|Quinoa is an ancient high protein grain that was cultivated by the Incas. A high altitude crop, it originated in the Andes mountains of South America. Photo by Esther Oertel.|
While not a staple in every kitchen, this power food has become better known in recent years.
Increasingly popular quinoa (pronounced keen-wah) is an ancient grain that was prized by the Incas, who first cultivated it more than 4,000 years ago.
Quinoa originated in the Andean regions of Ecuador, Bolivia, Columbia and Peru. A high altitude crop best grown over 10,000 feet, it thrives in a wide variety of difficult conditions, including poor soil, thin cold air, frost, hot sun, short growing days, minimal rainfall and even drought.
It’s a high protein grain, unique because it’s one of the few plants that provide complete protein, containing all the amino acids.
The World Health Organization has rated the quality of quinoa’s proteins as at least equivalent to that of milk.
We refer to quinoa as a grain and use it as such, but since it’s not a member of the grass family, it’s not considered a true grain botanically. Rather, it’s a member of the Chenopodium family of plants, meaning its relatives include beets, spinach, chard, and even tumbleweed.
Another name for this clan of flora is the descriptive moniker “goosefoot,” which refers to the shape of the leaves.
Quinoa was considered sacred by the Incas, who referred to it as a “mother grain” because of its nutritional value and principal place in their diet. When on the march, Incan armies ate “war balls,” a mixture of quinoa and fat, which could sustain them for days.
There are hundreds of varieties of quinoa. Peruvian and Bolivian seed banks alone have over eighteen hundred genetically distinct types.
Quinoa seeds (what we know as grain) grow in large clusters at the end of stalks which range between three and nine feet high.
They come in a dazzling array of hues – red, pink, orange, yellow, lavender, purple, green, black and white – though most of what we see in the market is a pale yellow color. Occasionally red or black quinoa is available, and some packaged quinoa is multicolored.
The entire plant can be used from top to bottom, as evidenced by the Aymara Indians on the high plains of Bolivia.
The seeds are eaten whole like rice or toasted and ground into flour for tortillas, the leaves are eaten as a vegetable and used to feed farm animals, the stalks are burned as fuel, and the wash water from rinsing the seeds is sometimes used as a shampoo.
There is a reason such rinse water can function like soap. Each quinoa seed is coated with a thick covering of saponin, a resin-like substance with a bitter, soapy taste that protects it from predators such as birds and insects.
Seeds sold commercially have already been rinsed of saponin, but if quinoa is grown at home, they should be rinsed and drained five or ten times under cold running water to remove the coating. The flavor of the grain is mellowed with each rinsing.
Quinoa has a mild flavor reminiscent of couscous with a nutty hint of peanut, a beautifully fluffy texture, and a soft and chewy consistency.
I love it and often prepare and serve it at home as I would rice.
It’s become a culinary favorite as a substitute for other grains, as well, such as couscous and bulgur wheat, and since it’s gluten-free, it’s safe for those with sensitivities to wheat.
For example, tabouleh, the Middle Eastern bulgur wheat-based salad often served as an accompaniment to hummus, doesn’t have to be taboo for those suffering with gluten allergies when quinoa’s around.
Quinoa goes with almost anything, and is just as happy as a salad with tropical fruits as it is when served as a savory side dish.
Small disk-shaped quinoa seeds look like a cross between sesame seeds and millet. They cook quickly, within 15 minutes or so, and when cooked, the germ (which looks like a little band surrounding the periphery) partially separates from the seed.
Most recipes suggest cooking one part quinoa with two parts water in a process similar to cooking rice. While this works, I was delighted to find a recipe online that uses less water and creates light, fluffy quinoa without fail.
It takes a bit longer and requires soaking the quinoa beforehand, but if you’re not in a hurry, it’s well worth the extra time. I’ve included this cooking method below, along with today’s recipe.
A by-product of quinoa is light, delicate, and highly nutritious quinoa flour. It provides depth of flavor when combined with other flours in baked goods.
It can be added to pancakes, muffins, pastries, cookies, and breads; however, because it doesn’t contain gluten, it must be combined with wheat or other gluten-containing flour for leavened products.
To make quinoa flour at home, place seeds in a blender or nut grinder and whiz until it pulverizes, which only takes a few minutes. Three-quarters of a cup of seeds will yield about a cup of flour.
Quinoa may be toasted in a dry pan before grinding to produce deeper flavor. (This may be done before any quinoa cooking application.)
Because of its high oil content, be sure to refrigerate quinoa flour, whether homemade or purchased.
In addition to protein, quinoa contains high levels of iron, potassium, riboflavin, vitamin B6, niacin, and thiamine.
It’s also a good source of magnesium, zinc, copper, and manganese, and supplies some folic acid.
Today’s recipe is for a Moroccan-style rice pilaf, courtesy of food critic and cookbook author, Jeff Cox, who hails from nearby Sonoma County. I love the combination of sweet and savory flavors in this recipe.
As a casserole, it requires the use of an oven, but I’ve included an alternate method of cooking that avoids adding such heat to your home during hot Lake County summers.
If you haven’t tried quinoa before, give it a whirl. Who knows? It might work its way into your culinary heart as it did mine and become a staple in your home.
1 cup quinoa grain
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus extra for the casserole
1/3 cup whole blanched almonds
1 cup minced onions
½ cup minced carrot
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
3 cups chicken or vegetable stock
1/3 cup golden raisins
2 teaspoons freshly-grated orange zest (scrub well before grating if not organic)
¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper
Rinse the quinoa thoroughly until the water runs clear.
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit and lightly oil a 1-1/2 quart covered casserole.
Place the olive oil in a skillet on medium-high heat. When hot, add the almonds and sauté for about two minutes, until they become golden brown and fragrant.
Add the onions, carrots, and cinnamon and cook for about three minutes, stirring occasionally.
Add the quinoa and stir thoroughly so that all the little grains are coated with oil; cook for one minute.
Add the chicken or vegetable stock, raisins, orange zest, and cayenne and bring the mixture to a boil. Pour this hot mixture into the casserole, cover, and bake for 45 minutes.
When done, turn the pilaf onto a platter.
Esther’s note: To avoid using the oven, reduce stock to 2 cups and continue cooking in sauté pan until quinoa is tender and fully cooked, about 15 minutes. If necessary, add more stock if pan dries out and quinoa is not yet cooked.
Recipe is courtesy of “The Organic Cook’s Bible” by Jeff Cox and published by John Wiley & Sons Inc.
How to cook perfect quinoa
1 cup quinoa
1 ¼ cups cooking liquid (such as water or stock)
Soak quinoa in water for at least 15 minutes and up to an hour. Rinse for two or three minutes in a fine metal strainer (or line a regular colander with cheesecloth).
Add one part quinoa to one and a quarter liquid. Bring to a simmer and then reduce to low. Cover and cook for between 30 and 35 minutes.
Remove from heat and let sit covered for an additional five minutes. Fluff and serve.
Voila! Perfect quinoa.
Recipe is courtesy of Wendy Polisi of www.cookingquinoa.net .
Esther Oertel, a freelance writer, cooking teacher, and speaker, is passionate about local produce and all foods in the vegetable kingdom. She welcomes your questions and comments and may be reached at [email protected] .