Mexican-inspired quinoa salad (~6 servings)

Often, when I'm on summer vacation, lunch is an exercise in creativity and resourcefulness, based on what I can find in the kitchen on a given day. Sometimes lunch transcends cultures (Leftover orange-ginger tofu and potato pierogis with a side of masala broccoli? Sure. Why the hell not?) and time zones (Did I make this chickpea salad Tuesday or Sunday? Hmm.) but it's always interesting, to say the least.

But while that type of lunch-foraging can be fun, it's also a good thing for lunch to be predictably nutritious and flavorful, which is why I like to make a light, easy-to-eat recipe early in the week, stash it in the fridge, and eat it whenever the "leftovers + random nutritional accessories" combination doesn't cut it.

My current favorite lunch salad is based on Whole Foods' grilled corn, quinoa, and spinach salad, which features un surtido of Mexican-inspired ingredients: black beans, jicama, corn, chipotle, and oregano. It takes a bit of time to put together, between pre-cooking the quinoa, slicing the corn off the cob (see my note and photo after the recipe), peeling and shredding the jicama, and toasting the walnuts, but it keeps well for days. It works nicely on top of a bed of salad greens or just on its own. And besides, you will LOVE it. No, really, you will. I'm not the type to say things I don't mean.

You will need: 

  • 2 ears corn, kernels cut from cob
  • chipotle powder to taste
  • 1/2 tsp oregano
  • 1 1/2 cups cooked and chilled quinoa (from roughly 1/2 cup dry)
  • 1 15-oz can black beans, drained and rinsed
  • 1 cup shredded jicama (you can chop it into small bits if you don't feel like putting it in the food processor)
  • 1/2 cup walnut halves and pieces, toasted
  • 2/3 cup crumbled feta
  • 1 medium roasted red pepper, roughly chopped
  • 1/2 cup Ranch dressing
  • fresh spinach leaves (opt.)

Steps: 

  1. Heat a medium rimmed skillet over medium-high heat and add a quick drizzle of canola or vegetable oil. Once the skillet is hot, add in the corn and allow it to cook. Shake the pan every couple of minutes to keep the kernels from sticking. It's a good (but initially alarming) sign when the kernels start to take flight with a loud pop. When the kernels are starting to get brown on the edges, sprinkle them with the oregano and chipotle powder (to your taste) and remove the skillet from the heat.
  2. Next, add the quinoa, beans, jicama, walnuts, feta, and red pepper to a large bowl, along with the corn. Drizzle about a half cup of Ranch dressing over the mixture and toss to combine. (You can always add more later if you want.)
  3. Serve cold or at room temperature, either over a salad or as is.

A couple notes:

  • Jicama is a root vegetable that reminds me of water chestnuts; it adds a nice crunch but contains so much water that it doesn't have much taste on its own. Look for a firm, dry specimen without any soft spots. It should feel heavy for its size. They're easiest to peel with the type of Y-peeler you'd use for butternut squash. (Wish I'd had one!)
  • The original recipe calls for Whole Foods' store brand Chipotle Ranch dressing, but as I didn't feel like buying a bottle of salad dressing just for one recipe, I just used regular Ranch and added chipotle powder to the corn. 
  • If you wanted your cheese to be more authentically Mexican, you could use cotija. 
  • You can easily make this recipe vegan by changing up the dressing and cheese. You could use a dairy-free Ranch (Organicville makes one) , or you could use a cilantro-lime type vinaigrette. (Ooh, this one sounds delicious.) If you take out the feta, you might miss the saltiness, but sliced black olives would make a good substitute.
  • Finally, use a bundt cake pan and a sharp knife to take the kernels off the corn cob. I learned this trick from watching Michael Chiarello's show a couple years ago, and it works wonders. Once you've shucked the corn (*giggle*), stick the cob end into the bundt pan's opening, and use your knife to slice vertically to cut off the kernels. The bundt pan will catch the kernels as they fall off! Brilliant! (Snazzy nail polish strips optional.)