Last month I had the privilege of serving as the featured speaker for a heart health awareness luncheon at Elizabethtown College, a small liberal arts college not far from my home. Leading up to the event, I had been asked to help devise the menu, too.
Given the theme of the day, a menu rich in ingredients like dark leafy greens, legumes, whole grains, and lean protein seemed appropriate. My challenge was to present those heart healthy ingredients in a way that people would truly enjoy.
When planning a meal for a specific occasion, I try to strike a balance between the familiar and the unexpected. I feel compelled to offer something different from what one might prepare at home, yet venturing too far outside someone’s comfort zone can backfire. The last thing I want to see as the plates are cleared is uneaten food destined for the trash can.
Several thoughts came to mind as I contemplated the possibilities. Thanks to a well-known Mexican restaurant chain, burrito bowls have become mainstream fare. And research has shown that the traditional Mediterranean diet reduces the risk of heart disease. Why not create a menu incorporating elements of both?
The burrito bowl rage can be attributed to several factors. The emphasis on protein over carbs is popular these days and, like any good salad, the bowls are a vehicle for lots of wholesome vegetables and legumes. Toppings like guacamole, salsa, and cheese provide added flavor. Plus they’re easy to customize based on personal preference and are—or can easily be made–nut-free, dairy-free, gluten-free, and/or vegetarian.
When trying to please a group with a menu that includes quinoa and beans, why not link them to a familiar and well-liked concept and allow for options? Swapping the flavors of Mexico with those of the Mediterranean region offered a current way to incorporate the targeted ingredients into a creative—and hopefully well liked—meal.
As the luncheon began, I briefly questioned my decision to include so many heart-healthy ingredients in one meal. But as time passed and plates were scraped clean, the feedback was overwhelmingly positive. Many who had attended the annual event for some time commented that it was their favorite menu to date. Most of the thanks, of course, go to Elizabethtown College’s chef, Barry Hornberger, and his talented staff who expertly prepared and beautifully presented the meal.
For the main protein portion of the meal, we offered a simple lemon salmon in addition to Smoky Skillet Chicken. (The latter was featured in this column last week and is available on my blog and on Lancaster Online.) As a supporter of the “cook once, eat twice” approach, I often prepare the chicken recipe as the main dish one night, making enough to ensure leftovers. That way, the bowls offer a quick and completely new dinner later in the week. Of course, you may absolutely use fresh cooked or even rotisserie chicken.
Yield: 2 servings (recipe can easily be doubled or tripled as needed)
- 1 cooked chicken breast half, sliced or cubed
- 1-1/2 to 2 lightly packed cups baby spinach
- 1 cup cooked quinoa (may substitute rice, couscous, or orzo)
- 1/2 cup chopped cucumbers
- 1/2 cup tomatoes, diced
- 1/3 cup hummus
- Optional add-ins: crumbled feta; pitted and chopped Kalamata olives; chopped avocado; minced red onion; chopped parsley; (Figure on a slightly rounded tablespoon of each add-in per serving, give or take based on personal preference.)
- Optional for serving: a sprinkle of smoked paprika; lemon wedges; and/or a side of pita bread or chips
- Divide the ingredients equally between two bowls, give everything a good stir, and enjoy!
- When presentation matters, I like to layer the spinach first, and then make separate piles of quinoa and chicken. From there, I add the cucumbers and tomatoes, followed by a big spoonful of hummus in the center of the bowl. (Any sliced ingredients can be fanned out for a pretty look.) Finally, sprinkle with the optional add-ins and garnishes.
Homemade hummus is easy, and I have several recipes on my blog for those who wish to try. Prepared hummus, however, is widely available and offers added convenience—and it can be even better with about 60 seconds of doctoring. Click here for the how-to.Protein-rich hummus makes a deliciously creamy alternative to dressing, and quick cooking Smoky Skillet Chicken provides great flavor; but leftovers of your favorite basic recipe or even rotisserie may be used.