Quinoa on stalk in field
Quinoa is commonly used as a whole grain, but is actually technically a seed, botanically related to Swiss chard, spinach and beets.

Spring is the perfect time to start experimenting with salads. The weather warms up, the farmers markets open up, and the taste buds beg for something beyond the comforting hot casseroles and soups we’ve been warming to throughout the winter.

As part two of our ongoing guide to whole grains, we’ve got a starter salad that can easily be adapted to whatever vegetables call your name at the farmers market this week. It calls for asparagus, quinoa, and shiitake mushrooms, but you can substitute just about any combination of veggies and other whole grain you might have picked up instead.

Brown or wild rice, bulgur, wheat berries, and amaranth would all work well; each will give a slightly different effect depending on its texture, color and flavor – which is half the fun of experimenting with variations once you’ve got the basic recipe down.

This salad also is a place to start because it stretches beyond the typical oil and vinegar combination many of us gravitate toward in American, European-based cooking. The “dressing” or liquid that adds flavor is an Asian-inspired mixture using rice vinegar, soy sauce and mirin.

In recent years, quinoa has gone from being an exotic and intimidating food (most people wouldn’t dare try to pronounce it, let alone cook it) to being an intriguing and even popular grain even elementary schoolers are likely to know about (and eat). And so it's ironic to hear that, in scientific, botanical terms, quinoa isn’t actually a grain at all. It is the fruit of an herb in the goosefoot family, related to Swiss chard, spinach, and beets.   

No matter what you call it, quinoa is well documented as a nutritional superfood – especially because, unlike most grains, it is a complete protein (which makes it especially valuable as a go-to for vegetarians and vegans). And quinoa has staying power: it'll soak in the flavors around it, tasting even better the second day (and lasting about four days in the fridge).

This recipe comes from the very thorough and inspiring new book, Grain Mains, by Bruce Weinstein and Mark Scarbrough.

Quinoa with Asparagus and Shiitakes

1 cup white or red quinoa
1 pound asparagus spears
1 tablespoon olive oil
½ pound shiitake mushrooms, stems discarded
1 ½ tablespoons soy sauce (regular or reduced-sodium)
1 ½ tablespoons rice vinegar
1 tablespoon mirin
1 teaspoon finely grated orange zest
1 tablespoon orange juice

  1. Fill a large saucepan about two-thirds full with water and bring it to a boil over high heat. Stir in the quinoa, reduce the heat to low, and cook until the grains have developed their halos and are tender, about 12 minutes. Drain in a fine-mesh sieve or a lined colander set in the sink.
  2. Heat a grill pan over medium heat or fire up the grill for direct, high-heat cooking. Coat the asparagus spears with the oil, then grill until browned, marked and tender, about 8 minutes, turning occasionally. Maintain the heat under the pan or on the grill. Transfer the spears to a cutting board and slice them into 1-inch segments.
  3. Set the shiitake mushroom caps in the pan or on the grill grate over direct heat. Set a heavy flameproof lid – like the lid to a cast iron Dutch oven or even a panini or sandwich press – on top of them to weight them down. Cook for 1 minute. Transfer to the cutting board and slice into thin strips.
  4. Pour the asparagus bits and mushroom slices into a serving bowl. Fluff the quinoa and dump it in as well, Stir in the remaining ingredients: the soy sauce, vinegar, mirin, orange zest, and orange juice.

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