A Veggie Tale...

Considering my anti-vegetable stance, it shouldn't be surprising that we don't eat a lot of vegetarian meals around here. I wouldn't say that we eat a primarily meat-based diet either, it's just rare for us to have a meal that doesn't involve some animal protein, whether it be chicken, pork, fish, or beef. Justin, however, feels that we need to eat less meat on a daily basis (perhaps he has been reading Michael Pollan behind my back?), and because I love him, and like to take his eating preferences into account when I'm doing our meal planning, I've been trying to seek out more meatless recipes to try to fit into our dining rotation.

The first block of recipes to capture my attention featured quinoa, another request that Justin has made to be integrated into our diets. While quinoa is a grain, and carbs have always had a welcome spot on my plate, I'd never really gotten into quinoa before. I know, I know, it's a complete protein, it's full of fiber and essential nutrients, yada, yada, yada. The truth is, I had a disastrous experience the first time I ever tried making quinoa, and it managed to scare me off of making it again for years. 

Not long after I graduated college and became more interested in learning how to cook at home, I became enamored with 101 Cookbooks, a natural cooking blog by author Heidi Swanson. Though the vast majority of the recipes didn't appeal to me (all those vegetables and weird, whole-grain flours!), I loved her photography and the way she wrote about food. One day, I finally spotted a dish on her site that tempted me, for a cinnamon breakfast porridge made with quinoa. I had never made the grain before, but I was deep into an oatmeal obsession at the time, and decided to give it a try.

Being generally inexperienced at cooking at the time, and unaccustomed to cooking on a gas stove, when the recipe said to cover the pan and simmer the porridge, I made a fatal error by not leaving the lid open just a crack. The next thing I knew, the hot, milky quinoa had exploded over every surface of my kitchen, and I found myself scrubbing everything down for hours, lest some trace of milk be missed and start to go rancid. After that failure, I never wanted to make quinoa again.

Love, however, can move mountains, even one as stubborn as I. So when I saw a recipe in Food and Wine for pan-fried quinoa cakes with spinach, I decided to put it in my recipe queue, and I'm glad I did. It took some advanced planning, because the recipe had many components and needed to be chilled several hours before cooking, so we ended up making these over the course of two days. They were so delicious, however, that they were completely worth the effort. In fact, in the future, I think it would be simple to make a double batch of the quinoa/semolina/spinach mixture, chill it, form it into patties, and freeze them to have on hand for a quick meal in the future. 

The patties had a very pleasing texture, soft from the semolina but punctuated with chewy bits of quinoa. The spinach and shallots provided a nice, savory counterpoint, and the crispy panko coating was perfection. Since the flavors reminded me of Greek food, I would like to experiment with adding some crumbled feta to the mix, just to gild the lily a little. These were a perfect, vegetarian meal with a nice side salad, and I am already looking forward to having them again in the future. If all my vegetarian experiments turn out this well, I could see doing this meatless thing on a  more regular basis...

Golden Semolina Quinoa Spinach Cakes
adapted from Food and Wine

1/2 c. quinoa
6 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon minced shallot
10 oz. baby spinach
1 c. low-fat milk
3/4 c. finely ground semolina
1/4 c. grated Parmesan cheese
1 large egg, lightly beaten
1 1/2 c. panko breadcrumbs
3 large egg whites

1. In a small saucepan, combine the quinoa with 1 cup of water and bring to a boil. Cover and cook over low heat until the water has been absorbed, about 15 minutes. Lightly fluff the quinoa with a fork and cover it again.
2. Meanwhile, in a large skillet, heat 1 tablespoon of the olive oil. Add the shallot and cook over moderate heat, stirring, until softened, about 1 minute. Add the spinach and cook until most of the liquid has evaporated, about 5 minutes. Season with salt and pepper. Transfer the spinach to a strainer and let cool slightly; press out any remaining liquid and finely chop the spinach.

3. In a large saucepan, combine the milk, 1 1/2 cups of water, 1 tablespoon of the olive oil and 2 teaspoons of salt and bring to a boil. Remove the pan from the heat and gradually whisk in the semolina until very smooth. Cook over moderate heat, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon, until the semolina is thick enough to hold soft peaks when the spoon is lifted, about 7 minutes. Remove the semolina from the heat and stir in the quinoa and Parmigiano. Season with salt and pepper and let cool for 15 minutes.

4. Stir the beaten whole egg and spinach into the quinoa mixture and spread in an ungreased 7-by-11-inch pan; it will be about 2 inches thick. Let cool at room temperature, then cover loosely with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 4 hours or overnight.

5. Preheat the oven to 250°. Cut the chilled semolina mixture into 12 squares. Put the panko in a shallow dish and season with 1 teaspoon of salt. In another shallow dish, whisk the egg whites with 1/2 teaspoon of salt and 1 tablespoon of water. Dip the cakes into the whites and turn to coat, letting the excess drip off. Coat the cakes in the panko and shake off excess crumbs. Transfer to a clean baking sheet.

6. In a large skillet, heat 2 tablespoons of the olive oil. Add half of the cakes and cook over moderately high heat until golden on both sides and on the edges, about 6 minutes; adjust the heat as necessary to prevent the cakes from burning. Drain the cakes on a paper towel–lined plate, then transfer to a baking sheet and keep warm in the oven. Wipe out the skillet and cook the remaining cakes in the remaining 2 tablespoons of olive oil. Serve hot.

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