Keen on quinoa

Pride of the Incas and darling of today’s healthy eaters, quinoa (“KEEN-wa”) provides a complete protein along with vitamins, minerals, good taste and versatility. Quick and simple to cook, it can be part of or central to a huge variety of dishes.

Chenopodium quinoa has been cultivated near Lake Titicaca in Bolivia for about 5,000 years, a common staple in the Andes Mountains, where it does well at the high altitudes. For the ancient Incas it was sacred and one of their three staple foods, with potatoes and corn, and they dubbed it chisaya mama, or “the mother of all grains.” Incan warriors rolled it into balls with fat to sustain themselves in battle.

Since then, it disappeared from common knowledge until the 1970s, when NASA scientists rediscovered it when looking for a super-food that would keep astronauts healthy during long space missions. Then it became the darling of the health-food-store set, more recently as a popular and easy-to-find source of high-protein (as complete as meat, actually), gluten-free goodness.

Quinoa is not actually a grain, as is commonly thought, but a seed. It clusters at the top of a plant related to beets – and also lambs’ quarters/pigweed, a common-but-tasty weed that foragers such as myself love finding in their gardens or in the wild, to throw in salads or cook like spinach.

Soft and gentle-tasting, lightly nutty and pretty, quinoa seed comes in white, orange, red, purple and black varieties and is fun to play with. What is the difference among white, red and black quinoa? Not a heck of a lot, as far as I can tell. Personally, I think that the red is the most visually appealing, outclassing the rice-mimicking white, but that’s just me. I may be imagining the richer flavor and texture, although others say that the red has a bit more bite than the white, and clumps less. Black and red are rarer and sometimes pricier than white. Nutritionally, they are close cousins.

Part of what makes quinoa easy to grow and healthy is that it contains saponin, which repels pests, rendering pesticides unnecessary and making most quinoas organic. But the saponin has to be cleaned off to prevent a bitter taste. While most commercial quinoa comes pre-rinsed, most quinoa-cookers recommend additional rinsing, through a sieve, until the water runs clear. You can boil or steam it and then simply dress it with a dash of olive oil, lemon juice, tamari or sesame oil as a nice side dish. Some cookers say to cook it one part seed to two parts water; some say a little less water, to keep it fluffy, not gummy; while some say a little more water, then drain it to keep the grains separate.

It can go into myriad salads, great for the warming weather that we hope will happen soon. Little chunks of tomato, sweet bell pepper, avocado, cucumber, zucchini cooked or raw, diced potato, mushrooms, carrots, beets, corn, lettuces or other greens all marry beautifully with quinoa.

Tangy, sprightly additions like olives, nuts from pistachio to pine, and bits of cheese like feta or bleu complement it, too. Dried fruits like currants, craisins or diced dried apricots flatter quinoa’s subtle flavor, too, as do fresh herbs. Any kind of bean, from chickpeas to black beans, goes well with it. There’s not much that it doesn’t like.

Key also for a good quinoa salad is an allium or two, such as garlic, onion, red onion, sweet onion or scallions, and a zesty dressing: maybe Southwestern, Mediterranean, creamy – whatever you think goes best with your ingredients. Mild quinoa works well with the flavor profiles of any land, I think, and is a perfect canvas for a cook’s creativity. Tabbouleh made with quinoa rather than bulgur is a very popular example.

To make a nice pilaf-type dish, you can sauté aromatics such as onion and garlic in the fat of your choice, such as olive oil, then toast the quinoa dry in the pan before adding broth or stock. Cover and simmer 15 to 20 minutes until you see the little white curls, which means that it has popped; then fluff it, cover the pan and let rest five more minutes: very simple. I just made a lovely one with red quinoa, along with chopped mushrooms, fresh thyme and parsley. It was delicately crispy and had a beautiful rich color that would enhance any accompaniments.

Some like their quinoa in soups, stews or chilis, for an extra punch of protein and texture. Others put it in veggie stir-fries, or stuffed vegetables like peppers or squash. Baked goods from quick breads to yeast breads to muffins are made better with quinoa, and as a breakfast cereal, with fruity and nutty embellishments, it’s hot. Any way that you get it into your daily diet, it provides not only that famous complete protein, but also lots of fiber, iron, calcium, magnesium, manganese, phosphorus, copper, B vitamins and vitamins A and E.

Darling as it is, quinoa is currently steeped in a wee bit of controversy. Although it has been long-loved for Passover as a gluten-free substitute for forbidden grains like rye, oats, barley and wheat, the world’s largest kosher certification agency the Orthodox Union is currently calling it not kosher, with arguments among its ranks. This is because it is sometimes grown near wheat and barley fields, whose products can potentially infiltrate it, and because it looks like a grain, with the potential for confusion. Rival kosher certification agency Star-K says that it’s okay, however, and the Orthodox Union’s current stance is that kosher-conscious consumers should consult their local rabbis.

Also, quinoa’s popularity means that it has become prohibitively expensive for South Americans to buy, so they are losing access to this precious, healthy indigenous grain. Bolivia’s agricultural ministry reports than the country’s consumption has fallen 34 percent over the past five years as prices have tripled.

So it’s not all good. Ravyn Rant agrees, in this parody of Amy Winehouse’s “Rehab”:

They try to make me eat the quinoa, I say no, no, no;

Texture like sand, it’s tasteless and bland, so no, no, no;

I don’t mean to whine, I’ll eat the veggies, yes that’s fine;

Don’t try to make me eat the quinoa, I’ll say no, no, no.

But millions love it, as do I. I’ll leave it up to you to decide.

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