Ancient Incan Grain is Wildly Popular in North American Households
When I was a kid, my grandma’s pantry was always loaded with burlap sacks full of her favourite grains – oats, wheat, barley, and others that made their way into the porridge pot, soup kettle, salad bowl, and casserole dish. But one ‘grain’ that was unheard of in those days was quinoa – a foodstuff deeply rooted in South American cuisine.
Quinoa was first cultivated by the ancient Incas. They revered it as the “mother of all grains” because it could be used to nourish a woman through a healthy pregnancy, and enrich her breastmilk for nursing the baby. Being easy to digest and a rich source of fibre, iron and calcium, quinoa is not only beneficial for moms-to-be, but is also suitable for invalids and those with a “delicate” stomach.
Most cooks like myself consider quinoa to be a grain because it can be used like grains in many recipes. But, technically speaking, quinoa belongs to the Chenopodium or ‘goosefoot’ family; thus its ripened head is actually a seed – not a grain! Quinoa is closely related to lamb’s quarters, which was one of grandma’s favourite garden weeds for table fare, so I know she would have liked it.
Researchers classify quinoa as a ‘pseudo-cereal’, meaning that even though it is not a true grain grass it can still be ground into flour. Since quinoa is not a member of the wheat family it does not contain gluten, making it suitable for those who are gluten-intolerant or have colitis, celiac, or Crohn’s disease.
Quinoa dishes up lots of protein, thus it’s a good substitute for those trying to cut down on, or eliminate entirely, their meat intake.
Like whole grains, quinoa is reputedly a ‘heart-smart’ food that helps to reduce high blood pressure and keep arteries flowing freely. Quinoa also helps the body ward off gallstones, Type 2 diabetes, and some cancers, and is praised as being a good antioxidant and immune system booster.
Consumer’s Guide to Quinoa
Growing demand in North America has made it easy to find quinoa at health food stores and supermarkets, and when bought in bulk it’s easy on the food budget.
Quinoa seeds (or grains) – are available in three colours: white (the most common), black, and red (a little more exotic and harder to find). They are all said to have equal nutritional value and can be used interchangeably, or mixed together for interesting combos on the plate. My motto is to choose white quinoa to accompany darker foods such as colourful lentils, beans, curries – and black or red quinoa for showcasing lighter coloured foods like pale-coloured lentils and beans, fish, eggs, etc.
Quinoa Flour – can be purchased in various grinds, from very fine to coarser textures. It can be made at home by grinding raw or dry roasted quinoa in a blender, food processor, or mill. It has a slightly nutty flavour and can be used in almost any baking recipe, but is especially nice in cookies, muffins, and other recipes that benefit from a hint of ‘nuttiness’. However, it should be noted that the lack of gluten causes risen breads to be more dense and heavier than all-purpose flour, thus mixing it with other types of flours can help lighten the loaf.
Puffed Quinoa – resembles miniature ‘puffed wheat’. It can be eaten like dry cereal, as a snacking food, or used in baking. Commercial puffed quinoa is made in a vacuum popper which produces a bigger kernel than what could be made at home.
Quinoa Flakes – are available at health food stores. The flakes have the same texture as rolled oats and can be used in the same manner.
Cooking Quinoa (Seeds/Grains)
Boiling – Quinoa triples in size upon boiling in water, and is typically fluffed up with a fork before serving. Being close in size to amaranth seeds and millet, it can be used with good results in many of the same recipes.
Rinse quinoa in a fine sieve under cold running water before cooking. This gets rid of the slightly bitter flavour caused by traces of natural protective coating called saponin. Saponin is usually removed upon processing but some traces may still remain.
My rule of thumb for cooking quinoa is to use one part quinoa to three parts water (stock or other desired liquid). This measurement yields three cups of cooked quinoa, which I find works well for most of my recipes and needs. If this is too much or too little for you, adjust accordingly. You can also increase the water if you prefer a ‘softer’ texture. I enjoy my quinoa ‘al dente’. You’ll know it’s cooked when you see the formation of the delicate little quinoa ‘curlicues’.
Dry roasting – Heat a cast iron skillet or dutch oven and dry roast the rinsed quinoa until it dries and turns golden, shaking the pan constantly to prevent scorching. This produces a nutty flavour and lighter texture.
In a rice cooker – My favourite appliance for cooking quinoa is in my electric rice cooker, which produces perfect results every time. Put quinoa and cold water into the cooker, turn it on, and cook until the liquid is absorbed, at which time the cooker will automatically turn off.
Alternately, follow the instructions according to your own manual.
On the stove top – Put quinoa and cold water into a saucepan, bring to a boil and lower the heat. Cover and simmer until the water is absorbed, about 15 to 20 minutes.
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