When you are looking for healthy side dishes or vegetarian main courses, quinoa (keen-wah) should be at the top of your list. While technically a seed, quinoa can be substituted for nearly any grain and is a good source of dietary fiber and nutrition. Unlike many grains, it cooks in just about 15 minutes – perfect for weeknight meals. Quinoa provides all 9 essential amino acids, making it a complete protein. It is high in iron, potassium, phosphorus, magnesium, plus additional vitamins and minerals. It is gluten-free and cholesterol-free making it a popular source of plant protein for vegetarians and vegans. Because it is easily digested, it is an excellent supplement for older people and those with compromised immune systems. It is even being considered as a possible crop for long-duration manned spaceflights.
A grain-like crop, quinoa is native to the Andes and was considered sacred to the Incas. They referred to it as “Mother Grain.” It is the seed of a leafy plant, a relative of spinach, beets, and Swiss chard. It has been cultivated for human consumption for the last 3000 to 4000 years. Archeological evidence shows its existence up to 7000 years ago. The top three crops in the pre-Columbian Andean civilization were potatoes, quinoa and maize. The high-protein seeds of this plant are used as a food staple and are also ground into a flour. Most of the world’s quinoa is grown in the Andes of South America, but some is being grown in the Colorado Rockies of the United States. Similar to spinach, the leaves of the plant can also be eaten, but they are not readily available commercially. The fact that quinoa will grow in extremely poor soil as well as its tremendous nutritional value makes it a true super grain capable of feeding the world.
Quinoa comes in several colors including yellow, red, brown, and black. It has a unique texture. The grain itself is creamy, but the spiral “tail” has a crunchy feel. It adds a lot of flavor and textural complexity to salads. It is also a great addition to soups, stews, and pilafs. Ground quinoa flour can be used in breads, muffins, bagels, cookies, and even pancakes. It can be used in wheat-based and gluten-free baking. Quinoa can be made into savory dishes and when combined with honey or other sweeteners, it makes a fantastic alternate high-protein cooked breakfast cereal. Store in a cool, dry location such as a cabinet. For longer storage, keep it in the refrigerator or freezer.
Most commercially available quinoa sold in North America and Europe has been pre-processed to remove the bitter, waxy seed coating. When you first open the package, the seeds will have a powdery residue on them. This is quite bitter and needs to be removed. Place the quinoa in a very fine strainer and rinse well until the water runs clear. Some boxed quinoa has been pre-rinsed so always follow package directions for cleaning prior to cooking. Drain thoroughly and if desired, you can toast it lightly in a dry skillet for a nuttier quality.
Quinoa’s neutral flavor makes it the perfect base for many recipes. You can take virtually anything that uses couscous, rice, farro, barley, or other grains and substitute quinoa for then. You will have to adjust the cooking time, so prepare any longer cooking ingredients, such as hard vegetables like squash, before adding the quinoa. Since it only takes about 15 minutes to cook, add it at the end and fluff before serving.
I like to make a pilaf with a variety of nuts, fruits, and vegetables. Depending on the time of year, you can add tomatoes, canned beans, edamame, pecans, chickpeas, corn kernels, etc. Choose fresh herbs that will complement your selection of ingredients. Basil, cilantro, dill, thyme, Italian parsley, tarragon, and rosemary are all possible additions.
Today’s recipe combines traditionally sweet spices with savory ingredients for a creative new way to experience their flavors. I was at a friend’s home one evening making dinner for a group of us. Rummaging through the cupboards looking for whatever they had on hand, I found a boxed rice mix. The seasoning packet that was included didn’t complement the rest of the meal we were making so I punted and selected several seasonings to make my own mix. As I set the nutmeg on the counter, one of the guys in the group yelled out “No!” It always amuses me when someone balks at using a “sweet” spice in a savory dish. As a self-proclaimed “gourmet” cook, he was convinced that it was going to ruin the whole dish. It took a lot of effort to persuade him I knew what I was doing, but he was still skeptical. It was all worth it when he tasted the final result and proclaimed it delicious. It was one of those moments in life when you know that you just changed the trajectory of someone’s future. I know he looked at spices with a whole new perspective after that meal.
I hope that you will add quinoa to your regular collection of recipes, and find new ways to include it in your meal planning. Have fun getting creative in the kitchen!
- 1 tbsp olive oil
- 1 small onion, finely chopped
- 1 cup quinoa, rinsed well in cold water, according to package directions
- 2 cups chicken or vegetable stock
- 1 bay leaf
- 1 tbsp cinnamon
- 1/2 cup dried cranberries
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 1/2 tsp pepper
- 1/2 cup toasted hazelnuts (or other nuts), sliced
- 2 tbsp butter
- In a small saucepan, heat the oil for 1 minute before adding the diced onion. Sweat the onion until it wilts, stir in the quinoa and toast the grains for 1 minute before adding the chicken stock.
- Bring the stock to a boil, lower the heat to a simmer, add the bay leaf, cinnamon, cranberries, salt and pepper and cook for 15 minutes until all the liquid is absorbed.
- At the end of the cooking time, stir in the nuts and butter, cover the pan and let sit for 5 minutes off the heat before serving.
- Yield: about 5 (1/2 cup) side servings