Most people think of quinoa (pronounced KEEN-wah) as a grain, but it is also an ancient Peruvian broadleaf plant. Its prolific seed resembles millet, but is flatter and slightly smaller. Cooking with quinoa has become so popular with new converts that they have been known to eat it at every meal—and with good reason. Quinoa makes a great hot breakfast cereal and a fabulous luncheon salad. Its mild flavor complements almost any dinner combination you can dream up. So why haven’t you heard more about this great “new” food?
Until the Incas were conquered 400 years ago, their staple food was quinoa, but as their rulers enforced Spanish law, they also enforced European foods. Quinoa became the covert food of the peasants, and remained obscure until only a few decades ago when it was brought to the United States.
Quinoa is still not popular with the upper classes in South America. It is, however, garnering rave reviews in the United States, where its unique texture and varied colors are prized by top chefs, and its outstanding nutritional content is welcomed by all.
If you believe, as many herbalists do, that indigenous foods tend to supply the specific nutrients necessary for indigenous people, it makes sense that quinoa, which originated in the high Andes, has a reputation as an endurance food. Natives believe that it oxygenates the blood. High in calcium, phosphorus, iron, most B vitamins, zinc, and lysine, quinoa provides all eight essential amino acids. It has more protein than any grain, making it a great addition to meatless meals. Quinoa is more expensive than most grains, but it expands up to three times its volume when cooked. Best of all, it absorbs pungent herbal flavors gracefully.
A cook’s ways with quinoa
In the kitchen, quinoa can be used much like rice, but it is not as susceptible to overcooking. In fact, it’s fairly durable. When cooked quickly, the inside of the grain softens while the outer husk remains firm. This gives the seeds a texture my daughter, Jessica, refers to as vegetable caviar. When quinoa is simmered slowly with more liquid, it takes on the texture of cooked cereal, perfect for a high-energy breakfast or for use in puddings. When toasted, it takes on a nutty flavor.
Most of the quinoa found packaged in grocery stores is a white variety hybridized for market. It has very little flavor and cooks somewhat faster than “black” quinoa, which is a natural mixture of fairly equal portions of white, brown, and black seed. White quinoa becomes softer when cooked. Black quinoa has a more pronounced grain flavor and retains more of the seed’s unusual texture.
But both colors of quinoa have a mild flavor that complements herbs, broth, vegetables, and other savory foods. Try it stuffed into cabbage rolls or red peppers, tucked into casseroles, tossed into soups, or topped with your favorite sauce. Quinoa, available in health-food stores and some grocery stores, is a great way to bolster the nutrient density of baked goods and other foods made with processed flours. You can add it to cookies, muffins, or pancake batter; or stir it into ricotta cheese before assembling a hearty lasagna.
Quinoa like you’ve never seen it
Innovative Chef Marcus Guliano, of the Bonnie Briar Country Club in Larchmont, New York, is a huge fan of quinoa in all its forms and varieties. To make his signature dish, quinoa-crusted tilapia, Guliano rolls fillets in black quinoa that has been soaked in water overnight before sautéing them briefly in olive oil.
Guliano also likes to use quinoa greens, which he gets from grower Ernie New at White Mountain Farm in Mosca, Colorado. “The flavor is wonderful,” New says, comparing it to that of lamb’s-quarters, but not as strong.
Both men like to lop off the budding tops of the quinoa plant, about 4 inches, to use in different recipes. New prefers a deep-fried tempura style. Guliano blanches them in boiling water for 10 seconds to break down the fibrous stems. He then shocks them in cold water before sautéing them briefly in olive oil and sprinkling with lemon juice.
Quinoa greens can be grown successfully in most areas of the United States, but the plants prefer cool weather and a dry climate. After shallow planting (approximately 1/4 inch deep) in moist soil, the plants will sprout. Keep in mind that the seeds need their saponin coating to germinate, so if you want to try to grow quinoa, you’ll probably need seeds from a grower, not the ones you can buy in the grocery or health-food store. Once established, the quinoa plant is drought tolerant. In order for the plants to set seed, temperatures must remain under 90°F during its flowering period. The plants must remain dry once they ripen to prevent the seed from sprouting.
Debbie Whittaker, also known as the Herb Gourmet, is a culinary herbalist in Denver, Colorado.