Quinoa: the fuel of armies, astronauts, Martha & Oprah
The ancient Incas called quinoa "the mother grain" and considered it a sacred food, more valuable than gold.
QUINOA: AN ANCIENT Andean wonder fit for armies and astronauts? This power food ought to be able to get me through my day.
A few years ago, quinoa was considered a niche food, known only to vegetarians and people with gluten intolerance. Today the nutrition-loaded plant from South America is something of a star, showing up in everything from pancakes to meatballs. Even Martha Stewart and Oprah are fans.
The ancient Incas called quinoa "the mother grain" and considered it a sacred food, more valuable than gold. The plants grow in the thin, cold air of the Andes Mountains where you would least expect crops to thrive. But thrive they do.
South Americans have consumed the power-packed seeds for thousands of years; Incan armies were said to rely on quinoa for strength and energy. Production declined after the Spanish conquest, but is up again because of export demand. A couple of decades ago NASA reportedly deemed the plant ideal for space missions — it is full of protein and other nutrients, and it's easy to store for long periods.
Technically, quinoa is not a grain but a broadleaf plant that produces tiny seeds. It's the tasty minuscule seeds that all the fuss is about. Most commonly available in the U.S. are white and red quinoa, although it comes in a rainbow of colors. When cooked, it is fluffy and light like couscous. Quinoa is as easy to cook as rice or couscous, and way more nutritious. The basic method is two parts water to one part quinoa, simmer for 10 minutes, let sit 5 minutes, then fluff.
Because quinoa does not contain gluten, it has long been popular with the gluten-intolerant. But it is healthy for all of us, packed not only with protein, but also with antioxidants, vitamins and minerals, as well as all the essential amino acids. It's hard to believe all this nutrition comes in such a small package. No wonder it tops the superfood list.
The thing is, despite all the health claims, it really tastes incredible. It has a nutty flavor and crunches slightly when you eat it, kind of like caviar. For the past couple of years, I had been making quinoa in salads and meatloaf, but that was about it. I'm always trying to bring more whole foods and plant-based protein to the table. (At home, I quote food writer Michael Pollan the way some people quote the Bible: "Eat real food, mostly plants.")
So I picked up "Quinoa 365: The Everyday Superfood" (Whitecap Books, $29.95) and began to work the miracle food into more family meals. The book, written by sisters Patricia Green and Carolyn Hemming, offers recipes for everything from soup to cake; there's even a chapter on baby food. Green and Hemming suggest making a pot of quinoa on the weekend to draw from during the week. I started to toss it into muffins and burgers, sauces and smoothies, experimenting with the flavor of white compared to red and black, and sometimes mixing colors in one dish. And in going against the grain, so to speak, I got hooked.
But the real test came when my mother suggested I try quinoa for breakfast as a healthier alternative to oatmeal. For breakfast? That just didn't seem obvious to me. I turned, of course, to Martha Stewart. She calls for cooking quinoa in milk and adding brown sugar and cinnamon. I made it twice, once with white quinoa and once with red (it's better with white; red is a bit strong). Both times I topped the cereal with sliced almonds and fresh fruit. While my husband and I loved it, the children nearly gagged. My kids do, however, love quinoa for lunch and dinner, especially turkey-quinoa meatloaf and Mexican salad with tomato, avocado, corn, black beans and cilantro. From "Quinoa 365," big hits were the zesty Tomato Quinoa Salad (a riff on tabbouleh) and the Mexican Casserole with zucchini and bell peppers. Next on the list is chocolate cake.
I buy quinoa in bulk at PCC, and a buyer there told me that there was a worldwide shortage earlier this year when Oprah touted the mini-miracles. Prices soared, and the sought-after seeds went scarce. Supplies (and prices) are on the rise, he said, but the popularity does make quinoa hard to keep in stock.
While the craze up north may have put money in farmers' pockets in quinoa-producing countries like Bolivia, recent news reports have indicated that some South Americans can no longer afford the superstar seed that was a staple for millennia. Quinoa has been difficult to grow in North America, but farmers are having some success in the Colorado Rockies and Canadian Prairie Provinces. The taste, though, is different from Bolivian quinoa.
From ancient armies to modern-day astronauts, this little seed from high in the Andes is taking the world by storm. Let's just hope there's enough to go around.
Catherine M. Allchin is a Seattle-based freelance writer.
Tomato Quinoa Salad
Serves 4 to 6
½ cup quinoa
1 cup water
¼ cup fresh lemon juice
2 tablespoons tomato paste
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 teaspoon finely minced pickled jalapeño pepper
¼ teaspoon chili powder
¼ teaspoon salt
2 cups diced tomato
¼ cup finely chopped fresh parsley
¼ cup finely chopped fresh mint
1/3 cup thinly sliced green onion
1. Bring the quinoa and water to a boil in a medium saucepan. Cover, reduce to a simmer and cook for 10 minutes. Turn the heat off and leave the covered saucepan on the burner for another 4 minutes. Fluff with a fork and allow the quinoa to cool.
2. In a small bowl, blend the lemon juice, tomato paste, oil, jalapeño, chili powder and salt and mix well.
3. In a separate bowl, combine the quinoa, tomato, parsley, mint and onion. Add the dressing to the quinoa mixture just before serving.
— from "Quinoa 365: The Everyday Superfood"
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