Sometimes referred to as the “gold of the Incas,” quinoa is one of nature’s most impressive foods. This golden seed is coveted for its high nutrient value and filling quality, expanding three to four times its volume when cooked. It makes a healthy, hearty addition to any meal.
Quinoa (pronounced KEEN-wah) has a subtly sweet, yet nutty, flavor and a piquant aftertaste. Categorized as a grain, quinoa is actually the seed of Chenopodium (commonly known as goosefoot) plants, which are related to Swiss chard and spinach. There are more than 120 species of Chenopodium, all native to the Andes Mountains of South America, but farmers there cultivate only three main varieties: blond or pale seeds, called white or sweet quinoa; a fruity variety called red quinoa; and the regal-looking black quinoa. Quinoa also has a unique texture. When cooked, the outer germ around each kernel twists outward, forming a spiral. The spiral remains crunchy while the kernel becomes soft and springy.
Boasting an almost perfect balance of all nine essential amino acids, quinoa is considered a complete protein. Higher in protein and unsaturated fats, and lower in carbohydrates than most grains, quinoa provides an abundance of manganese, calcium, fiber, iron and magnesium, as well as vitamins B and E. It’s also gluten-free. Quinoa can be useful for people who suffer from migraine headaches or hypertension, because magnesium helps relax blood vessels. Studies also have shown that diets high in whole grains like quinoa, which is rich in phytonutrients, can improve cardiovascular health in postmenopausal women and protect premenopausal women against breast cancer. In both men and women, whole grains can help reduce the risk of heart disease, some cancers, type 2 diabetes and, when combined with fish, childhood asthma.
- Store uncooked quinoa in an airtight container. If refrigerated, it can be stored for up to six months.
- Wash quinoa before cooking by placing it in a fine strainer and swishing thoroughly with cold water. This will remove any residue of saponins, which are naturally occurring, bitter-tasting defensive compounds that protect quinoa from birds and insects and act as a shield from the intense radiation of high-altitude sunlight. Avoid soaking because it can deposit saponins within the seed.
Quinoa’s light and fluffy texture makes it an ideal choice to accompany meals throughout the year. To cook, combine a ratio of two parts cooking liquid to one part washed quinoa and simmer until grains are translucent. It cooks very quickly — in about 15 minutes.
- Substitute quinoa for rice, pasta or hot cereal to create a healthy and appealing recipe alternative.
- Stir cooked quinoa into your favorite pancake and waffle batters to add a boost of nutrients and a slightly nutty flavor.
- Add cooked quinoa to salads, stir-fries, casseroles and soups.
- For a robust nutty flavor, brown quinoa in a dry skillet for about five minutes before adding cooking liquid.
- To add delightful taste and vibrant colors to your meals, try using vegetable broth, boldly flavored vegetable juices or fruit juices as the cooking liquid when preparing quinoa.
- Replace steamed quinoa for the bulgur wheat in tabbouleh or vegetarian chili recipes.
- Use steamed quinoa instead of brown rice for fried rice.
- In baking, use quinoa flour (available in natural markets) for a portion of all-purpose flour in your favorite cookies or muffins. If the recipe calls for 1 1⁄2 cups all-purpose flour, use 1 cup all-purpose flour and 1⁄2 cup quinoa flour. The quinoa flour will add a slightly nutty flavor and aroma.
Chef Cary Neff is the president of the consulting firm Culinary Innovations and the author of The New York Times bestseller Conscious Cuisine (Sourcebooks, 2002).