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Over the last few weeks, maybe even a month or so, I have re-discovered why I choose to eat out less then seldom. Because I have, over the last few weeks, maybe even a month or so, I have been eating out A LOT. Between breakfast, lunch, and dinner there had to be at least one meal, almost every day, from a source not related to my kitchen.

It started with lunches at work conveniently sponsored by HBO. We would have meals delivered from a different restaurant Monday through Friday. However, when the producers flew to NY for the premiere of the show, our LA team suddenly turned into a bunch of orphans no one remembered, nor cared to feed anymore. Hence, midday trips home began and my Sunny-Side-Up was born. Once the lunches were taken care of, dinners with friends began, from Los Angeles to San Francisco and back, and last minute stops at the local Whole Foods store for a quick bite of scrambled eggs with breakfast potatoes on the way to work.

All that foreign food corrupted my entire plumbing system. One day I found myself uncomfortably bloated for no apparent reason and realized the sensation had been absent from my life since the spring of 2008, when my cooking ride began. I knew right then it was time to go back to my pots. Beside, the comfort level my jeans achieved with my ass was alarming on its own. Suddenly the fabric snuggled tighter with my cheeks and SINCE WHEN ARE THESE GUYS ON A FIRST-NAME BASIS?

Time is not my friend these days, however. I come back from work anytime between 19:00 and 01:00 hour. When lucky to be home before the late night edition of the local news, I scramble to put together an easy meal. The focus is far from gourmet. I cook a pot of quinoa and store it in the refrigerator in an airtight, glass container. That’s my base.

All I have left to do after work is to chop and sauté some veggies, add garlic, onions, spice it up with chili powder, nutmeg, cayenne pepper, and fresh herbs, and serve it over my quinoa. Sometimes those are roasted Brussels sprouts. Sometimes it’s steamed broccoli mixed with tomato sauce.

And if I’m sick of quinoa I switch to sautéed zucchini with onions and pancetta over a bowl of whole-wheat noodles. The following day the leftovers land in Jason’s lunch box.

Those are only examples. Every (free) night is another experiment. My kitchen is like a box of chocolates. YOU NEVER KNOW WHAT YOU’RE GONNA GET. What you can be sure of though is that most of the ingredients used are organic, whole grain, unprocessed, and from local suppliers (when available). That way I’m being good to my micro and macro Universe. And the Universe pays back in the form of a regular bowel movement and a quiet tête à tête with our Tivo undisrupted by violent burps, digestive fireworks and other gastric explosions.

No more eating out for the next few weeks, maybe even a month or so” we pledged last Sunday over two juicy UMAMI BURGERs with port and melted stilton and a side of sweet potato fries. Our Last Supper was just as good as any other sinful act we had ever committed.

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Earlier this year, in the spring, Jason and I worked together on a pilot for Fox, called “Sons of Tucson”. Jason is a freelance producer working on various TV shows for different networks. He’s given the industry over a decade of his life, and paved his way with sweat and blood. He got on board of SOT excited to be working once again with the Emmy-winning director, Todd Holland, and started building his department.

Since I had recently been laid off from my previous job, and was ready and eager, he hired me proudly as his Bitch. Well, my deal memo called the position “Post Production Assistant”, which didn’t bother me. One of the crucial tasks I was entrusted with was keeping everybody in the house fed. I was armed with a folder full of menus to keep things colorful and versatile. However, it was Healthyca, a little gem of a restaurant in the Valley, that became a main source of our lunches till we wrapped the pilot. It was then that I rediscovered QUINOA. I hear some of the members of our crew got quinoa-obsessed ever since.

Quinoa [keen-wah] is a grain native to South America; it’s the sacred crop of the Incas, also considered a Super Food for its nutritional value. 100 g of uncooked quinoa contains 14 grams of protein, plus significant amounts of B-vitamins, Iron, Magnesium, Phosphorus, and Zinc. It also carries a balanced mix of essential amino acids making it a delicious source of complete protein.

