat. Steam for 15 – 20 minutes. Return to bowl and set aside.
2. Meanwhile, whisk lemon juice, honey, cumin, cayenne and salt together in a small bowl. Add olive oil and whisk until smooth.
3. Add chickpeas, cranberries, tomatoes, onion and parsley to bulgur bowl and combine. Drizzle dressing over bulgur mixture and toss to combine.
4. Line serving plates with lettuce leaves and mound bulgur on top. Serve with pita wedges and lemon slices.
Diana Sieger & Carrie Rowe