At a VIP table, no less. Suck on THAT.

Okay, I know this is bad form. It’s my blog, it’s my inaugural event, and here I am, copping out and making a quick lunch so I can skip out on you to spend a night on the town. But here’s the thing: cook eat FRET is in town. And she’s now total BFFs with Joe Bastianich, co-owner of many of Mario Batali’s restaurants, so she managed to get this fancy-ass table at Babbo tonight. And I am not afraid to send a deluge of whiny emails to internet personages to secure reservations like this one. And her mother will be at dinner, so hopefully I’ll get a stock of embarrassing childhood stories I can use as blackmail to get more invitations to dinner like this. And so the circle of life continues. It’s beautiful, really.

I couldn’t not smack something down, though, so I decided to make a light lunch that would be worthy of the occasion but would be light enough so as not to impinge on this evening’s gastronomic adventure. Therefore: Chilled cucumber-yogurt soup with quinoa timbales, courtesy of Lorena Sass’ Whole Grains Every Day, Every Way. It’s a perfect refreshing summer lunch, or first course at a fancy vegetarian restaurant, the kind where vegans go for special occasions. (“Will you accept this cruelty-free Canadian diamond set in hemp as a gesture of my desire to spend my life with you in monogamous co-equal sustainable partnership?”)

I almost never get to take my photos in real daylight. Holy crap!

I’m a big fan of Whole Grains for its “basics” section: cooking instructions for any grain you might have around, from simple rice to amaranth. I don’t want to memorize the water-to-grain ratio for every grain I cook with, because then there’d be less brain real estate available for things like my weird Mt. Everest fixation or my opinion of the current crop of So You Think You Can Dance contestants. Until today I’ve never used any other part of the book, although many of the recipes look easy and tasty.

This soup’s centerpiece – the timbale, a little molded round of tabbouleh-like grain salad – was originally supposed to be coarse barley, but the recipe listed quinoa (which I like better) as a good substitution. Quinoa, dubbed the “mother of all grains” by the Incas, is a real super-food: it’s high in fiber, high in vitamins like magnesium and iron, is easy to digest and contains a complete set of amino acids, making it a complete protein. And since it comes from a non-grass plant (unlike, say, wheat or rice) it’s actually a seed and is considered a “pseudocereal,” which is kinda funny. To me.

This grain can caulk a leaky tub, change a tire and give you a back rub.

Most pre-packaged quinoa or bulk quinoa available at major retailers like Whole Foods require no pre-treatment, but some varieties might need pre-rinsing to remove their bitter, soap-y coating. Then you can cook: Unlike most grains, which are cooked in a relatively precise amount of liquid until they’ve absorbed it all and are tender, quinoa is best cooked in a big ol’ pot of (non-salted) boiling water and then drained in a mesh strainer. It’s a pretty quick study; mine was slightly overcooked after 12 minutes.

Once drained, I spread the quinoa out on a platter, sprinkled it with salt and olive oil, and left it to cool down while I dealt with the rest of the recipe.

Okay, so natural lighting can’t help EVERY picture.

The rest of the timbale was simple: chop some fresh mint, chop some tomato, toast and roughly crush some cumin seed, juice a lemon. Toss toss toss, a little more olive oil, a little more salt, and done.

And about dinner tonight: I’m going to Babbo.

I actually ended up doing this part in the fo-pro because of the quantity of cucumbers, but this picture was better.

The soup was even easier, requiring little more that chucking some shit in a blender – even simpler than my old favorite, “throwing some shit in a pan”! In this case, shit = chunks of peeled hothouse cukes, nonfat plain yogurt, a bit of milk*, lemon juice, olive oil and salt. I gave it a good, long buzz in the fo-pro with a couple of pauses to correct the seasoning (cucumbers can really take their salt).

To make the timbale, I put a ring mold in the middle of a wide, shallow bowl, heaped it full of the quinoa mix, added some diced cucumber on top. and pulled off the mold to create a neat little cylinder of quinoa. The soup got ladled around the timable, with a bit more diced cucumber sprinkled in.

*Or soy-gurt and milk, if you’re making this for your proposal dinner.

You gotta get messy at some point. I took great joy in demolishing the precise prissyness of this dish.

It was the perfect lunch for a sweltering summer’s day, the kind of day where turning on the stove or getting up to go to the bathroom seems like too much effort, the kind of day when you’re going out to dinner at Babbo that night. The components were just okay by themselves, but were fantastic together; every fresh ingredient had a chance to sound its own note, but the whole dish was also in perfect balance. The lemon and yogurt added tartness and brightness that elevated rather than overwhelmed the delicate cucumber. The quinoa brought a delightful texture and gentle nutty flavor. The mint in the timbale was the exact right amount – not too much, not too little – and the small amount present in every mouthful was lively but still allowed the cool cucumber to shine. It all came together in the time needed to cook the quinoa, and I have high hopes for the leftovers.

There are some tweaks I would make next time. Namely, cucumbers bring water enough to the party, and I don’t think the milk was necessary; I’d omit it and up the yogurt a little bit; I’d also add a bit more veg to the quinoa than the recipe calls for. There’s also room for a lot of personalization. You could easily bump up the flavor quotient of the soup by pureeing fresh herbs along with the cucumber (mint and/or dill come to mind) and can play with the veg in the timbale. A little diced pistachio would also play nicely with the other flavors in the timbale, and would add a fun new texture as well.

I can’t wait to see what you all come up with tonight. Me, I’ll be at Babbo. What, you hadn’t heard? And I’m not taking a camera or a notepad. Because sometimes, you just have to enjoy the ride.