Tuscan Panzanella with Quinoa

That may seem like an ordinary blog title, but boy, it means so much more to me.  That title is a great descriptor of a fabulous birthday trip from my awesome husband.  I just celebrated a HUGE birthday (ahem....50), and we celebrated in an amazing place--Italy.  It has long been a dream of mine to go with Bob and after many years of sending children off on wonderful trips, it was finally our turn.

Being the foodies that we are, you can only imagine how excited we were to be going to a place so well known for eating, cooking, and fresh ingredients.  For those that know I follow a gluten-free diet due to having celiac disease, you may be thinking "poor thing, all that pizza and pasta and other Italian specialties she wasn't able to have!"  But no, Italians are much further along in their education gluten-free living than we in America are.  Everyone understood "senza glutine" (gluten-free in Italian) and I had tons of gluten-free pizzza, pasta, bruschetta, tiramisu, etc.  And it was all delicious!

One of the highlights of the trip was a cooking class in Florence that Bob and I took.  We didn't know what to expect, and it was such a treat!  Chef Vary welcomed us into her wonderful kitchen and we made ricotta gnocchi with squash blossoms, guinea fowl with balsamic and homemade red pepper sauce, chickpea soup with pecorino cheese, limoncello tiramisu, and a very traditional Tuscan dish, panzanella, made with quinoa. It was a delightful evening. 

Panzanella is normally made with bread; it is somewhat like a "bread salad".  Since we needed to make it gluten-free, rather than simply substituting with gluten-free bread, Chef Vary decided to use quinoa instead.  This thrilled me since quinoa has quickly become a favorite dish for Bob and I when cooking at home.
This panzanella was the first dish I replicated once we returned home and I got back in the kitchen.  I made it for a get together with some ladies from my church, and had several requests for the recipe, so I am happy to share!  Keep in mind that quinoa is a very versatile dish.  I have made this many different ways, and have never been disappointed.  You can add most anything you like!  Simply cook the quinoa first (according to package directions) and then add any combination of flavors.  Some of our favorites:  mixed blanched vegetables with this homemade mustard vinaigrette or black beans, tomatoes, onions, with a homemade vinaigrette and a little red cayenne pepper.  Experiment, and have fun!  I promise you won't be disappointed.  You can even use a bottled dressing if pressed for time, or just olive oil and spices.

 Chef Vary's Tuscan Panzanella with Quinoa
1 cup dry quinoa (about 3 cups cooked)
Water according to package directions (I use two cups)
Salt (to taste, but I use 2 teaspoons)

Cook quinoa according to directions on package.  The only difference for me is sometimes I use chicken or vegetable broth instead of water to add more flavor.  Also, be sure to add salt.  It is important to season in layers when cooking.  Allow to cool.

Two large tomatoes, finely diced
1/2 cucumber, peeled and finely diced
1/2 cup sweet Vidalia onion, finely diced
2 cloves garlic, finely diced
FRESH basil, chopped (use a lot--probably 10 leaves or so)
Olive Oil
Salt and Pepper to taste
Freshly grated ginger to taste

Mix all the above ingredients.  I drizzled olive oil, and probably wound up with 1/4-1/2 cup added.  I added very little grated ginger.  As Chef Vary says, it is the secret ingredient.  Just enough to give it a fresh taste and leave you wondering what that flavor was.

Please comment and let me know if you make this, or one of the other versions I mentioned above, or if you create something of your own! 

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