August 21, 2014

Caprese Quinoa Casserole

Everyone needs a good, hearty casserole recipe. It's even better when said casserole recipe makes enough for lots of leftovers, freezes well, and works for all your vegetarian friends. One last perk? It uses more of the delicious fresh mozzarella I taught you how to make a few weeks ago. This casserole pulls all the flavors from one of the most classic Italian appetizers, the caprese salad, into one big dish of comfort.

Caprese salads should really only have four ingredients: the mozzarella, the tomatoes, the basil, and the balsamic vinegar. This casserole throws in a few more, namely quinoa, garlic, and onions. The quinoa adds protein and binds it all together since you can't really make a casserole out of cheese and tomatoes alone. I cook it in salted water until it's done; don't overcook it because it will bake in the oven for a while later (although it's pretty hard to overcook quinoa since you leave it until it absorbs all the water).

To retain the simplicity of the caprese salad, I limit the vegetables to tomatoes, onions, and garlic. Yes, casseroles often have tons of vegetables or other components, but I wanted the flavors I chose to truly stand out. I saute some onions and garlic together to add a bit more flavor to the dish, particularly the quinoa, which otherwise wouldn't taste like much other than, well, quinoa. When you get a bite of the quinoa and the tomatoes and the mozzarella together, it tastes fantastic, but the quinoa itself won't absorb much flavor from anything other than the onions and the basil.

As for the tomatoes, caprese salads are typically raw; a few slices of juicy tomatoes are perfect. In this casserole, however, I wanted to emphasize the natural sweetness of the tomatoes as well as draw out some of their excess moisture. I decided to roast some cherry tomatoes (which are naturally bite-sized) as well as top the whole casserole with sliced tomatoes. The tomato--and mozzarella--slices on top prevent the casserole from drying out and also add and extra layer of yumminess.

The mozzarella is always my favorite part, so I use two types. Like I said, I layer a few slices on top to keep the casserole moist, and I also shred a few handfuls to mix in the casserole. It helps hold everything together so it doesn't fall apart on your plate, and it adds a delicious creaminess to the dish. I completely understand if you don't make your own mozzarella, so just try to get whole milk mozzarella if possible. It melts better and yields a much better texture overall.

Assembling the casserole is about as easy as it gets. Just stir together your cooked quinoa, roasted tomatoes, sauteed onions, shredded/chiffonaded basil, and shredded mozzarella and spread it into a big skillet or glass baking dish. Layer slices of tomatoes and mozzarella in whatever pattern you want, pop it in the oven, and bake it until it's browned, bubbly, and hot. Meanwhile, I like reduce some balsamic vinegar so that it's syrupy and more of a sauce, but you can always just drizzle some on top. It's the perfect touch for this comfort food, and it's a much more filling alternative to the classic appetizer.

1 ¼ Cups Quinoa
1 Pint Cherry Tomatoes, Halved
1 Small Yellow Onion, Chopped
4 Cloves Garlic, Minced
¼ Cup Chiffonaded Basil
1 ½ Cups Shredded Mozzarella
6 oz Mozzarella, Sliced
2 Plum Tomatoes, Sliced
¼ Cup Balsamic Vinegar

Heat oven to 400ºF and grease an 11x7" glass baking dish.

Bring 1 ¾ cups salted water to a boil in a small pot. Stir in the quinoa, turn heat to low, and simmer, covered, for 15 minutes or until all of the water is absorbed.

Spread the tomatoes on a foil-lined cookie tray and drizzle with olive oil. Season with salt and pepper and roast for 10 minutes or until shriveled and tender. Heat some oil in a small pan and add the onions and garlic. Cook for 3 minutes or until translucent and fragrant.

Combine the quinoa, tomatoes, sauteed onions, basil, and shredded mozzarella. Spread the mixture into the prepared dish and top with the sliced mozzarella and tomatoes. Bake for 20-25 minutes or until bubbly and browned.

Meanwhile, heat the balsamic vinegar in a small pot over medium-low heat until thick and syrupy, 3-4 minutes. Drizzle over the casserole.

Serves 8
Recipe Adapted from Domesticate Me

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