This grain bowl includes quinoa, chicken thighs, arugula, cabbage, corn, queso fresco and roasted red pepper, all tossed with a cilantro-chili dressing.
Grain bowls are usually my go-to weeknight dinner meals, everything can be prepped ahead of time and then tossed together just before serving. Based off of one of my favorite sides – the classic Mexican street food, elote – this grain bowl features corn, quinoa, chicken thighs, arugula, cabbage, queso fresco and roasted red pepper, all tossed with a cilantro lime and chili dressing.
Typically, elote is served still on the cob, grilled, brushed with mayonnaise, cayenne, queso fresco or cotija and lime – perfect for summer days. Instead, this version uses raw corn for an added crunch (and this way it’s one less step for you to cook).
Corn – When buying ears corn, look for a bright green husk that is tight around the corn. Feel the kernels through the husk, they should be plump. (I like to peel back a section of the husk to double check the kernels.) Look at the tassel (the strings at the top), it should be yellow or light brown – it should have a sweet smell.
Quinoa – Quinoa is a whole grain cooked similar to rice. Try cooking quinoa in chicken broth for a more flavorful quinoa (though water can also be used).
Queso fresco – Queso fresco is a soft cow’s milk cheese used in Mexican dishes to balance spicy flavors. In this salad the soft, tangy cheese is a great contrast in texture to the crisp cabbage and corn.
Arugula – The peppery greens complement the quinoa, chicken and crunchy cabbage in this bowl. While I love wild arugula, other greens like kale, baby kale or spinach can easily be used.
How to Make This Elote Quinoa Salad
Step 1: Make the dressing.
In a medium-mixing bowl, whisk together all dressing ingredients and set aside.
Step 2: Marinate the chicken.
In a medium mixing bowl toss the chicken thighs with half the cilantro lime dressing. Let marinate for at least 30 minutes and up to overnight.
Step 3: Bake the chicken.
Preheat the oven to 400ºF (200ºC). Arrange in a single layer on a rimmed baking sheet. Bake until cooked through, about 25 minutes. Remove and chop the chicken into 1” cubes then set aside.
Step 4: Roast peppers.
Heat the oven to broil. Rub the red bell pepper with the olive oil then lay skin side up on an aluminum foil-lined baking sheet. Broil until the skin is browned and bubbling, about 5 minutes.
Step 5: Flip peppers and continue to broil.
Flip the red pepper over and continue to broil until lightly browned in patches, about an additional 3 minutes. Remove and peel the skin from the pepper then dice and set aside.
Step 6: Add salad ingredients to serving bowl.
In a large mixing bowl toss the quinoa, arugula, cabbage, chicken, red pepper, cilantro, corn and avocado and toss to combine with the remaining dressing.
Step 7: Serve.
Divide the salad among bowls and top with the queso fresco and sunflower seeds. Serve with lime wedges on the side.
Tips and Tricks for This Recipe
Swaps and Substitutions
The dressing can be made ahead of time and shaken just before use to combine it again.
The roasted red pepper can be swapped with jarred roasted red peppers or even canned green chilies.
Substitute the raw corn for roasted corn for a smokier twist on this elote quinoa salad.
Use leftover or rotisserie chicken as a shortcut.
To make this recipe vegetarian
Omit the chicken and cook the quinoa in vegetable stock for a vegetarian grain bowl.
How to Cook Quinoa
To cook quinoa follow these simple steps. In a medium saucepan over medium heat bring 1 cup chicken broth to a boil. Add 1/2 cup of quinoa, and cook covered on medium-low heat until the broth is absorbed and the quinoa is tender. Fluff with a fork.
Other Recipes to Try
If you enjoy this elote quinoa salad recipe, I recommend checking out some of these: