Once upon a time, high in the Andes Mountains of South America, near a lake we know as Lake Titicaca, ancient Inca peoples began cultivating what they called chisaya mama, or “mother grain.” This ancient grain, known to us as quinoa (pronounced KEEN-wah), would spread throughout the region and supply the inhabitants of this mountainous, high-altitude region with an incredible food source. The Inca civilization thrived, partly in thanks to nutrient-dense quinoa, and the Inca people marked the beginning of each growing season with a ceremonial planting of this sacred grain.[i]With the arrival of the Spanish Conquistadors, growing quinoa was prohibited, in part to wipe out indigenous culture, and European crops replaced traditional ones, leaving quinoa cultivation to languish. But after a steep decline in production of quinoa, in the 1970s the governments of Bolivia and Peru made the production of quinoa a priority. Shortly after, it was introduced to America by two Coloradans who began growing it high in the Rocky Mountains. Today, this ancient super grain is readily available to Americans, both North and South alike.
Although it looks, tastes, and cooks like a grain, quinoa is technically a seed, belonging to the same family as beets, chard, and spinach. This hardy seed is rather unique in that it actually thrives in conditions inhospitable to most plants: high altitudes, thin air, drought, frost, and poor soil[ii]. Any plant that can thrive in such conditions must have ample nutrient stores and defenses to survive, and quinoa is no exception. It is one of the best plant sources of protein, containing between 16 and 23 percent protein. Quinoa has all nine essential amino acids necessary for human health and contains them in the correct proportion for our bodies to use, making it a complete protein and an ideal protein source for vegans and vegetarians.
Quinoa's traditional use as an energy food is supported by its high levels of B vitamins and iron, as well as phosphorous, an essential part of energy production by the body[iii]. High in magnesium, quinoa also promotes cardiovascular health. And recent research has highlighted high levels of antioxidants, including the bioflavonoid quercetin, which protects the body from free-radical damage and many inflammatory conditions[iv]. These tiny little seeds are also a good source of manganese, copper, vitamin E, and fiber. With a nutritional profile like that, it is no wonder quinoa has such a rich history of use and still captivates us today!
Perhaps the best news about quinoa is that of all this nutrition is packed into a seed that is not only versatile, but delicious too. Quinoa is disk-shaped and bound by a narrow band of germ, the seed's embryo. Once cooked, the germ separates from the seed making a curlicue around it, giving it a slightly crunchy texture to contrast the fluffy, creamy texture of the soft seed. The taste is nutty and earthy and highly adaptable to a number of uses. Quinoa is equally at home in a savory pilaf, a cool summer vegetable salad, as a hot breakfast cereal, or ground into flour to add depth to gluten-free baked goods.
One more thing you should know about quinoa before you make it a regular part of your diet is how to properly prepare it. The outside of the quinoa seed is coated with saponins, which act as a natural insect repellant and protect the growing seeds from birds and intense high-altitude sun. While saponins serve the quinoa plant well, they impart a bitter, almost soapy taste to the seed; but are easily removed by rinsing the quinoa thoroughly with water. Most commercial quinoa production involves a washing and/or milling procedure that removes most of the saponins, so a quick rinse under running water is generally all that is needed. Quinoa is quick and simple to prepare—taking only 15 to 20 minutes to cook—which makes it an ideal addition to quick weeknight dinners. And as already mentioned, it is extremely versatile and will stand up well to almost any ingredient, sweet or savory, you choose to add. So delicious and full of nutrients, quinoa will quickly gain a “super-grain” status in your everyday cooking repertoire.
To cook quinoa, bring two cups of water to a boil over high heat. Add one cup of rinsed quinoa, cover and reduce the heat to a simmer. Cook undisturbed for 15 minutes, then remove the pan from the heat and allow the quinoa to sit covered an additional five minutes. Fluff and enjoy!
