Thursday, August 29, 2013

In the Kitchen: Quinoa 101

"If I had to chose one food to survive on, quinoa would be the best," said Dr. Duane Johnson, New Crops Agronomist at Colorado State University

Called a supergrain, quinoa is highly nutritious and can supply us with all of the body's requirements: carbohydrates, fats, protein, vitamins, minerals, and fiber.  It's a gluten free seed, not a grain.  It provides outstanding protein quality.  The germ of each quinoa grain is larger than that of any other grain and encircles the outer surface which explains its exceptionally high protein content.

Protein and fiber are two dietary essentials for regulation of blood sugar. Because chronic, unwanted inflammation is also a key risk factor for the development of type 2 diabetes, the diverse range of anti-inflammatory nutrients found in quinoa enhance diabetes risk reduction.  

Since quinoa is gluten free, it is considered an ideal food for those prone to food allergies. Common allergens include grains from the grass family. Quinoa is not in the grass family, making it beneficial for people who cannot tolerate common grains like wheat, corn, rye, barley, and oats.

The United Nations General Assembly has  declared 2013 as the "International Year of Quinoa" in recognition of ancestral practices of the Andean people.  It is the Andean people who have preserved quinoa as food for present and future generations through knowledge and practices of living in harmony with nature. The objective is to draw the world’s attention to the role that quinoa plays in providing food security, nutrition and poverty eradication, all in support of achieving Millennium Development Goals.

Quinoa is native to the Andes Mountains of Bolivia, Chile, and Peru, sometimes referred to as "vegetable caviar" or Inca rice.  It has been eaten continuously for 5,000 years by people who live on the mountain plateaus and in the valleys of Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Chile.  Quinoa means "mother grain" in the Inca language. This crop was a staple food of the Inca people and remains an important food crop for their descendants, the Quechua and Aymara peoples who live in rural regions.

In the 16th century, when the Spanish invaded the Andes region, the Incas were forced into submission and the cultivation and consumption of quinoa was banned due to its association with non Christian ceremonies. The Incas were forced to grow corn and potatoes instead.  If you compare the nutritional qualities of quinoa to these other crops, you’ll see why they were vastly inferior to quinoa. Nevertheless, some wild quinoa continued to grow out of sight and a small amount was able to be cultivated. So in small amounts of quinoa were consumed in secret. 

Quinoa was imported into the US in the 1970’s and become increasingly popular in western cultures, particularly in the last 5 - 10 years.

The marketable seed is usually white in color, although multicolor seeds are also available. The leaves are frequently eaten as a leafy vegetable, like spinach. Seed imported from growers in South America is sold in the United States in health-food stores, gourmet food shops and even in major grocery chains in their natural/health food sections.  I buy mine at Trader Joe's.


The seed coats (pericarp) are usually covered with bitter saponin compounds that must be removed before human consumption. The removal of the pericarp and the saponins by mechanical or chemical means does not affect the mineral content of the seed. Because of the residual bitter compounds that may coat the seeds, I recommend placing the amount you intend to use in a very fine mesh strainer and rinsing them in running cold water before use.  

After the rinse, it is ridiculously easy to cook Quinoa seeds.  They are basically cooked the same way as rice and can be used in a wide range of dishes as you would use rice or other grains, like pilafs, tabbouleh, and mixed salads. 

To cook it in a pot, add 2 parts liquid (water, chicken/vegetable/beef broth) to 1 part quinoa.  I like to add other ingredients either from the get-go or mix them in at the end, like raisins, dried cranberries, finely chopped shallots or scallions, grilled or left-over veggies.  Add the seasonings of your choice, from garlic to curry to saffron.  You are only limited by your imagination.  Simmer gently for about 15-20 minutes and let rest until all liquid is absorbed.  Enjoy its light, tender, slightly chewy texture.

It's easy to make in advance and reheat in the microwave. 

If you look closely at the photo below, you will notice a thin white ring bordering each seed.  As quinoa cooks, the germ is released from the exterior of the grain and forms a tiny spiral. You'll recognize it easily by its white coloring and sprout-like appearance.


Check out 22 quinoa yummy quinoa recipes right here.

[Photo 1: <a href="">Bioversity International</a> via <a href="">photopin</a> <a href="">cc</a>]

[Photo 2:  <a href="">I Believe I Can Fry</a> via <a href="">photopin</a> <a href="">cc</a>]

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