Ancient Grain Suits Modern Diets

Quinoa is an ancient grain that is native to the Andes mountains of South America. It has been eaten for 5000 years by the people who live in this region. It was highly valued by the Incas, and is thought to have been a staple of their diets.

Botanically, quinoa (pronounced “KEEN-wah” in English) is from the genus Chenopodium (aka goosefoots), which contains around 150 species of plants found worldwide, including the common and widely distributed pigweed/lamb’s quarters. Like many of its relatives, quinoa leaves are edible, but it’s the seeds that are most highly prized.

Quinoa seeds are high in protein, and contain all of the essential amino acids needed by humans, which makes it a ‘complete’ protein. It’s also high in fiber and minerals, quick-cooking and very tasty. Cooked in a saucepan, it is done in 15-20 minutes. If I’m not in a hurry, I usually cook it in the rice cooker. It takes longer that way (depending on the rice cooker cycle time), but doesn’t require any effort or attention once you press the start button. Either way, you combine 1 part quinoa with 2 parts water (or broth).

Quinoa can be grown much like amaranth, but I haven’t yet tried growing it myself. I usually buy quinoa in bulk. I’ve found it that way in health food stores, coops, and at markets like Whole Foods. In addition to the usual white variety, there is also a red quinoa available in many stores. So far I’ve not found the red in bulk, but it is available in packages in several brands.

In its natural state, the quinoa seeds are covered with saponin, a bitter tasting soapy substance. The saponin is beneficial to the quinoa plant, as it makes the seeds unpalatable to birds, allowing it to be cultivated easily and without protection. Most quinoa sold in the U.S. has been pre-rinsed to remove the saponin. If the package doesn’t specify it has been rinsed, you should put the seeds in a fine meshed strainer and rinse thoroughly with cold water, then let drain before cooking.

cooked red and white quinoa

I can’t taste much difference between the white and red quinoa. I sometimes like to mix the two together, which makes for a pretty presentation. If you look closely at the cooked seeds, you can see the germ, which is the curly white part.

closeup of cooked quinoa showing the germ

Quinoa is pretty versatile in the kitchen. We love it in stuffed peppers, where it can replace the usual rice and add extra nutrition. I also make a salad with it using roasted or dried tomatoes. I’ll post that recipe soon (I need to get a photo of it first). Cooking Light has a recipe for a quinoa side dish with apples and almonds that we like. There are also a lot of quinoa pilaf recipes floating around, but I’ve yet to settle on any as favorites.

If you haven’t yet tasted quinoa, it is definitely worth trying. It has quickly become a favorite here at Happy Acres. Try it, and you just might agree with the Incas who called it the ‘Mother Grain’.

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9 Responses to Ancient Grain Suits Modern Diets

  1. Oddly enough, I’ve never really eaten quinoa. I really should try it though as an alternative grain. I love couscous, tabbouleh, and some of the more exotic rices, like bhutanese, and forbidden rice, and this looks just as beautiful. Thanks for highlighting this (and the correct pronunciation), I’ll try not to walk right past it next time I’m in the grocery store.

  2. Daphne says:

    I’ve had it before on several occasions. I’ve even made it myself, but never really got into using it. My dad is allergic to wheat so there are a lot of alternative grains in his house.

  3. Ali says:

    Yes, it is tasty. I make a version of tabbouleh with it in place of the wheat, and add chickpeas for a nice vegetarian meal. Yum, I should make it this weekend!

  4. Robin says:

    We have never eaten quinoa. My husband has heard of it and is very interested in trying it. I’m sure that the next time we are at the health food store. We will pick some up.

  5. Angela says:

    I also like to add quinoa in my whole grain bread for a bit of crunch and variation, as well as extra nutrients. Are you tempted to grow it in your garden? I wonder how many plants one needs to harvest a useful amount…

    • Villager says:

      Do you use it raw in your bread?

      I’m tempted to grow it, but space is at a premium here. From the photos I’ve seen it is ornamental as well as edible.

  6. Karen says:

    We are growing quinoa this year for the first time. Hopefully another week or two and it will be ready for eating. The plants have been very low maintenance, requiring little water or fertilizer. We are planning to use quinoa in salads, pilaf type dishes and puffed as a cereal.

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