This clean, light, quinoa salad is full of interesting textures and bright flavors that filled will fill you up and keep you going all day. Served with a delightful piña colada dressing.
What's the Story Behind this Recipe?
Some years ago on a trip to Idaho Falls, Idaho, we stopped at a small lunch spot tucked modestly into the side of what looked to be an old brick school building on the north side of town. Bright, airy, the food at the Arugula Deli was, in a word, Fresh. Wonderfully, deliciously fresh. We sipped on our lemon and cucumber infused waters while we perused the globally-inspired menu, which has options for all eating styles, from vegan to steak lover.
My lunch choice - the California Quinoa Salad - turned out to be our table favorite; a clean, light, grain-based salad full of interesting textures and bright flavors that filled me up and kept me going all day.
The element that put this quinoa salad over the top for me (and inspired me to practically run home to recreate it) was the amazing "secret recipe" piña colada dressing that was served along side.
I loved the salad dressing so much that I asked if I could get the recipe, to which our waitress laughed and told me that the chef was so cagey about its composition that he made it behind closed doors. The staff didn't even know what was in it.
Aha! A challenge!
Our waitress did offer to sell us a bottle of the dressing, which of course I accepted. I also took a few minutes to chat with the enigmatic chef himself. Marcel Gutierrez, who owns the Arugula Deli with his wife Mindy, is responsible for the deli's amazing menu. Chef Marcel is an affable and engaging man who is passionate about his work. Were it not that we had places to go and things to do, I would have loved to have had time to visit with him longer.
Once home, the salad itself was easy to make: I just had to take all the ingredients listed on the menu and throw them together in the right proportions. The real challenge came in recreating that secret dressing.
I took a couple of wrong turns before I finally got the the piña colada dressing right. I don't know if my ingredient list bares little resemblance to Chef Marcel's recipe, but the end result tastes spot on.
What Goes into this Recipe
Ingredients Notes & Substitutions
★ Quinoa: We chose to go with tricolored quinoa instead of single-grain, mostly because we like the extra color. The trade-off is that the other ingredients don't visually stand out quite as much in the finished quinoa salad. The choice is yours; any kind of quinoa will one will work.
★ Mango: Dice the mango into quarter-inch pieces. You only really need about a half of a mango for this recipe, but if you have a whole one, a little extra mango isn't going to hurt anything!
★ Red pepper: We used red pepper for this salad because we like the contrast, but a yellow or orange pepper will work just as well. Avoid using green peppers; they are essentially upripe peppers, and have a bitter component that may not work in this salad.
★ Edamame: If you are buying fresh edamame, look for plump pods with just a little fuzz on them. Too little fuzz means they are not mature enough, and too much can mean they are spoiled. You can also use frozen, preshelled edamame for this recipe.
★ Red onion: Red onion, sweet onion, or shallots are all good choices. Try not to use a very hot onion, as the bite can overpower other ingredients.
★ Almonds: We use thinly sliced almonds.
★ Dried cranberries: Dried cranberries give the salad a new tart-sweet bite. Golden raisins are a decent substitute.
★ Cilantro: You either love it or you hate it. Leave it out if you are in the latter group.
★ Lime juice: Fresh or bottled both work, although fresh lime juice is always preferred.
★ Sweetened coconut: We recommend sweetened coconut, but if you want a little less sugar in your salad, you can go with desiccated coconut instead. (Desiccated coconut is fresh coconut that has been shredded or flaked and dried. It is not sweetened.)
★ Mayonnaise: We recommend using full-fat mayonnaise.
★ Sugar: We use white sugar for this recipe. You don't want to use brown sugar, as it will impart a molasses undertone to the dressing, which will throw the flavors off.
★ Pineapple juice: Use home extracted, bottles, or canned pineapple juice.
★ Coconut milk: We recommend using full fat coconut milk or coconut cream.
How to Make this Recipe
Make the Salad Dressing
Whisk together all the dressing ingredients. Refrigerate until ready to serve.
