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.
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.
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’.