Tuesday, March 16, 2010

They had me at NASA

I am a sucker for all things NASA. I was 10 years old when the first space shuttle launched and landed. Part fear, part exhilaration, I remember watching with anticipation equal to an American Idol Finale. I was totally awed by something so huge going so high, so fast. I dreamed about being an astronaut. Then we took a family trip to the National Air and Space Museum.

Have you ever tasted astronaut food? In some sort of cosmic foreshadowing, it was freeze-dried ice cream bought in the gift shop that turned me off to space travel. It is gross. Not creamy, not cold. What is the point? Beef Stroganoff? Barf. Instant career downgrade. Until they get that food thing figured out, of course.

This January I was checking out the food blog, Fridge Magnet, when Lindsey Nair did a little write up on the new book 10 Things You Need to Eat by Dave Lieberman. She spoils the fun,
Let's get your biggest question out of the way right now: The 10 foods are tomatoes, avocados, beets, spinach, quinoa (pronounced KEEN-wah), lentils, cabbage, nuts, berries and "super fish," or certain varieties of highly nutritious fish.

Here's me: check, check, yuck, check, quinoa? Never heard of it. Thanks to Wikipedia, though, I learned,
Quinoa was of great nutritional importance in pre-Columbian Andean civilizations, being secondary only to the potato, and was followed in importance by maize. In contemporary times, this crop has become highly appreciated for its nutritional value, as its protein content is very high (12%–18%), making it a healthy choice for vegetarians and vegans. Unlike wheat or rice (which are low in lysine), quinoa contains a balanced set of essential amino acids for humans, making it an unusually complete protein source.[4] It is a good source of dietary fiber and phosphorus and is high in magnesium and iron. Quinoa is gluten-free and considered easy to digest. Because of all these characteristics, quinoa is being considered a possible crop in NASA's Controlled Ecological Life Support System for long-duration manned spaceflights.

Yep, you read that right, NASA! Ohhhhhhh. Flashbacks to freeze-dried ice-cream, I didn't know whether to be disgusted or intrigued. NASA did have a big win with Swedish Space Foam, maybe they have the food-thing figured out? I chose 'cautiously interested' and bought a box.

Dear NASA, Love the Quinoa. Can I have a job? Thanks, Heather

As far as side dishes go, I love brown rice, but I only have one oven and sometimes the hour it takes to cook isn’t practical. Admittedly, this sometimes pleases me. I love white rice. I’m a white rice snob, really. Grew up on rice cooker short-grain sticky sushi rice and have to fight slathering cups of it with butter and sucking it down. Yum.

Quinoa is a fabulous alternative. Looks and tastes like couscous, more nutritionally sound than white rice and just as easy to make on the stove top or rice cooker. And I don’t feel the need to slather it with butter. Quinoa is my new favorite grain (that is really a seed… whatever). But don’t trust me, trust NASA!

Black Bean and Tomato Quinoa was the first quinoa recipe I tried, and loved. It shouldn't come as a surprise, as I use a lot of black beans, cilantro and tomatoes in my cooking. I found the recipe on Epicurious.com, but the cooking method they instruct has WAY too many steps. I followed their directions the first time and made the quinoa the easy way every time since then. I don’t think it hurts the integrity of the recipe in the least!

Black Bean and Tomato Quinoa
*serves 4 as side dish

2 teaspoons grated lime zest
2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted and cooled
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 teaspoon sugar

1 cup quinoa
1 (14- to 15-ounce) can black beans, rinsed and drained
2 medium tomatoes, diced
4 scallions, chopped
1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro
Whisk together lime zest and juice, butter, oil, sugar, 1/2 teaspoon salt, and 1/4teaspoon pepper in a small bowl.

In a saucepan, bring Quinoa and 2 cups water to a boil. Reduce to a simmer and cook, covered for 15 minutes. Do not stir or take lid off. After 15 minutes, remove pot from heat and let sit for 10 minutes without removing lid.

While quinoa cooks, dice tomatoes, green onions and cilantro. Rinse and drain black beans.

Combine quinoa with dressing and veggies, fluffing gently. Serve hot or cold.

Recipe Notes:
You will read about having to rinse quinoa before cooking, but all the quinoa I have bought has been pre-rinsed. In Austin, find quinoa in the open bins at Whole Foods and Sprouts (which makes it easy to just buy a cup to try!). Also, Costco has a 4lb bag right now for $9.99.

You can make the quinoa plain, use chicken broth, toast the kernels a little before adding the water, even brown up a little onion before adding the water and quinoa to the pot. Get creative!!

On my stove (with heat marks 1 through 10), I heat the water to a boil on 7 and then turn it down to 4 for the simmer. I can still hear it simmering in the pot, but not loudly, and certainly not forcefully enough to jiggle the lid.

You will know the quinoa is done when the grains have turned slightly opaque and the little germ tail has uncoiled. Kind of like a natural pop-up red thing on a Butterball Turkey! Can you see it here?

Just mix it all together and serve. This time I didn't add the black beans, as I had run out. Fabulous with or without!


  1. Never would have put quinoa and NASA in the same sentence before. Very cool. I think we will be trying this dish at my house. :)

  2. Cool! Let me know what you think!