September is Whole Grains Month, and since it’s always time for whole grains at my house, I’m going to feature several favorites as the month goes on.
Of all the Ancient Grains, Quinoa has been most successful in becoming a household name. Sure, farro has its moments of fame, but quinoa started a slow build in the 80’s and grew into a superstar with staying power.
Maybe it’s the high protein, maybe it’s the 15 minute cooking time, or the cool backstory. But let’s face it, quinoa would not leave the bulk bin if people didn’t like the taste.
Yes, quinoa is high in protein, with a cup of cooked quinoa promising about 10 g protein. But to think of it as a protein food is to shrink it down to one macronutrient. Quinoa is packed with antioxidants and anti-inflammatory chemicals, all of which protect you with every bite. Most whole grains are.
Quinoa is such a nutrient dense food that the ancient Incas could grow it as their central food, supplementing with vegetables, beans and animal foods. It was so revered that they used it in their religious ceremonies. When the Conquistadores came in 1530 and wanted to replace the indigenous plants and religious practices with their own, they outlawed the quinoa. Under threat of the new law, European crops were planted and quinoa existed only as a wild plant. When the Andean nations gained their independence from Spain in the 19th century, they were free to bring quinoa back. It took a while for it to get up to speed and make it to the US.
Luckily for us, quinoa is a delicious little whole grain, with a nutty, slightly grassy flavor. With none of the bitterness that people dislike in some grains, it is mild, with a slightly crunchy texture when you bite into it. It is easy to cook to the desired result, by either adding extra water and simmering to a porridge, or by dry toasting and sticking to a 1 1/2 to 1 water to grain ratio for a firmer texture.
I love to eat quinoa in all sorts of dishes, from replacing rice under a stir-fry or stew, to adding it to smoothies and baked goods. But it is special enough to take a starring role in these darling little appetizer cakes. Bound with white sweet potatoes and Chia seeds, the quinoa gives them a chewy texture, and the sesame seeds are both crunchy and full of flavor.
Look at that crispy crust, your guests will devour these as fast as you can make them.
I went with a little flavor of the Middle East in these cakes, with tahini, lemon and mint, and a creamy red pepper dip. The creamy centers are delicate, so make sure to chill until firm before frying, and be patient to get a nice crust that holds it all in place.
You’ll love the quick recipe for the sauce, too, with raw cashews that melt into a genuinely cream-like effect. Whole grains never seemed so fancy, but so easy at the same time.
Quinoa Sweet Potato Cakes with Creamy Red Pepper Sauce
Serves 3, Makes 10 pieces
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
1 1/2 cups minced onion, divided
1 cup cooked quinoa
1 cup mashed white sweet potato
3 tablespoons chia seeds
2 tablespoons tahini
1 teaspoon fresh lemon zest
1/4 cup fresh mint
1 teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons sesame seeds
1 large red bell pepper, seeded and sliced
1 cup vegetable stock
1/4 cup raw cashews, 1/4″ dice
1 pinch salt
Canola oil, for frying
Heat the olive oil in a medium saucepan, add the onion and stir. When the onion starts to sizzle, reduce the heat to medium low. Cook slowly, stirring ever five minutes, until the onions are golden and sweet. When the onions are done, scoop out a cup into a large bowl, leaving the remaining half cup in the pan, take off the heat.
To the bowl with the onions, add the quinoa, mashed sweet potato, chia seeds, tahini, mint and salt. Knead to mix.
Put the sesame seeds into a medium bowl, and prepare a storage container or plate to hold the formed cakes. Use a tablespoon to measure 2 tablespoon-sized portions. Form into round, flat cakes about 3/4 inch thick. Coat the cakes in sesame seeds, pressing gently to get them to stick. Put in the tub or plate, cover, and chill for at least an hour or overnight.
For the sauce, reheat the onions in the pan and add the peppers. Saute for a few minutes, then add the vegetable stock, bring to a boil, and cover. Braise over medium heat until the peppers are very soft, about 5 minutes. Take off the lid and simmer until the pan is almost dry. Transfer the pepper mixture to a blender with the cashews and puree, adding a pinch of salt. Transfer to a small pan to reheat when its time to serve.
To serve, heat canola oil over medium high heat in a large cast iron or stainless saute pan. Carefully place the cakes in the hot oil. Cook, turning carefully every two minutes, until the cakes are golden brown. Serve hot with sauce.