Mix the Salad
Cook the quinoa: Rinse 1½ cups quinoa thoroughly before cooking it to remove the bitter-tasting saponin that coats the individual seeds.
Put quinoa and 3 cups of water into a medium saucepan and bring to a boil over medium heat. Lower the heat and simmer until the quinoa has absorbed all the water.
Once the water is all absorbed, remove the pot from heat, cover it and let the quinoa steam for 5 minutes.
Toast the coconut: Place sweetened coconut in a large skillet and cook over medium-low heat, stirring frequently, until the flakes are mostly golden brown.
Mix the Salad: In a large bowl, combine all ingredients except the toasted coconut.
Refrigerate until ready to serve.
Go Fancy - Use a Food Ring
My salad at Arugula Cafe came presented as a clean, stacked, short cylinder of quinoa, topped with toasted coconut - a far more interesting plate than just throwing the salad on top of a bed of greens.
While you can buy all sorts of food rings and molds to create this effect, a clean tuna tin can with both ends cut out works just as well.
If you make your own form with a soup or tuna can, use extreeeme care around the cut can edges. (Bonus points if you use a smooth-edge can opener.)
To form one salad, add enough salad to your form to make one portion, and then add the toasted coconut to the top. Use the form lid to push the salad out.
Go Casual - Just Plate It
There is nothing wrong with just serving it up on a plate!
Drizzle prepared salad with Piña Colada Dressing just before serving.
Serve with additional dressing on the side.
Expert Tips & FAQs
Tip: Hollowed out lime halves are a perfect vessel for serving extra salad dressing on the side!
Quinoa is an ancient grain related to spinach, beets, and chard. Quinoa considered a super-food. It is also a complete protein, meaning it contains all nine of the essential amino acids (the ones the body cannot produce on its own).
It is important to rinse quinoa before cooking it to get rid of the bitter-tasting compound (saponin) that coats the tiny seeds. Saponin helps to ward off insects as the quinoa is growing, but it leaves a strong, unpleasant taste if it’s left on during cooking.
Leftovers stored in an air-tight container will stay good for 3-4 days.
California Quinoa Salad (with Piña Colada Dressing)
- 1 food ring or empty tuna or soup can with both ends cut off (Optional)
- 4 cups cooked quinoa about 1⅓ cups dry
- ½ cup chopped mango
- ½ cup chopped red pepper
- ½ cup shelled edamame
- ½ cup chopped red onion
- ¼ cup sliced almonds
- ¼ cup dried cranberries
- ¼ cup chopped cilantro
- Juice of two limes
- ½ cup sweetened coconut toasted
Piña Colada Dressing
- Whisk together all the dressing ingredients. Refrigerate until ready to serve.
- Cook the quinoa: Rinse 1½ cups quinoa thoroughly before cooking it to remove the bitter-tasting saponin that coats the individual seeds.Put quinoa and 3 cups of water into a medium saucepan and bring to a boil over medium heat. Lower the heat and simmer until the quinoa has absorbed all the water.Once the water is all absorbed, remove the pot from heat, cover it and let the quinoa steam for 5 minutes.
- Toast the coconut: Place sweetened coconut in a large skillet and cook over medium-low heat, stirring frequently, until the flakes are mostly golden brown.
- Mix the Salad: In a large bowl, combine all ingredients except the toasted coconut.Refrigerate until ready to serve.
- Fancy - Use a culinary form. While you can buy all sorts of food rings and molds to create the formed quinoa cylinder, a clean tuna tin can with both ends cut out works just as well. Add enough salad to your form to make one portion, and then add the toasted coconut to the top. Use the form lid to push the salad out. If you make your own form with a soup or tuna can, use extreme care around the cut can edges. (Bonus points if you use a smooth-edge can opener.)
- Casual Serve the salad on plates or let people serve themselves from a communal salad bowl. Garnish with toasted coconut.
- Drizzle salad with Piña Colada Dressing just before serving. Serve with additional dressing on the side.
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