Friday, October 06, 2006

Quinoa

A food that I've recently discovered and enjoy cooking with is quinoa (pronounced keen-wah). It's been around for 6,000 years -- the Incas called it the "mother grain" -- but it seems to have only recently begun to catch on in modern American cooking. I first tasted it several years ago at Spirits on the River, a Native American restaurant in Asheville, but it took me a while before I started cooking with it.

Quinoa is technically not a grain, but it's treated as one in cooking. It's high in protein -- 12 percent to 18 percent -- which makes it a particularly great addition to a vegetarian's diet. And it's a complete protein because it contains all eight of the essential amino acids. Quinoa is also a pretty good source for iron, calcium and Vitamin E. It's gluten-free and is considered easy to digest.

Its flavor borders on bland, so it makes a great base for salads and casseroles, providing nutrition while other ingredients can supply the balance of the flavor. It has a slightly nutty taste (particularly if you toast the seeds before cooking). I've successfully substituted it for rice and couscous in recipes -- my most recent use was substituting it for bulgar wheat in tabbouleh. You could also use it in place of oatmeal for a protein-rich breakfast.

Uncooked quinoa looks like tiny seeds, but once it cooks, it takes on a much different appearance -- the germ twists outward and forms a tiny, white, curved "tail." It cooks much like rice -- boil 1 part quinoa in 2 parts water for 15 to 18 minutes until it's soft and fluffy, but with a bit of a crunch left.

The seeds have a bitter coating called saponin, which needs to be rinsed off before using. Most of the quinoa you'll find in the supermarkets is already prewashed, but some of the saponin could remain, so it's best to rinse it yourself, too. Make sure you use a colander with VERY small holes, or you'll lose some of your precious quinoa down the drain!

Here's a recipe for a tart, fruity salad that I adapted from a recipe in the October 2006 issue of Natural Health magazine. The original called for rice, but I used quinoa instead.

Minty Orange and Cranberry Quinoa Salad

1 cup uncooked quinoa, rinsed
2 cups water
1/2 c. champagne (or white wine) vinegar
1/3 c. freshly squeezed orange juice (about one orange)
1 T. extra virgin olive oil
1 heaping tablespoon finely grated orange zest
1/4 t. salt
1/4 t. black pepper
1 11-ounce can of mandarin oranges, drained, sections cut in half
2/3 c. dried cranberries
2 T. chopped fresh mint
1/4 cup toasted slivered almonds

Boil quinoa in water for 15 minutes, until soft. Let cool.

In a small bowl, whisk together next six ingredients (vinegar through pepper). Pour over cooked quinoa and toss gently to coat. Add orange sections, cranberries, mint and almonds. Toss gently until well mixed. If you let it sit for a while in the refrigerator, the dressing with rehydrate the cranberries and soften them.

You can also find quite a few quinoa recipes here: http://cgi.fatfree.com/cgi-bin/fatfree/recipes.cgi?quinoa

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