Junior year of college, I went on what my school liked to call an “Alternative Spring Break trip.” Rather than heading to the beach or visiting high school friends, I went on an outreach trip to Ecuador.
The entire concept of this was terrifying to me for one primary reason: I am an introvert. In my Intro to Psych. class in college, everyone had to take the standard Myers-Briggs test. My score for extroversion was so far into the introversion scale that I immediately had a massive epiphany: “That is why I break out into heat rash and cannot speak any time I’m in a large group of people. And want to hyper-ventilate when called on in class. And require hours of alone time after being with people.”
So joining a group of other students who I did not know and heading to South America to interact in a language I did not speak with a culture I was fairly ignorant of…made me want to curl up in my bed, pull the duvet up to my eyes, and only peek out if someone offered me something like, say, an extra chocolaty brownie.
Like most events that stretch the boundaries of personal comfort, this one was an incredible experience. My lack of language skills did not matter since I was able to draw with sidewalk chalk and blow bubbles with little children. My longing for solo time was beat pretty fast by the bond that develops while building a fifth story on a building and carrying the cinder blocks and gravel for hours to the roof of that fourth floor. Also, in case you were curious, my finger painting skills are definitely up to snuff.
On the long, rambling list of incredible things I gained from the trip, quinoa fits somewhere in the middle. Did you know Ecuador is one of the three producers of that pearl-like grain that, along with kale, seems to have gotten the best PR available? (Seriously, whoever promotes quinoa and kale should retire with five gold stars by their name.) Rather than a picnic of food, our hosts served a thick, goopy brown liquid in mugs. It looked like hot chocolate, but tasted like drinking a strangely flavored wheat field. I’m pretty sure it was simply a mug of quinoa that had been made with way too much water so that it became a filling beverage that provided the majority of the nutrition that this village would receive all week. In fact, these people spent their 12 hour workdays tending to the finicky quinoa crops that grew in the terraced fields around their huts.
Suffice to say, my first time to eat quinoa was more eye opening, strangely overwhelming, and less appetizing than the average meal. Because of the overall experience, it took me a long time to try quinoa again. But luckily for my belly, the grain has won me over.
Warm Quinoa Salad with Carrots and Grilled Chicken
Adapted from Cat Cora’s recipe
1 cup quinoa
salt and pepper
¼ cup pine nuts
3 tbs olive oil, plus more for drizzling
3 garlic cloves, minced
½ medium red onion, diced
2 carrots, halved lengthwise, then sliced crosswise
2 tsp ground cumin
1 tbs plus 1 tsp sherry vinegar
2 6 oz. boneless, skinless chicken breasts, cut into 1-inch cubes
2 tbs chili oil, if desired
2 tbs mint leaves
Put quinoa and 2 cups of water into a small saucepan and top with a pinch of salt and pepper. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low, cover, and cook until water is absorbed, about 15 minutes.
In a large skillet, toast the pine nuts over moderate heat, stirring, about 2 minutes. Remove to a plate. Heat the oil in the skillet. Add garlic and onion and cook until softened, about 5 minutes. Stir in the carrots and cumin, cover and cook until carrots are barely tender, about 5 minutes. Stir in quinoa and vinegar and season to taste with salt and pepper.
Heat a cast iron grill pan and add chili oil or same amount of other oil (olive oil is fine!). Drizzle chicken with olive oil and thread onto 4 skewers. Season with salt and pepper. Cook on grill pan, turning once, until chicken is brown and cooked through.
Spoon the quinoa salad onto plates and top with pine nuts and mint leaves. Plate chicken skewers and drizzle with chili oil from pan. Serve.