Keen On Quinoa

This ancient grain is a super food for vegetarians, the the glutten-sensitive and anyone looking for a healtful dish

January 09, 2008|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,Sun reporter

In a month when we're all searching for healthful food, quinoa, an ancient staple of the Andes Mountains, is a great place to turn. For those with celiac disease, it's a gluten-free grain; for vegans, a complete protein. It's a cereal, a pilaf, a whole-grain crust, a vegetable stuffer, a surprise binder in baked goods.

Quinoa (pronounced keen-wa) seems to speak the language of every cuisine. And when its germ uncoils during cooking, a batch of quinoa resembles tiny bubbles, ready to add zip rather than weight to a more healthful diet.

Quinoa is also a boon if you're just plain busy. Got a fridge full of leftovers and 15 minutes? Cook some quinoa, toss with meat and vegetables (or even fruit), a few well-chosen spices and some toasted pine nuts, and suddenly you have a harmonious dish.

With more demand from consumers for vegan and gluten-free foods, quinoa is popping up in all kinds of products, from Trader Joe's Quinoa Bread (which makes a surprisingly light and crispy piece of toast) to Quinoa Gold, a line of caffeine-free, gluten-free energy drinks. (Adding quinoa to beverages is not a new idea. According to the Web site vegparadise .com, a Los Angeles-based Web magazine, Incas drank a beer called chicha made from fermented quinoa to celebrate the quinoa harvest.)

"I like to use it because it is so balanced," says Daniela Troia, chef/owner of Zia's in Towson, a cafe and juice bar that emphasizes healthful dishes. "It's pretty much the perfect food."

Troia, of the Cafe Troia family, uses quinoa to make a salad with black beans, lime, red peppers and corn. She's also substituted it for arborio rice in a version of the Italian classic dish risotto.

"It cooks so fast, it'll cook in half the time of a normal risotto," she says. "Whatever I'm going to put in it, I will saute those things on the side and then add the quinoa to that so it really takes on the flavors."

Considered a sacred food by the Incas who cultivated it thousands of years ago, quinoa is related to spinach and chard.

In the book 101 Foods That Could Save Your Life, David Grotto writes that Incan soldiers marched for days sustained by "war balls" of quinoa and fat. Quinoa production went into decline for years in South America after the Spanish conquest, Grotto writes, and only in the past few decades has made a resurgence. Most quinoa still is imported to the United States from countries such as Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador, although it is being cultivated in Colorado, he says.

Regular quinoa is sold in most grocery stores and can be cooked like rice, in about 15 minutes. Red quinoa, cooked the same way, has a deeper, nuttier flavor, which author Robin Asbell used in The New Whole Grains Cookbook to create a pretty crust for the Peruvian snack chicharrones. Dried and baked on shrimp with a coating of flour and egg, the grain becomes delectably crunchy.

You also can find quinoa flour, quinoa pasta and quinoa flakes, which make a quick hot cereal.

"For me, quinoa tastes really clean," says Shauna James Ahern, the author of the book Gluten-Free Girl and the eponymous blog that inspired it (

The recipes on her blog include a fruit-crumble topping with quinoa flakes; red quinoa topped with butternut squash, tofu and red peppers; a summery quinoa salad with smoked salmon and capers; and a pizza crust built with quinoa, tapioca and sweet rice flours.

For an everyday side dish, she prepares red quinoa with onions, garlic and thyme, finished with champagne vinaigrette and sunflower seeds. "It's hard for me to believe that I once had never heard of it, because it's one of my favorite staple foods now," Ahern says.

It's also a staple for John Cunningham, consumer research manager for the Baltimore-based Vegetarian Resource Group, who follows a vegan diet. Quinoa "is not what one would particularly think of as the protein part of the meal," he said. "It's a great way to sneak protein into your diet."

It's also handy for fortifying vegetables as a stuffing. In the introduction to a recipe for quinoa-stuffed peppers in her book, Vegetarian Suppers From Deborah Madison's Kitchen, Deborah Madison writes that "seasoned with cilantro, chiles and cumin and studded with corn and spinach, the quinoa is so compellingly good that you might just want to dive in and forget the peppers altogether."

The complete dish - with pretty peppers and braised red onions - was divine when we tested it, and the quinoa stuffing was indeed good enough to stand alone.

Though most quinoa products these days come ready to use, many experts recommend rinsing quinoa seeds before cooking with them. They can be coated with saponin, a natural detergent that clings to the plant's cuticle and can leave a bitter taste. (Drain the small seeds in a tightly woven sieve to keep them from escaping.)

Quinoa flour can offer a gluten-free baking alternative to wheat flour, though many experts don't advise substituting it alone.

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