It was my niece who pointed me in this direction: She invited me to dinner one night and served a salad that contained an unrecognisable grain. It was millet.
And then I visited Rockpool, that famed Neil Perry restaurant in Perth, Western Australia, where I ate a seared octopus with aioli, a sort of French mayonnaise but with farro scattered on top. At Il Lido, described as an Italian canteen at Cottesloe, also in Perth, its salad came topped with quinoa.
I was intrigued. All these are grains most Singaporeans are not familiar with. Most eat rice, noodles and pasta, made mainly from either rice or wheat.
But now these hip restaurants are making wondrous dishes out of these unfamiliar whole grains.
One reason must be the low-carb regimen that many people have taken to, with the hope of keeping the kilograms off.
Many of these grains are low in carbohydrates - they are complex carbohydrates that have a low GI (Glycaemic Index). This means they take longer to digest without precipitating dramatic hikes in blood sugar levels.
The other reason is their many health benefits. The macrobiotic diet, for example, recommends that you eat several kinds of grains daily.
When I found out about this, I used to throw in barley and whatever grains I could find into the rice cooker, to my family's horror.
I have since stopped this practice, keeping only to brown rice, also a complex grain, for simplicity's sake.
However, I have now taken to adding whole grains to my full-meal salads, which I eat a lot of.
The recipe featured has hot smoked salmon, a scattering of salmon roe (cholesterol-rich but included for its umami), crunchy greens and, yes, quinoa, all pulled together by a sweet honey mustard dressing.
While quinoa is considered a whole grain, it is actually a seed that originates from a strain of the spinach plant and is considered a healthier grain than white rice or pasta.
There are various kinds ranging from white to brown to red. I used red quinoa for the recipe simply because I had it.
But nutritionally, there is little difference between white and red quinoa except that the white one has a touch more fat but also more fibre than red.
When cooked, the seeds expand rapidly, becoming tender and chewy.
Rinse them thoroughly before boiling as they can otherwise be a bit bitter. When cooked, quinoa is fluffy, creamy, crunchy and nutty.
It is a lovely grain to eat and takes less time to cook than other whole grains - only 10 to 15 minutes. You cook it like rice but in a 2:1 ratio - two cups of water to one cup of grain.
What I like best is that of all the whole grains, quinoa has the highest protein content.
It provides all nine essential amino acids, making it a complete protein. It is also gluten- and cholesterol-free.
Also, quinoa is high in manganese, which acts as a powerful antioxidant in the body.
It also contains magnesium, fibre, calcium, riboflavin, copper and potassium.
In the salad, I use only a little of the grain so as not to swamp the palate. I team it with hot smoked salmon rather than cured salmon.
It is a rich aromatic addition to the greens, which comprise Belgian endives and red radiccio, chosen for their taste, crunch and colour.
While both are a touch bitter, the honey mustard dressing makes a good counterbalance.
The quinoa is a healthy, tasty and filling addition to a salad for those who still like some carbohydrates.
Quinoa salad with smoked fish
1 cup red quinoa, rinsed in water several times
2 cups water
1 head Belgian endive leaves, washed, separated and dried
3 to 4 red radicchio leaves, or red cabbage leaves
1 cup cherry tomatoes, halved
250g or two pieces of hot smoked salmon or any smoked fish, skin removed and flesh shredded
1 stalk each of fresh coriander, Chinese celery and mint, leaves only
2 tbs of salmon roe
1 tbs grain mustard
Juice from 1 large lime or lemon
½ cup olive oil
Pinch of salt and black pepper to taste
1.Bring quinoa and water to the boil in a saucepan. Reduce heat to medium-low, cover and simmer until white rings appear on the quinoa and the water has been absorbed (10 to 15 minutes).
Set aside to cool.
2.Wash cabbage. If using leaves, detach, dry and place them on a plate.
3.Add the halved cherry tomatoes and shredded salmon.
4.Top with the cooked quinoa and garnish with fresh herb leaves and salmon roe.
5.Make the dressing, which is a mixture of grain mustard, lemon juice, olive oil and honey with salt and pepper to taste.
6.Whisk well until dressing emulsifies, then pour over salad and serve.
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