Wednesday, March 25, 2015

"Honey, stop baking" (Chicken, Kale, & Quinoa Salad)

I've been trying to be a little more health conscious, lately. As Chris Pratt put it upon being cast in Guardians of the Galaxy: "honey, stop baking, I have to lose 75 pounds!" I'm not quite so far gone yet, but I think it's a truth universally known that most Americans (or residents of developed nations, in general) could stand to be a little more mindful of what ends up on their plate. Of course, growing up with a food pyramid that's heavily influenced by lobbying from America's agribusiness conglomerates, it can sometimes be hard to divorce oneself from a craving for 11 servings of grains a day. Through use of other full-flavored ingredients and the selection of lesser evils, however, delicious, healthy, and satisfying meals are still an achievable goal. This month, I offer a chicken, kale, and quinoa salad, punched up with apples, bacon, and avocado.

For your approval
I'm a tremendous fan of kale and quinoa, sometimes joking that these are the names of my future son and daughter, respectively (that not everyone clues into my sense of irony is itself distressing, but perhaps a theme for a different article). Both food items are having something of a cultural moment, with early adopters and the inevitable backlash mustering forces on either side. Quinoa (pronounced "keen-wha") speaks to my inherent love of any ingredient that requires its own parenthetical pronunciation guide, but it also has other qualities to recommend it. The tiny, prolific seeds of a flowering shrub indigenous to South America, it boasts one of the highest nutrient compositions of any grain, offering more protein, fiber, potassium, calcium, and iron than an equivalent serving of brown rice. 

Grains & such
This envious nutritional profile, combined with a cultural zeitgeist that includes a passion for protein, have resulted in a boom in demand for quinoa and consequently rising prices. The potential economic downside of widespread quinoa adoption is that the people of Bolivia, Ecuador, and Peru (the top producers of quinoa) are potentially priced out of their staple crop and cornerstone of their diets. As covered by NPR, however, the economic impact of quinoa export is somewhat more complex. While the price of quinoa is up, so too are the incomes of quinoa farmers. As with many products distantly sourced by our globalized economy, the key to ethical consumption is to ensure your quinoa is Fair Trade certified.

My mom always said: "never cut into anything harder than you want to cut into yourself."
The benefits of kale are, in my controversial opinion, mostly flavor and texture-based. Kale is very high in vitamin A and vitamin C, but other greens can offer more protein, fiber, and iron, so kale's perennial ranking as a superfood is something more a matter of marketing and a certain predilection towards the more obscure. Pound for pound (and depending on what you're looking for), spinach, chard, and mustard greens could all be arguably healthier options. In general, if it's dark, leafy, and green, you're good to go. What kale does offer that can't be beat are its hefty texture and strong flavor, making it an ideal backdrop for hearty salads. This recipe is my homemade upgrade of a dish you can find at your local b.good, but mine has tarter apples, a more generous helping of bacon, and can be made in the comfort of your own home. Easy to make ahead for weekly lunches, but still substantial enough for dinner and dressy enough for company, this is one healthful recipe to worth working into your repertoire.

Post-workout protein bomb
Chicken, kale, and quinoa salad with green apples, bacon, and avocado, cider vinaigrette

With so many ingredients to prepare separately, this recipe can seem to have a lot of fiddly bits, but it still comes together in 30 minutes. Serves 4.

6 slices thick-cut applewood smoked bacon
1-1/2 cups chicken stock
1 cup quinoa
4 chicken breasts
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
Sea salt and freshly cracked black pepper, to taste
8 cups baby kale
2 green apples, cored and diced
1 fresh avocado, peeled, stoned, and diced
4 tablespoons dried cherries

Cider vinaigrette:

1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
Sea salt and freshly cracked black pepper, to taste
1/4 cup cider vinegar
4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil 

Line a baking sheet with foil, arrange the bacon on top, and place into a cold oven. Preheat to 350 F, then continue to bake until the bacon is crisp, about 10-15 minutes.

While the bacon cooks, combine the stock and quinoa in a small covered pan and bring to a boil over medium heat. Reduce the heat slightly and simmer, covered and stirring occasionally, until the liquid is absorbed, about 15 minutes. 

Voila le quinoa
Set the quinoa aside to cool and remove the cooked bacon to a plate lined with paper towels to drain. Preheat the oven to 425 F.

Toss the chicken breasts with oil, salt, and pepper and allow to rest slightly at room temperature while you heat a heavy cast iron skillet to medium. 

Toss the chicken into the hot skillet and sear on one side for 4 minutes, until a nice golden crust forms. Flip the chicken and pop the skillet into the oven, then bake for 6 minutes more. Place the chicken on a plate, tent with foil, and allow to rest for at least 10 minutes.

To make the cider vinaigrette, whisk together the mustard, salt, and pepper in a small bowl. Continue to whisk while streaming in the vinegar, and stir until fully incorporated. Then repeat this process with the olive oil. Whisk until fully emulsified.

Slice the bacon crosswise into slivers and dice the chicken breasts.

Drip-drop, drip, drippety-drop
Pile two heaping handfuls of kale onto each plate, and scatter with about 1/2 cup cooked quinoa, 1/2 an apple, 1/4 of an avocado, one chicken breast, two strips of bacon, and a tablespoon of dried cherries. Drizzle with dressing and serve.


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