Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Bacon and Black Bean Quinoa Cakes in Honour of National Food Day: A Healthy (Gasp!) Alternative to National Greasy Foods Day

For those of you who are not aware, today is National Greasy Foods Day. While I would typically be categorised in the "let's eat greasy food" to celebrate this national food holiday (and I may very well do so later today), I have decided (at least for my midnight snack) to go a healthier route, given that yesterday was National Food Day. Established this year by the Center for Science in the Public Interest, this year‘s theme is "Transforming the Way Americans Eat: Focusing on Healthy, Affordable Food Produced in a Humane, Environmentally Sustainable Way." Certainly a timely theme given that of Saturday's farm to table program, a Food Day collection of recipes by prominent chefs and food writers sparked me to consider what I could make in honour of this inaugural year. Bearing in mind the six Food Day principles--the first among them being the reduction of "diet-related disease by promoting safe, healthy foods"--I settled on a trio of quinoa cakes (using smokey maple bacon and black beans) for my midnight snack to balance the fine line between the two aforementioned holidays. When it came time to actually cooking them, however, I found that what I ended up actually accomplishing was the ability to test out the cooking technique of this truly amalgamated recipe. An "America's Test Kitchen"-approach, I'm pleased with the final result, pictured above and described in greater detail below. [Servings:] The recipe and process is good for nine quinoa cakes, six of which contain bacon.

Before I continue, I would first like to mention that, in addition to National Food Day, yesterday was also United Nations Day. While there are no direct connections between my (now) two favourite non-traditional holidays to commemorate, there are certainly connections to be made. In particular, and as we approach a global population of seven billion, attention and concern over food security and access to resources are justifiably heightened. Still very much attainable, the U.N.'s Millennium Development Goals have a target year of 2015, with three of the eight goals connected in some way to the missions of this day: eradicating extreme poverty and hunger, ensuring environmental sustainability, and developing a global partnership for development. And in many respects, the other goals speak to yesterday's themes.

And now to continue... While technically a seed (some recognise it is as a "pseudo cereal") native to the Andes and relative of spinach and Swiss chard, quinoa is more commonly recognised as a grain (i.e., a "true" cereal) and known for its amazing health benefits. I first learned about quinoa through Chef Carla Hall during her seasons on Top Chef yet never found an opportunity to learn how to cook it. This being said, my recent interest in this "ancient food of the gods" best known for being a part of the Incan diet arrived in some form of fate a few weeks ago when I first tried quinoa croquettes during the University Gala. (I had previously tried quinoa for the first time on another occasion.) At the gala, students, staff, faculty, and visitors were given a unique gastronomic passport to five continental cuisines. And of everything offered, I was intrigued by the fact that so very few knew about the quinoa in the croquettes being served at what I called the Mesoamerican table. Using the gala's quinoa croquettes as my primary point of reference, the recipe I discuss in this post (based on recipes 1, 2, and 3) is further influenced by the ingredients I already had available in my kitchen.

To begin, crisp two slices of bacon and set aside to cool. Cognisant of the approach here to eating healthier without sacrificing the flavour, set aside the rendered bacon fat in a small bowl, making sure to leave the fond (i.e., the meat bits) in the pan; as I only had the sweeter smokey maple bacon in my fridge, I didn't add this to the non-flavoured rendered bacon fat I typically store.

Following the instructions to the quinoa I purchased, in a small sauce pot, add 1 c water to 1/2 c washed quinoa, and bring this to a boil. Reduce the heat to medium so that the water reduces to a simmer and cover the pot. Take the pot off the heat after 10-15 minutes, or when the quinoa has absorbed all the water. As the quinoa is cooking, finely chop half a small, yellow onion, mince a clove of garlic, and roughly chop a quartered tomato. After you are finished with the knife work, add the onion to the skillet you crisped the bacon in and allow it to sweat, soaking up the flavour left by the fond and any leftover bacon grease you were unable to strain out. Continue cooking the onion until you can smell the onion odour; add to this the garlic and cook everything together until the smell of garlic slightly takes over. Finally, add the tomato, and continue to cook everything together until the tomato has softened and the onion is translucent.

By this point, the quinoa should be done. Transfer the quinoa to a bowl and add to this what I call a culinary trinity of Filipino cuisine (i.e., the onion, garlic, and tomato). Mix everything together with a pinch of salt and an equal amount of freshly ground black pepper. Allow everything to cool down to room temperature before proceeding.

When everything has completely cooled, finely chop the bacon. To the quinoa mixture, add 1/2 c grated parmesan reggiano and one beaten large egg; combine very well, and then divide the quinoa mixture into three separate bowls. Divide and add the bacon to two of the bowls. To one of these bacon bowls and to the one without, add 2 tbsp mashed black beans in each. To the bowl without the black beans, add one tbsp water (the moisture in the black beans similarly serves the purpose of helping to bind the ingredients together). Mix everything together in each bowl; especially to the bowl to which you've added water, add a bit more water if the quinoa doesn't clump together (i.e., if it's too dry).

For the exterior crust, sprinkle some bread crumbs on a shallow plate (the flatter the better). Using a measuring cup (or moulding ring, etc.), shape 1/4 c quinoa into a patty, and place directly onto the crumb-covered plate. If the patty separates/falls apart, then it's definitely too dry; mix this (no need to pick out the bread crumbs) back into the bowl and add a touch more water/mashed black beans. Gently shake the plate to essentially sift out the excess bread crumbs and use those to cover the top and sides of each patty, sprinkling on additional bread crumbs as needed. Though the patties will hold their shape at this point, it will be rather difficult to transfer to the skillet. To resolve this issue, put them (plate and all) into the freezer for about five minutes or until you can gently pick them up.

When the quinoa patty [cakes] can be picked up, transfer them to a preheated skillet (medium heat). While quinoa cakes, croquettes, or anything else fried, are usually fried in a layer of hot oil, these will fry just as well on the hot skillet and the addition of a few drops of olive oil around the perimeter. Especially on a non-stick pan, add the drops of olive oil and carefully tilt the pan so that the oil is drawn into the bread crumbs. Cook this side for about 4-5 minutes and, using a wide spatula, carefully flip the quinoa cake and cook the other side, again adding a few drops of olive oil. For an alternative (read: healthier) cooking method, I tried baking a quinoa patty and got a similar (nice crunchy exterior and softer, lighter interior) though less than impressive (not the great golden brown colour I expected) result.

Topped off with a few grains of grey sea salt and upon a teaspoon each of honey Dijon and ketchup, the quinoa cake felt incredibly light as I ate it while also being satisfactorily heavy, a great midnight snack. As noted above, this recipe is good for nine quinoa cakes (and certainly more if formed into croquettes); since one was enough at the time I made them (though I also enjoyed my first frying attempt which resulted in something more like a pancake, i.e., prior to thinking I should have the patties set in the freezer for a few minutes), I transferred all the patties to a single plate and plastic wrapped it. Now with ready to fry patties sitting in my fridge, I can have many a midnight snack over the next few days, or am at least ready for company at a moment's notice (well, until the quinoa cakes are all finished)! For the complete late night album, click here.

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