It’s a grain. It’s a seed. It’s a superfood. It’s quinoa—and it packs a nutritional punch beyond that of any of its carbohydrate counterparts.
What is Quinoa?
Quinoa (pronounced keen-wah) is an ancient superfood that has been cultivated in South America for centuries. In fact, it earned the nickname “mother grain of the Incas” because the Incas revered it as a sacred plant and their continued cultivation of it probably contributed to the success of the Incan empire.
Quinoa is not a grain, as many would believe, but is actually a seed from the chenopodium plant, which grows at high elevations in cool, arid climates. Some relatives of quinoa include lamb’s quarters, beets, Swiss chard, and spinach. Though quinoa is not technically a grain, it is prepared as one and is often used as a substitute for grains. It has a light, fluffy texture and a mild, slightly nutty flavor.
Nutritional Benefits of Quinoa
Quinoa comes by its superfood status honestly. The seed is high in protein (12 to 18 percent) and contains a near-perfect balance of all eight essential amino acids. As a result, quinoa is one of the only complete proteins among plant foods. It is also high in dietary fiber, phosphorous, magnesium, calcium, iron, and several B vitamins. Finally, quinoa is gluten-free, making it a perfect choice for individuals with gluten intolerance.
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The first and most critical step in preparing quinoa is to give it a quick rinse to remove the bitter, resin-like coating called saponin. Although most commercial quinoa has been pre-rinsed, it’s a good idea to place the quinoa in a fine strainer and run water through it until the soap-like “suds” disappear. (Saponin can act as a laxative and cause mild indigestion.)
After rinsing, prepare quinoa as you would rice—mix two parts water with one part quinoa, bring to a boil, reduce the heat and simmer on low for about 12 to 15 minutes, or until the germ separates from the seed.
There are countless ways to prepare quinoa and it doesn’t have to be limited to a dinnertime side dish. It’s delicious as a warm breakfast “cereal”, mixed with fruit, nuts, and maple syrup or honey. Some culinary adventurers even mix cooked quinoa into pancake or waffle batter.
Cooked quinoa can serve as the base for many different “grain” salads. Toss it with cucumber, watercress, carrots, lemon, and olive oil for a refreshing summer salad. Or stir-fry some fresh veggies and serve over a bed of quinoa for a hearty meal.
Get creative. Anywhere you might use rice, consider substituting quinoa instead. It has a higher nutritional value and cooks faster than most rice. For a savory flavor, replace the cooking water with vegetable or chicken stock. For a creamier, sweeter flavor, add some coconut milk to the mix.
There is no limit to the delicious recipes you can make with quinoa. Enjoy!