I have a culinary confession to make: I've been a little intimidated by quinoa (pronounced KEEN-wa). Oh, I've seen it on the grocery store shelves, right there by the other funky grains, and brought it home to sit on my shelf. I've seen the rock star TV chefs make funny-looking pilafs with it; I even tried a bite or two of quinoa stuffing at a fancy restaurant a month or so ago. But I haven't had the courage to actually cook with it.

So when the calendar turned to a new year, I made myself get the stuff out and cook a straight batch of it. I figure you can't know how to use it until you've tasted it in its purest form. To my great surprise, it wasn't strange at all. In fact, plain, cooked quinoa has a wonderful nutty flavor and an interesting texture akin to a cross between bulgur and al dente Israeli couscous.

I immediately thought of salad, which I had promised to eat more of this year anyway. Since really good, fresh veggies are harder to come by in the winter, mixing a bit of dried fruit and grain into your salad just makes sense. I had dried cranberries left over from the holidays, and lemon and parsley are always in my fridge, so a tabbouleh- style salad was easy to throw together.

You can substitute any dried fruit you may have on hand: apricots, raisins, cherries or a mixture of all of the above. The sweet punch is a perfect foil to the bright lemon dressing and bite of the parsley. I was surprised how filling the salad is, just by itself. But it makes a fine side salad as well. My culinary fear was conquered. And now I have a brilliant new salad to add to the mix. Enjoy!

Alicia Ross is the co-author of "Desperation Dinners!" (Workman, 1997), "Desperation Entertaining!" (Workman, 2002) and "Cheap. Fast. Good!" (Workman, 2006). Contact her at Kitchen Scoop, c/o Universal Uclick, 1130 Walnut St., Kansas City, MO 64106, or send email to tellus kitchenscoop.com. Or visit the Kitchen Scoop website at www.kitchenscoop.com.

© Alicia Ross

Dist. by Universal Uclick for UFS

Suggested menu: Lemony Quinoa Salad With Cranberries

Grilled flatbread with hummus

Lemony Quinoa Salad With Cranberries

Start to finish: 30 minutes

1 cup vegetable broth or stock

1 cup water (or an additional cup of broth for a richer salad)

1 cup quinoa (purchase the already-rinsed kind)

2 cups cubed, peeled cucumber

3/4 cup chopped dried sweetened cranberries (or other dried fruit)

1/3 cup thinly sliced green onion

1 cup finely chopped flatleaf parsley

1/3 cup fresh lemon juice

1 teaspoon lemon zest, optional

1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil

3/4 teaspoon salt

3/4 teaspoon ground black pepper

Prepare the quinoa by bringing the broth and water to a boil. Add the quinoa; cover. Reduce heat to low and steam for 15 to 20 minutes. Quinoa is done when light and fluffy and a small curly "thread" is unfurled from the grain.

While the quinoa is cooking, add cucumber, cranberries, onion and parsley to medium bowl. Set aside. Whisk together the dressing (lemon juice, zest, oil, salt and pepper) and set aside.

Place the cooked quinoa on a large plate and spread to cool, about 5 minutes. When grains are lukewarm, combine the grain with the vegetables. Drizzle the dressing over the salad and toss. Serve immediately or refrigerate until ready to serve. It may be served chilled or at room temperature.

Yield: 6 entree servings, or 8 side servings

Approximate values per 2/3 cup serving: 247 calories (43 percent from fat), 12 g fat (1 g saturated), 30 mg cholesterol, 15 g protein, 20 g carbohydrates, 3 g dietary fiber, 345 mg sodium.