Quinoa: The Super Seed

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High in protein and gluten-free, quinoa is a nutritious seed that puts conventional whole grains to shame.

Call it the seed that eats like a grain. Quinoa, virtually unheard of five years ago, has recently achieved cultlike status among foodies and health-seekers who have had their fill of conventional grains like wheat, rice and barley.

A complete protein that contains a trove of other important nutrients, quinoa (pronounced KEEN-wah) is now being touted as the supergrain of the future. That’s funny, because it was a staple for the ancient Incas of South America, where most of the world’s quinoa crops are still grown. In fact, the sudden popularity of quinoa in the United States and elsewhere has driven up its price, making it unaffordable for many of the people who grow it for a living (a good reason to consider buying fair-trade quinoa).

Many Americans still haven’t been exposed to this mild-flavored, gluten-free superfood, and even fewer have made it a staple in their kitchens. That’s apt to change as word of the seed spreads, since it’s easy to prepare and versatile enough to improvise with. Read on and learn how to incorporate quinoa into your cooking repertoire — and into your high-vitality eating plan.

Quick and Easy: Tips for Enjoying Quinoa

  • Keep cooked quinoa on hand to sprinkle over salad greens.
  • Create a tasty pilaf with quinoa, spices, nuts and beans — then stuff it into your favorite vegetables, such as tomatoes, bell peppers or zucchini.
  • Tweak your favorite fruit-crisp recipe by using quinoa flakes instead of rolled oats for the topping.
  • Cook whole quinoa as you would cook steel-cut oatmeal. Top with dried fruits, nuts, cinnamon, and a drizzle of maple syrup or cream.

Shades of Goodness

Called an “ancient grain” — like teff, buckwheat and amaranth — quinoa is the seed of the chenopodium plant, a relative of Swiss chard, spinach and beets. There are more than 120 species of quinoa, but only three main varieties are cultivated: gold, red and black. Which one should you buy? Depends on how you want to use it.

Gold Fluffy, light and creamy, gold quinoa is the most common variety. Enjoy it as a substitute for rice, a breakfast cereal, in baked goods, and in cold or warm salads.

Red Because of its slightly bitter taste, gorgeous red quinoa pairs well with mild, creamy foods like squash, avocado and soft cheeses. Red quinoa is also crunchier than gold, so it can be used as a substitute for chopped nuts.

Black Black quinoa’s dramatic appearance belies a subtly sweet flavor and nutty texture. Crunchier than red quinoa, it stands up well to long baking times and pairs well with citrus and other fruits.

Kitchen Tricks

  • Lightly rinse quinoa before cooking by placing it in a fine strainer and swishing briefly but thoroughly with cold water. This removes natural chemical compounds called saponins, which create a bitter coating on the grain. (Avoid soaking quinoa since it can deposit saponins within the seed.)
  • To cook, combine a ratio of one-and-a-half to two parts cooking liquid to one part rinsed quinoa. Bring to a boil, and then turn the heat to low and put a lid on the pot. Simmer until grains are translucent. Quinoa cooks in about 15 minutes. You’ll know it’s finished when you see that the outer germ around each kernel has twisted outward to form a little white, spiral tail. The tail remains slightly crunchy while the kernel itself becomes soft and springy.
  • For a robust nutty flavor, toast quinoa in a dry skillet, stirring often, for about five minutes before adding cooking liquid.

Shopping and Storage Tips

  • Gold quinoa is available in different forms — as whole seeds, flakes and flour. Red and black varieties are generally sold as whole seeds. Keep in mind that flakes and flours have a higher glycemic index and digest more quickly.
  • Because quinoa contains delicate fatty acids, it can go rancid fairly quickly. To keep it fresh, store uncooked quinoa in an airtight container for up to three months (up to six months in the fridge or freezer). Cooked quinoa can be stored in the refrigerator for a few days or frozen for up to a month.

Recipes

Sweet Potato and Quinoa Cakes With Black Beans
Topped with salsa and sour cream, these addictive croquettes make a warm, nourishing meal. Serve with a fresh green salad.

