Quinoa with Feta, Shrimp and Fennel
Buying quinoa for this meal was like a particularly vicious and unexpected donkey punch from someone that you thought was a friend. I usually buy quinoa at a bulk foods store where it’s delightfully cheap, but hey, I was in a rush so I thought I’d pick some up at the “affordable” (read: discount) grocery store on the way home from work. This was not a wise decision. I got side tracked by the fish tanks (I can’t help but giggle and point every time that I see a geoduck clam), lingered a bit too long in fresh produce, and before I knew it I had been there for almost an hour (I heart grocery stores) and had to grab my quinoa and bolt if I wanted dinner on the table before breakfast. I hightailed it to two aisles over and grabbed a bag of quinoa, ready to cash out and leave, and then I saw the price. It was $9.89. For a 1.5 lb bag. Seriously. Ten bucks for a bag of quinoa? What, did we lose a war or something?
I scowled, and considered my options. The cupboards are bursting full of rice, barley, farro, couscous and bulghar. Maybe I could just…? Or possibly……? Sigh. You know what it’s like when you have your heart set on something, and that’s simply all that you can think about, right? I had been craving a light, healthy quinoa salad since breakfast. No word of a lie, I had been periodically thinking about quinoa for the previous 10 hours and the mere concept of pasta or risotto just made me sad.
You see, I work for a fabulous company and one of the more enjoyable perks of our corporate culture is the careful attention to lunch hour. If someone books you in between 12-1 pm, you’re getting fed. That’s all there is to it. I usually relish any opportunity to feast on free food, but in the last two weeks I’ve had Swiss Chalet four times, three pizza lunches, and a random Mr. Greek. I think I’m starting to sweat Chalet sauce. My body was practically crying out for heart healthy grains, lean protein and fiber.
Hey, if the body wants quinoa, give it quinoa. I suppose that once in a while it’s nice to eat an entree that doesn’t squirt grease in your eye with the first cut. I have a feeling that there are a lot of apples and water in my immediate future, and that’s absolutely fine. Now if only I could balance this “healthy eating” stuff with working out, I’d really be on to something….
Quinoa with Feta, Shrimp and Fennel
- 1.5 cups uncooked quinoa
- 2.75 cups chicken stock
- 1/4 tsp red pepper flakes
- 1 lemon (2 tsp zest + juice of whole)
- 4 cloves garlic, divided
- 4 tbsp extra virgin olive oil, divided
- 2 tbsp Pernod, optional *
- 1 medium cooking onion
- 1 large fennel bulb
- 1 sweet red pepper
- 1 lb (~ 500g) large shrimp **
- 2 tbsp capers
- 100 g feta cheese (about 3/4 cup)
- 1/2 cup chopped parsley
- salt and pepper to taste
* Pernod is a sweet anise flavored liqueur that echoes the aroma of fennel and tarragon. If you don’t have a taste for Pernod you can simply omit it.
** Extra large shrimp are usually labelled 16/20 and the slightly smaller large sized shrimp are 21/25. This represents the number of shrimp that you would expect to find in a pound. The beauty of this, of course, is that when a recipe calls for a pound of shrimp you can do a pretty good estimate of how many that will be per person. And really, this is important. If you’re going to serve me a quinoa salad with shrimp, I want at least 4 shrimp of my own or I’ll start sulking and maybe even growl a little bit. Maturity is not my forte when it comes to seafood.
Rinse the quinoa under cold running water for at least a minute, or until the water runs clear and the grains are starting to feel a bit heavier. It’s important to rinse off as much starch as you possibly can, because quinoa can run to the mush side of the moon pretty easily, and your only hope of seeing individual grains is to rinse it thoroughly and then cook it with just slightly less liquid than you would expect.
Shake any excess water off from the quinoa and put it in a pot. Pour the chicken stock overtop and sprinkle on the hot pepper flakes. Add a good 2 teaspoons of lemon zest into the pot, salt it lightly (unless your stock happens to be on the saline side) and bring this to a boil over high heat. As soon as the mixture comes to a rolling boil you will want to cover the pot with a tight fitting lid, reduce the heat to minimum (as low as it will go without turning off) and let the quinoa cook, undisturbed, for 22-25 minutes. Don’t peek or you’ll compromise the steaming process!
In the meantime, chop the onion up into a small dice and mince 3 of the 4 garlic cloves. Heat a generous 1 tablespoon of oil in an extra large pan or skillet set over medium low, and gently start to sweat these aromatics out until they’re fragrant and the onion looks translucent. Whatever you do, keep the heat low enough that the garlic doesn’t brown and become bitter.
Core the fennel and dice the bulb into fairly small (barely larger than 1/4″) chunks. Core and seed the red pepper and do the same. Add these two guys to the skillet and let it cook for 3-4 minutes, or just until the fennel has started to soften but still has flavor and a wee bit of watery crunch.
Season the shrimp with salt and pepper before adding them to the mix, along with the Pernod (if you’re using it). Stir and flip the mixture regularly so that the shrimp cook evenly, and as soon as they lose their translucency and are pink straight through (slightly underdone is okay) take the pan off the heat. Shrimp are delicate and do tend to cook up quickly, so you want to keep a careful eye and make sure that they don’t turn into dense rubber curlicues. It also helps to remember that the shrimp will continue cooking with the ambient heat from the rest of the pan as well as the quinoa that we’re about to add…
Speaking of quinoa, is it ready yet or what?? Fluff the quinoa with a fork to separate the grains.
Mix together the quinoa and shrimp/vegetable mixture in a fairly large mixing bowl and leave it to cool for at least 10 minutes. While the temperature comes down, mix the salad dressing.
Press the remaining clove of garlic into a smallish bowl, or mash it into a puree with the side of your knife. Squeeze in the juice of your half-naked lemon and drizzle in the remaining 3 tbsp of olive oil, whisking constantly as you do so. Drain the capers and add them to the mix, and you’re all done!
Because that dressing was ready far too quickly and the quinoa is not yet cooled (trust me, it holds heat better than a baby’s diaper) we might as well prep the last few ingredients. Chop the English cucumber into a 1/4″ dice and finely mince the parsley, stems and all.
Mix the cucumber and parsley into the quinoa salad and pour the dressing over top. Crumble in the feta and you might as well just call it a day. Or a dinner.
If you want to adjust the seasoning, it’s a good idea to wait to do this until the very end because among the capers, feta and chicken stock (unless it’s home made) there is already a lot of sodium and the salad might not need any more.
This is the kind of food that I love. It’s nourishing, but….clean, you know what I mean? After dinner I don’t feel heavy and bloated. I can prowl around the house like I have stronger claws and a shinier coat.
Ten dollars and one boycotted grocery store later, I still think that I made the right decision. There’s a tupperware of leftover quinoa salad in the fridge with my name on it, and this will indubitably be the most enjoyable lunch that I’ve had all week….and if I have to eat it in a meeting where the aroma of greasy pepperoni is hanging heavily in the air, well, so be it.