If I had to choose a meal that is date-night worthy, this quinoa risotto would be it. I made it for our Valentine's dinner because when I think of romantic food I immediately think of a delicately creamy dish elevated with fresh and bright citrus flavors. They say opposites attract, and it's certainly true of flavors and textures in cooking as well; here it is crème fraiche versus dill and citrus and creamy quinoa versus crunchy pistachios and just-cooked zucchini coins. These opposing teams in the spectrum of flavors and textures face off in the risotto, but in the end there's no competition. They compliment each other and ultimately work really well together. Appropriate metaphor for a special day celebrating couples, eh?
This is a risotto-style dish in terms of the similar cooking process: aromatics in first, then toast the grains, deglaze with wine, then add stock a little at a time. But the time and effort is half that of regular risotto. And the creaminess (if cooked properly and some liquid is left in the end) comes from the stock and the starch that cooks out of the quinoa and barley. Only a few spoonfulls of crème fraiche are added at the end to feel indulgent and give the illusion of more cream than there really is.
I wanted to top the risotto with scallops because it was a special occasion and scallops are special gifts from the sea that I don't buy often but absolutely love. They are mildly sweet, but otherwise neutral in flavor. When cooked properly (i.e. quickly over high heat) they develop a caramelized crust and the inside is silky with a pleasing chew. Need I say more?
Quinoa is a complete protein with all 9 essential amino acids. In other words, this dish is well-rounded without the scallops if you need a quicker dinner. Quinoa is sometimes mistaken for a grain but it is actually a seed and is closely related to the beet and spinach families. Like seeds, the red and black quinoa varieties have a slight bite left once cooked, but the white quinoa cooks up much softer. I could not resist the red quinoa for Valentine's Day, but to achieve something that more closely resembles the creaminess of a risotto, I highly recommend using white quinoa.
Quinoa Risotto with Zucchini and Dill
Notes: A mixture of quinoa and pearled barley are used because I like the additional texture barley provides. But all quinoa (for a gluten-free version) or all barley can be used instead. However, note that cooking times and amount of liquid needed may vary.
Cooking this dish is not an exact science. The end goal is to have a moist, loose quinoa dish with quinoa and barely that is cooked but not mushy. So use your instinct when deciding how much more broth and cooking time is needed in the last 10 minutes of cooking.
4 cups vegetable broth
2 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
1 medium onion (or 2 shallots)
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/4 tsp. red pepper flakes
1 1/2 cups quinoa (preferably white quinoa), rinsed well and drained
1/2 cup pearled barley, rinsed until water runs clear and drained
3/4 cup white wine
1/2 tsp. salt and pepper to taste
1 medium, firm zucchini (the narrower, the better), thinly sliced into coins
1/4 cup crème fraiche (or full-fat greek yogurt or sour cream)
1/2 cup roasted pistachios, chopped
Zest and juice from 1 lemon
1 bunch dill, chopped
Warm the stock in a small sauce pan over high heat, covered. Once hot (no need to bring to a boil), reduce heat to low to keep warm.
In a large, deep saute pan over medium heat, saute onions, garlic, and red pepper flakes until onion begin to soften (3-5 minutes). Add quinoa and barley and toast until they start to smell nutty (about 2-3 minutes). Deglaze the pan with white wine and stir for a minute picking up any brown bits from the bottom.
Stir in salt, pepper, and 2 cups of the broth, and cook for 10 minutes, covered, stirring once or twice. Most of the liquid should be absorbed after this. Stir in another 1 to 1 1/2 cups of broth and cook, covered for another 10-15 minutes, stirring once or twice. Most liquid should be absorbed after this but the mixture should be loose, not dry. Check quinoa for doneness at this point as well; you want it to be cooked but with some texture left. If it is cooked lower heat, stir in zucchini coins, cover, and steam for 5 minutes. Otherwise keep the heat on medium when the zucchini coins are added and add the last 1/2 cup of broth only if all liquid has been absorbed. Cover and cook 5 more minutes.
Turn heat off, stir in remaining ingredients, and adjust for seasoning if necessary. Serve immediately, and if using, top with sticky, seared scallops.
Sticky Seared Scallops
1 Tbsp. butter
15-18 medium scallops (450-500 grams)
1 red chili, thinly sliced
Splash white wine
1 Tbsp. red wine vinegar
Squeeze of honey
During the last 10 minutes the quinoa cooks, cook the scallops.
Pat scallops dry with paper towel or a clean kitchen towel to absorb excess moisture.
Heat butter in a cast-iron skillet or other heavy-bottomed, non-stick skillet over medium to medium-high heat. Once oil is hot, places scallops in the pan (do not move them once placed in the pan or they will tear), sprinkle with salt, pepper and chili slices, and sear until the edges look like they are starting to brown (3-4 minutes). At this point the bottoms should be golden-brown in color and release easily from the pan. Flip to brown on the other side and finish cooking through (2-4 minutes, depending on the size of your scallops).
Deglaze the pan with wine, vinegar, and honey, stirring with a wooden spoon or spatula to pick up the brown bits at the bottom and to coat the scallops with the sauce. Liquid should be saucy and slightly thickened now. Remove from heat immediately and serve over quinoa on individual plates.