Makes six servings (18 croquettes total) 

  • 1 tbs. coconut oil, plus 2 tbs. reserved for frying croquettes
  • 1 medium sweet potato, peeled, grated and rinsed in cold water, and patted dry
  • 1/2 cup minced red bell pepper
  • 1 jalapeño pepper, minced
  • 1 cup minced yellow onion
  • 2 tsp. whole cumin seeds
  • 1 tbs. ground coriander
  • 1/2 tsp. salt
  • 1 can black beans, rinsed and drained
  • 1 cup red quinoa, cooked
  • Salsa and sour cream for serving

Heat 1 tablespoon coconut oil in a large skillet and sauté the grated sweet potato, red bell pepper, jalapeño pepper and yellow onion for about three to five minutes. Add the cumin and coriander. Continue to sauté vegetables until they are just cooked. Season with salt. Add the black beans and cooked quinoa, then blend a third of this mixture in a food processor until smooth. Stir the blended mixture back into the remaining vegetables in the skillet. Shape 1/4 cup of the mixture at a time into patties about ½-inch thick and 2 inches across. Heat the reserved coconut oil in a heavy skillet over medium heat and pan-fry the croquettes for about two minutes on each side. Keep croquettes warm in the oven until all are ready to serve.

Winter Salad
Served over supergreens like baby kale, spinach and beet greens, this hearty salad makes a fresh and flavorful meal. Try dried cherries, blueberries or diced dried apricots in place of the cranberries; substitute toasted pecans, almonds or walnuts for the pumpkin seeds.

Makes four servings

  • 1 cup multicolored quinoa, cooked
  • 2 cups roasted squash cubes
  • 2 stalks celery, chopped
  • 3 green onions, minced
  • 1/2 cup toasted pumpkin seeds
  • 1/2 cup dried cranberries
  • 1 tbs. fresh sage, minced (or 1 tsp. dried)
  • Zest and juice of one orange
  • 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Let quinoa cool to room temperature, then toss all ingredients together in a large bowl. Adjust the seasonings to taste.

Moroccan Chicken Stew
At once comforting and exotic, this homey chicken stew is deepened by curry and cinnamon notes. For the pilaf, try toasted almonds, parsley and diced dried apricots instead of toasted pine nuts, mint and currants.

Makes four servings

  • 1 tbs. olive oil
  • 4 bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs
  • 1 1/2 tsp. curry powder
  • 1/2 tsp. cinnamon
  • 1/2 yellow onion, diced (about 1 cup)
  • 3 carrots, peeled and cut into chunks
  • 1/2 head cauliflower, cut into florets (about 21/2 cups)
  • 2 zucchini, cut into chunks (about 21/2 cups)
  • 1 1/2 cups chicken stock
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
  • 2 cups cooked quinoa
  • 1/2 cup toasted pine nuts
  • 1/4 cup chopped fresh mint
  • 1/4 cup dried currants

Heat olive oil in a large Dutch oven over medium heat and sear the chicken thighs about three to five minutes on each side. Remove chicken from the pan, cover and keep warm. Add the spices and vegetables to the pot, and cook until vegetables are beginning to get tender. Return the chicken thighs to the pot, add the chicken stock and cover. Simmer over low heat for about 30 minutes, until chicken and vegetables are tender. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Transform the quinoa into a pilaf by stirring in the toasted pine nuts, mint and currants, then salt and pepper to taste. Serve chicken stew over warmed quinoa pilaf.

All recipes were created by Betsy Nelson (a.k.a. “That Food Girl”), a Minneapolis-based food stylist and recipe developer.

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Cabbage Rolls Filled With Quinoa and Ground Beef

For a vegetarian version of this hearty entrée, substitute crumbled tempeh for the ground beef.

Makes four servings

  • 1 head cabbage, core removed
  • 1 tbs. olive oil
  • 1/2 pound grass-fed ground beef
  • 1 yellow onion, minced
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 stalks celery, minced
  • 1 cup chopped mushrooms
  • 1 cup quinoa, cooked
  • 1 tsp. dried sage
  • 1/2 tsp. dried thyme
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
  • 2 red bell peppers, roasted or broiled to char the skin
  • 1/2 cup sour cream

Fill a medium stockpot with 1 to 2 inches of water and bring to a simmer. Put the head of cabbage, cored side down, in the water and cover. Simmer for eight to 10 minutes, until the leaves are softened and can be easily pulled off the head of cabbage. Remove from water and cool while you prepare the filling.

Heat the olive oil in a sauté pan and cook ground beef with the onions, garlic, celery and mushrooms until the meat is thoroughly cooked and the vegetables are softened. Add the quinoa, sage and thyme, then season with salt and pepper.

When the cabbage is cool enough to handle, gently remove eight whole leaves, fill each one with 1/2 cup of quinoa mixture and roll burrito-style. Arrange cabbage rolls in a 9- by 9-inch baking dish and cover with aluminum foil. Bake for about 20 to 25 minutes in a 350-degree F oven, or until cabbage rolls are heated through.

Blend the roasted peppers with the sour cream and warm gently in a saucepan. Serve over the cabbage rolls.

Karen Olson is a Minneapolis-based writer and a frequent contributor to Experience Life.

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