Summer Quinoa Pilaf with Shrimp
2 cups of quinoa (rinsed and drained well)
4 cups of water or broth
1 bunch of asparagus
1 pound medium shrimp, peeled and deveined
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon lemon juice
½ cup fresh basil, minced
½ cup red onion, diced
Sea salt and pepper, to taste
Bring water or broth to a boil over high heat in a medium saucepan and add the quinoa. Cover and reduce heat to low; simmer10 minutes. While the quinoa is cooking, prepare asparagus by discarding the tough ends and breaking each stalk into one-inch pieces. After 10 minutes of cooking the quinoa, quickly add the prepared asparagus and shrimp to the pot. Replace cover and simmer another 5 minutes. Remove from heat and allow to sit covered for an additional 5 minutes. Fluff with a fork and transfer to a serving bowl. Toss with remaining ingredients and serve with a big side salad for a complete meal.
Quinoa and Pistachio Salad
Serves 6 (as a side)
1 cup quinoa (rinsed and drained well)
1 cup chicken or vegetable broth
½ cup water
½ cup orange juice
1/3 cup coarsely chopped cilantro
¼ cup olive oil
3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
½ teaspoon ground cumin
½ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon cayenne
2 large garlic cloves, coarsely chopped
½-3/4 cups roasted red pepper, chopped
12 olives, pitted and chopped
½ cup chopped pistachios
Place quinoa, broth, ½ cup water and juice in a large saucepan; bring to a boil. Cover, reduce heat and simmer 12 minutes, or until liquid is absorbed.
Place cilantro and next 6 ingredients (through garlic) in a food processor; process until smooth. Combine roasted pepper, cooked quinoa, cilantro mixture and olives in a large bowl. Gently stir to mix. Sprinkle with nuts and serve. Make this a complete meal with baked or poached fish and steamed veggie of your choice. Tip: The citrus juices and spices used in this recipe make a nice fish marinade when combined with a little olive oil.
Quinoa Cakes with Spinach and Goat Cheese
Makes about 20 small cakes
Recipe from thebarefootkitchen.com
2 cups spinach, roughly chopped
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 cups cooked quinoa
4 ounces goat cheese
1 egg, beaten
Salt and pepper
2-4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
Wash and chop the spinach, pat dry. Heat 1 tablespoon of olive oil in a medium skillet over low heat. Sauté the garlic until lightly browned, about a minute, then add the spinach. Cover, and cook briefly until spinach is wilted. Set aside to cool.
In a medium saucepan, mix the quinoa and goat cheese over low heat (to help melt the cheese). Remove from heat when well combined.
Finely chop the cooked spinach and mix with the quinoa and goat cheese. Beat the egg and mix in until everything is combined. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
Form the quinoa into 2-inch patties about ½-inch thick. Heat one tablespoon of olive oil over medium heat in a non-stick skillet. Drop 2 to 4 (depending on pan size) patties into the oil and cook until browned on one side, 2 to 3 minutes. Flip and cook on the other side, about 1 minute more. Place on paper towels to drain. Repeat cooking procedure until all cakes are cooked, adding additional oil as needed. Serve as a healthy appetizer or with sautéed chicken breasts and a big side salad for a complete meal.
Quinoa Breakfast Porridge
2 cups cooked quinoa
1 cup milk (or substitute almond, rice, or coconut milk)
½ cup raisins
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
½ cup shredded coconut
1 medium apple, chopped
1 cup chopped or slivered almonds
Raw, unfiltered honey, to serve (optional)
In a medium saucepan, combine cooked quinoa with milk and heat over medium heat, bringing just to a simmer. Add raisins and cinnamon, cover and reduce heat to simmer for about 5 to 10 minutes, until the quinoa is heated through and the milk is starting to be absorbed. Stir in the rest of the ingredients and serve with honey on the side. For a complete breakfast, serve with your favorite sausage or scrambled eggs on the side.
[ii]The New Whole Foods Encyclopedia by Rebecca Wood
[iii]The World's Healthiest Foods by George Mateljan