One square meal

Guest blog on the importance of nutrition for little people. All thanks to the culinary queen, killer crafts-mistress and kick-ass mum, Lauren Butler of Needle & I Design

Of all the things I thought I might find challenging about having a baby, feeding her well was not something that featured on my somewhat exhaustive list. It came as a big surprise then that I would be troubled with worries of making sure she was getting sufficient nourishment from the rudimentary concoctions I was shoveling into her day after day.

The six month mark rolled around all too quickly and with it came an obligation on my part to start feeding her solids. In all honesty I would have kept up the exclusive breastfeeding for much longer if it was good for her. It’s just so unbelievably convenient. Ready on demand, every possible nutrient a young baby could need, just the right temperature and best of all no preparatory rigmarole or equipment to cart about. It’s just there…like magic…every time.

But alas, the time comes when they need more than just the blue top and that heralded the beginning of yet another (reluctantly accepted) task to fit into my day. I like to talk myself up as a bit of a foodie and I think this arrogance tripped me up a little when it came to the food I wanted to make for Thea. I struggled with the notion that she might be getting bored with the simplified cuisine presented to her, often the same thing one day after the next.

Though it took me some time to reconcile my feelings of guilt with the reality of not having time to dwell on said guilt, I did eventually come to the conclusion that culinary-creativity is not necessarily the most important thing. What’s important is knowing what goes into her food and by extension that this food is as rich in nutrients as possible.

There is one jar we can always rely on being half-full in our household…the quinoa jar (no rhyme intended). And when it comes to nutrients you can’t get much better than these tiny little seeds. Day by day Bolivia’s star export seems to take a firmer foothold in our lives. It used to be Mr Occasional but now it’s Mrs Everyotherday. Quinoa is like a nutritional pat on the back, a culinary thumbs-up, a dietary double-fist-pump even. It’s hard to believe such an unassuming Chenopodium (technical term folks) could deliver on all its promises, but indeed it does.

Quinoa has been an absolute savior for me in the perilous world of cooking for babies. I know that even when I’m lacking on time or energy to fit at least one cohesive meal into each day the addition of quinoa at the very least makes for a nutritionally comprehensive fix. And this makes me feel good. And her, come to think of it.

Apart from its undeniable nutritional value, quinoa is very versatile, has a great texture, is slightly nutty in flavor and is kind to the digestive system. It’s that good-looking, over-achieving popular kid at school who is really nice to you. A rare thing indeed. Quite impressive really from a plant which chose one of the harshest climates in the world in which to bury its roots.

One of the things that I want to encourage with my offspring is a love of food. I hope this doesn’t translate to me being the kitchen equivalent of an over-zealous parent on the sports field sideline, screaming at her to like brussel sprouts or she won’t win in the game of life. What I’d like to encourage is a healthy interest in food, an enjoyment of getting involved with the cooking process, a curiosity for discovering new tastes and an enthusiasm for the beautiful social aspect that can accompany a shared meal.

She’s a little too young yet for such lofty idealism, but my belief is that if I make sure I introduce her to different flavours as often as possible, make the food I give her taste good (obvious, but important) and endeavor to provide her with a respect for and love of nutritious foods, then we’re off to a good start.

If you’re at all interested to see how I get through a week of feeding my little person, thanks in no small part to quinoa, take a look at my latest post. If you’d rather cook something for grown-ups this recipe below is one of my favourite salads involving said goodie-two-shoes seed.

Metaphorically speaking, it never hurts to kill two birds with one stone so the good news is that this salad would also be the perfect dish to take to your respective Christmas gatherings that are looming ever closer. It’s delicious, nutritious and above all highly attractive. Festive even, and not a faux-cherry in sight.

This is my slightly tweaked version of an Ottolenghi dish. The recipe calls for Camargue red rice…something I’ve never been able to find. If you can get hold of it, double-fist-pump for you. If not, either use long grain black rice (as I have in my version) or wild rice. If those items are still proving elusive, double the volume of quinoa and omit the rice altogether (don’t be tempted to use plain old white rice). The posh rice does add a lovely texture contrast but you’ll still end up with a great salad if quinoa is all you can get your hands on.

Nothing says ‘Christmas Salad’ quite like a few gem-like pomegranate seeds. They are beyond beautiful and not nearly as troublesome to remove from the skin as you might think. Whatever you do don’t dig the seeds out with a spoon, like we did as naive (ie: ignorant) travelers in Morocco years back. You’ll end up with a scene not unlike Night of the Living Dead on your kitchen bench. You could substitute some dried cranberries if pomegranates are out of season in your neck of the woods, but I’d highly recommend hunting them down if you can. They sparkle merrily like rubies and burst ever so delicately and sweetly in your mouth.

On first glance this recipe might seem involved. Don’t be put off…really it’s very simple. Trust me. Most of the instructions below describe how best to cook the rice and the quinoa. Once you master the steaming method you’ll effortlessly achieve perfect, fluffy quinoa every time.

QUINOA & BLACK RICE SALAD WITH ORANGE, PISTACHIOS & POMEGRANATE

INGREDIENTS (serves 4 as a side)
40g shelled pistachio nuts
Grated zest and juice of 1 orange
50g dried apricots – roughly chopped
100g black long-grain rice (or wild rice)
100g quinoa
1 small onion – sliced
80ml olive oil
Juice of half a lemon
1 small garlic clove – crushed to a paste with a pinch of sea salt
2 spring onions – thinly sliced on the diagonal
30g rocket
Seeds from half a pomegranate
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

METHOD
1. Preheat the oven to 170°C. Spread the pistachios onto an oven tray and roast for 8 minutes until lightly golden. Remove from the oven, allow to cool, then chop roughly and set aside.
2. Put the orange juice and zest into a small bowl and add the chopped apricots. Leave to soak while you make the rest of the salad.
3. Make a cut around the perimeter of the pomegranate, without cutting all the way through, and gently separate the halves with your fingertips. Hold the cut side of each half face down while cupping beneath it with the palm of your hand (do this over a bowl to catch the seeds). Bash the pomegranate vigorously all the way around the skin with a wooden spoon until all the seeds have popped out. Pick out any remnants of the white membrane and discard.

3. Rinse the black rice in cold water, rubbing the grains between your fingertips, then drain. Repeat a couple of times until the water runs clear, drain a final time then cover the rice with plenty of cold water and bring to the boil. Reduce the element to a medium heat and simmer gently, uncovered, for 20-25 minutes until the rice is tender but still has a bit of bite. Drain in a colander and spread out onto a board to allow the excess moisture to steam off.

4. Rinse the quinoa in the same way as for the rice, drain well in a fine sieve then put into a saucepan along with ¾ cup of water. Put over a medium-high heat and as soon as it comes to the boil put the lid on and reduce the element to its lowest setting. Leave the quinoa to steam for 15 minutes without removing the lid. At the end of this time take the saucepan off the heat and leave to stand with the lid still in place for a further five minutes. Fluff the grains up with a fork and set aside.

5. While the rice and quinoa are cooking, sauté the onion in 2 tablespoons of the olive oil over a moderate heat for 10-12 minutes, stirring occasionally, until golden brown. Remove from the heat and allow to cool completely.
6. In a large serving bowl combine the rice, quinoa, cooked onion and the remaining oil. Add the rest of the ingredients, season well with sea salt and black pepper and toss well to incorporate all the flavours. Serve at room temperature.

All images are my own except for the one of the Andean plateau, which I one day hope to photograph for myself. Thanks to A Little Charitable Trust for inviting me here xx

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