Cranberry & Butternut Squash Quinoa Salad

Recently, upon observing me eating a fairly healthy lunch, my grandmother turned to me and asked, essentially, "do you actually like that stuff?" I find myself answering that question more often than I ever expected to, and even more often than that I'm in need of a swift and poignant defense against the all-too-common criticism that I don't eat enough junk food (clearly, these people do not read my blog too diligently, or else they would know better). The answer to that first question, by the way, is yes - I thoroughly enjoy the food that I eat. Food is too important to me to waste my time with meals that I don't enjoy - no matter how healthy a food is, if it makes me cringe, it ain't goin in my mouth. Luckily, I find most healthy foods preferable to the more common American fare, so this is not often an issue.

Which brings me to my next point. With the new year finally here and resolutions being made (and broken) at record speed, many people are targeting the way they eat. Although I don't make resolutions, gravitating instead toward year-round goals that I think up along the way, I know that many people do, and many people wake up on January 1st with a groan and a moan as they think of the terrible, inedible foods their new goals will demand. It doesn't have to be that way, though. Following a healthy diet can taste good, and it's very rare that a person would need to jump to the extreme of never again eating the fatty, sugary junk foods that they love. This recipe is proof of the former. Yes, some salads taste like rabbit food and chicken breast is much less enticing than a perfectly cooked cut of beef, but there are also countless recipes that both taste good and are good for you.

Quinoa on its own is a little bland. Most grains are. However, as chicken breast often operates, quinoa beautifully embodies the flavors you add to it. Roasted butternut squash and cranberries are in a sweet-and-sour civil war, crunchy pecans offset the soft and fluffy quinoa, and the small addition of spices reminds you that there's a whole other level to this dish. This dish is one to be eaten slowly, appreciating how different a bite of onion and squash can be from one with cranberries and pecans. The last fork-full of this cranberry and butternut squash quinoa salad is at least as delicious as the first, if you let it.

I did make a few changes: halving the recipe for 2 but quartering the amount of quinoa because I ran out; adding in dried basil instead of parsley. I would certainly try the parsley some time, but the ratio of quinoa to squash and cranberries was, to me, ideal. I ate this alone as a lighter dinner, but could imagine it making a nice bed for fish or chicken. Adding some beans could make it a little fuller while keeping it vegetarian. Really, though, the recipe flowed well - it didn't just come together quickly. It was easy to make and easy to like, and I needed to share it with you before cranberry and squash season was really, really over. Plus, I had to prove that something good for you doesn't have to taste like cardboard.

Cranberry and Butternut Squash Quinoa Salad, courtesy of Gluten Free Goddess
Yield: 4 servings

The Ingredients
1 cup red quinoa (white is a fine substitution)
1 small butternut squash, peeled and diced
1/2 cup cranberries, fresh or frozen, halved/chopped to taste
1/2 medium red onion, diced finely
1 clove garlic, minced
1-2 teaspoons pure maple syrup
1/2 cup chopped pecans
2 tablespoons fresh (3/4 - 1 tablespoon dried) parsley
cumin, ginger, or curry powder, to taste
sea salt and ground pepper, to taste
olive oil, to taste

The Method
Cook the quinoa according to the package directions and set aside. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees fahrenheit. Meanwhile, in a medium roasting pan (I lined mine with foil), combine the squash, cranberries, red onion, and garlic. Drizzle the squash mixture with a little bit of olive oil and the maple syrup, sprinkle with sea salt, and toss to coat. Place in the top half of the preheated oven for 15-20 minutes, until the squash is tender. Remove from the oven and set aside.

Add the chopped pecans to a large, dry skillet and toast just until lightly fragrant. Add in the quinoa and butternut squash mixture, stirring to combine. Finally, sprinkle all of the desired spices and stir to incorporate before drizzling with the final touch of olive oil (preferably a higher quality, fruity one, though I'm sure what I keep in my pantry does not qualify) and tossing to coat all over. Heat the salad all the way through, gently, before removing from the heat and serving.

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