FARGO — I don't know about you, but this recent cold snap has left me feeling somewhat sluggish, especially on top of the holiday (over)indulgence. With my waistline threatening to expand after one too many peanut bars, my body and mind are telling me that it's time to correct course with some intentional healthy meal choices.
Whenever I'm looking to boost my energy and nutrition while reducing my calorie intake, I turn to a combination of whole grains, fresh veggies and lean protein, like this week's Lemony Quinoa and Pesto Salad with Grilled Chicken (for a variation, grilled salmon or shrimp would also be great protein choices).
Even though technically a seed, quinoa (pronounced KEEN-wah) has a whole grain character and shares many of the same nutritional benefits as whole grains, with the added perks of being completely gluten-free and easy to digest.
Quinoa is a complete protein, meaning that it contains all nine of the essential amino acids that are not produced by our bodies and can only be gained from food sources. This is unusual in a plant-based food, and it's part of the reason why quinoa is considered by many to be a superfood, a status which was reinforced when the United Nation's Food and Agriculture Organization declared 2013 the International Year of Quinoa.
To that end, quinoa is also a good source of fiber, protein, iron and healthy fats, and an excellent source of minerals like manganese and phosphorous, which help promote a healthy metabolism, calcium absorption, strong bones and digestion, while flushing the body of toxins and boosting energy levels. Yes, please.
Quinoa is easy to cook and will keep in the refrigerator for several days, or the freezer for several months. Due to its high content of fatty acids, I also recommend storing uncooked quinoa in the refrigerator to preserve its freshness. Quinoa is available in a variety of colors (white, red and black are most common), and while they are all comparable nutritionally, I usually choose white quinoa because I prefer its fluffier texture.
Quinoa is cooked in liquid with a ratio of one part quinoa to two parts liquid, and I often use chicken or vegetable stock instead of, or combined with, water for better flavor. Uncooked, the seed is very small, but as it cooks the quinoa absorbs the liquid and expands considerably, resulting in a unique texture that is tender, light and slightly crunchy.
For this dish, both the salad and the grilled chicken are infused with fresh lemon juice and zest, which provide a further boost of nutrition as well as flavor. I've also added a dollop of basil pesto to each serving, which brings additional flavor without a lot of extra calories, but you could use your favorite low-calorie salad dressing, too.
Light, flavorful and nutritious, this salad will fill you up and give you the energy you need to make 2018 the best year ever. Happy New Year!
Lemony Quinoa and Pesto Salad with Grilled Chicken
For the quinoa
1 cup quinoa (white, red or black), makes about 3 cups, cooked
2 cups liquid (vegetable or chicken stock, water, or any combination equal to 2 cups)
½ teaspoon lemon zest
In a medium saucepan, bring the quinoa and liquid to a boil over medium-high heat. Reduce heat to low and stir in the lemon zest. Simmer gently until the liquid is fully absorbed, stirring occasionally, about 15 minutes. Remove from heat and serve warm or cold.
Store cooked quinoa in an airtight container in the fridge for up to one week, or in the freezer for several months.
For a single salad serving
½ cup cooked quinoa
1 tablespoon basil pesto (or favorite dressing)
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 grilled chicken breast, sliced
Lemon juice, as desired
A half-cup of each of the following:
• Bell peppers, medium-diced, any color (mixed colors best for presentation)
• Zucchini, grilled and medium-diced
• Yellow squash, grilled and medium-diced
• Asparagus, blanched and cut into one-inch pieces
• Grape tomatoes, cut in halves
In a medium bowl, stir the cooked quinoa with the pesto and lemon juice until combined. Add the grilled chicken and chopped vegetables, squeeze more lemon juice over salad if desired, and toss to combine. May be served warm or cold.
For larger batches, recipe may be doubled, tripled, etc. Salad will keep in the fridge for up to 3 days.
Lemon-Thyme Grilled Chicken
Makes 2 servings
2 boneless, skinless split chicken breasts, rinsed (grilled shrimp or salmon also great)
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
Juice of one lemon, medium to large
1 teaspoon lemon zest
1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves (fresh parsley or basil are good substitutes)
1 garlic clove, minced
½ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons dry white wine (optional)
More fresh lemon juice for grilling
Place all ingredients, except the chicken, in a plastic zipper bag. Seal bag and shake to combine ingredients. Place chicken breasts in the marinade, seal bag, and lay flat in the refrigerator for at least two hours, or overnight for better results.
Grill chicken on high for 3 to 4 minutes on each side, until golden brown grill marks appear, then flip breast and grill on other side until an internal temperature of 165 degrees is achieved. As the chicken grills, squeeze more lemon juice on each side for added flavor.
Remove chicken from grill and let rest for five minutes before carving. Serve immediately after carving, or store in the refrigerator in an airtight container for 3 to 4 days.