Quinoa is a nutritional powerhouse! For about 225 calories, 1 cup of these cooked little nuggets provide:
- 5g fiber. That's huge!
- 8g protein and 3.5g fat
- Energy-releasing B vitamins, that aid in energy metabolism
- Vitamin B6, an important brain nutrient that also helps the body produce protein
- Folic acid, another important brain nutrient, which also helps maintain red blood cells
- Iron, a mineral which transports oxygen to working muscles
- Magnesium, a mineral that helps the body produce energy from carbohydrates, protein and fats
- Zinc, a mineral that helps heal wounds and helps us smell and taste foods
- Copper, a mineral that helps maintain healthy red blood cells
This amazing whole grain, called a "wonder grain" by its founders, and considered the "mother of all grains" to the Incas of Peru. As important to South Americans as buffalo was to North Americans, it is said that each year the first seeds were planted with a gold spade to commemorate the growing season. Mixed with bear fat and called "war balls", this tiny grain was used to sustain Incan armies.
Spanish conquerors forced the Incans to give it up, but because quinoa grows well in rocky, high altitude terrain, it sustained itself in the altiplano highlands of the Andes Mountains. To this day, quinoa is an important food in South American cuisine and is still grown in Peru, Chile and Bolivia, where it's called "little rice." About 25 years ago, it was re-introduced to the world and is now also farmed in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, in Montana and in high altitude areas of Arizona.
Though not technically a grain, quinoa is actually a member of the goosefoot or Chenopodium family, which also includes beets, spinach and over 200 types of herbs. Quinoa grows into a tall plant with leaves similar to notched spinach and seed clusters that contain up to 100,000 seeds. The seeds are oval and small, about the size of bird-feed millet. Surprisingly, the outer germ coils around the seed. As it cooks, the germ uncoils, forming a little spiral tail. The grain itself is soft when cooked, but the germ retains a crunch, giving it an interesting combination of textures. When cooked, the seeds have a nutty, earthy flavor.
The seeds come in different colors:
- White - The color ranges from ivory to tan, most of it is imported from Ecuador and Bolivia, with a small amount grown in Colorado.
- Red - An Incan heirloom variety is truly red, even after cooking. Imported primarily from Bolivia, it's actually quite bland in flavor. Its bright color makes it ideal for main dishes, sides and salads.
- Black - A dark mahogany, these seeds are a bit smaller than the ivory variety. Imported from the Bolivian Andes, a small amount is also grown in Colorado. Black quinoa has the best flavor and texture when cooked in combination with ivory quinoa.
Nature surrounds the seeds with a protective coating of saponins that shield the seeds from birds and other pests while growing. These quinoa products are also available:
- Quinoa flour, which is used in making breads, pasta and cakes. A fairly heavy flour, it contains no gluten, so any bread made with it will need to also contain wheat for it to rise. (Quinoa does not contain gluten, so it is the grain of choice for those who follow gluten-free cooking and baking.)
- Quinoa flakes can be used as a substitute or in the same way that rolled oats are used, in cookies, breads, as a breakfast cereal, in soups, and polenta-like side dishes.
- Quinoa pasta is a quick-cooking pasta used primarily as a gluten-free substitute for wheat pasta.
Storage and Preparation
It's important to rinse quinoa to remove the natural coating of saponins, , which can impart a bitter, soapy flavor. Some quinoa is already rinsed. Check the package to be sure. Quinoa keeps in a cool, dark place for a year or more.
Cooking with Quinoa
Quinoa is quick-cooking, taking only about 12 to 15 minutes, a perfect grain for a quick dinner or side. Usually simmered in water, chicken or vegetable stock, toasting it first will enhance the nutty flavor of the grain.
Basic Quinoa Recipe
1 cup quinoa
2 cups water or chicken stock
Rinse quinoa thoroughly. (If you like, toast in a large dry skillet on low to medium-low heat for 5 to 7 minutes, stirring occasionally.) Bring water or chicken stock to a boil in a medium saucepan. Stir in quinoa, bring to a boil, cover and reduce heat to low. Simmer for 12 to 15 minutes or until liquid is absorbed and the grain turns transparent. Fluff with a fork.
Quinoa in recipes
Similar to, but lighter than rice, it works well in most of the same ways rice does. Use it in main dishes, sides, soups, salads and puddings. Other ways to use quinoa:
- Its earthy, nutty flavor marries beautifully with bold Southwestern flavors: pine nuts, garlic, chipotles, dried tomatoes, cinnamon.
- In savory recipes, ingredients like corn, black beans, avocado, olive oil, lemon and lime juice, oregano, chile peppers, tomatoes, red bell pepper are very complementary.
- In sweet recipes, chocolate, fresh and dried ginger and honey go well with quinoa.