I’ve used quinoa for years, cooking it on its own and serving it with a side of roasted Brussels sprouts, or steamed and sautéed broccoli, or inside tomato soup. I’ve had it a few times cold as a salad, and it was good, too. Nothing beats though Quinoa Salad made at Healthyca. Great job, guys! Keep it up.

After the pilot was over, and we returned home for good, away from the Valley, I got inspired to recreate the dish that rocked the worlds of so many. Ladies and Gentlemen, I am about to share with you the fruits of my labor, my little secrets that make THE difference. It is highly valuable information, hence consider it CONFIDENTIAL. And even though it’s not exactly the same as Healthyca’s, it is damn good every time I fix it.

Quinoa is cooked in 2:1 ratio, where you take 2 cups of liquid for each cup of grain. SECRET #1: flavor the quinoa while cooking, either with a few bay leaves dropped into cooking water, or substitute your H2O for chicken stock (low sodium). {The same rule applies to rice and other grains you may want to cook} It’s done when all liquid is absorbed. Remember to discard the bay leaves before mixing your salad. They are not edible. Set the quinoa aside to cool, and mix it a few times around so it doesn’t dry on the surface.

Now the fun part begins – you get to invent your very own Quinoa Salad. You can make it a Crunchy Quinoa Salad by adding finelly diced Persian cucumbers, radishes, red or yellow bell peppers, and heirloom tomatoes, say 1 cup of each, plus a handful of chopped scallions and fresh herbs (dill comes to mind instantly, then parsley, basil…). You can get a more meaty texture and make it a Quinoa a’la Mexicana by mixing black beans, yellow corn kernels, red bell pepper, red onion, cilantro (chopped appropriately) into the salad. Think about color combination and texture. Feel it on your tongue as you create. Smell the goods. Another idea would be Quinoa with Roasted Vegetables, where roasted halves of Brussels sprouts, chopped carrots, parsnip, and garlic cloves make the “filling”. It doesn’t have to be vegetarian either. Throw in some roasted chicken breast cut in bite size chunks. Maybe add a handful of baby spinach leaves and let them wilt in the warmth of quinoa and veggies. Be creative. Be daring. Be wild!

SECRET #2 lays in the dressing. Aha! You definitely want your quinoa salad moist. A dry salad is a waste of time. It’s just wrong. Period. For the cold version the best and easiest choice is a lemon dressing (these proportions are good for 1.5 cups of cooked quinoa, adjust as desired):

–       2/3rd of a cup of GOOD extra virgin olive oil

–       1/3rd of a cup of freshly squeezed lemon juice

–       1 tbsp of lemon zest

–       1-2 tbsp of honey or agave nectar (start with 1 tbsp and taste)

–       a solid pinch of sea salt

–       a healthy pinch of freshly ground black pepper.

Whip it good into a coherent mixture, taste, and pour over your salad. Mix well, set in the fridge in a closed container, and let all the flavors get to know each other. You may enjoy it on its own, or serve it as a side to a rock-and-roll sandwich you’ll put together in the meantime.

If you take the warm route with roasted veggies (and chicken), I would start with sautéing diced slices of pancetta on a skillet with onions and garlic (salt & pepper!) over a medium heat. Once the fat from the pancetta is melted, I would add a can of diced tomatoes (low sodium) and simmer over a low heat for a minute or two. I want enough liquid to combine the quinoa with the veggies, but I don’t want it soggy. Take it off the heat, again pour over the grain, add the spinach and voila! You made yourself a royal dinner, just as – if not better – the Incan monarchs used to dine.

red quinoa din3

I know you’re all suddenly hungry now, and drooling over the computer screen, so go, go play in the kitchen. Take a bowl full of this ambrosial meal and lure your mate, date, neighbor, or friend. Report back to me when you recover your senses after the feast.

Oh, Yes!

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