Quinoa is a plant native to the Andes and has been known for over fives thousand years. It was a staple food of the Incas, who considered it sacred, and it was referred to as the ‘mother grain’ (Chisaya Mama) or ‘gold of the Incas’.
It comes in a variety of colours (white, pale yellow, red, brown and black) and nowadays is sold in grains, flour or flakes.
Although generally referred to as a grain (mainly due to its appearance), technically is the seed of a leafy plant called Chenopodium quinoa, which is distantly related to the spinach plant.
The grain itself is small and round, with a fine band around it, which ends with a sort of tiny ‘tail’. This tail is hardly noticeable in the raw grain, but it spirals out when it cooks, making it look like a sort of ring, clearly visible around the grain.
The most interesting thing about quinoa is that it can be considered an almost complete food: very high in proteins, full of vitamins, gluten-free, cholesterol-free and, last but not least, delicious.
Something that needs to be mentioned is quinoa protein content. As you might know, proteins are the building blocks of our bodies, and are made by chains of amino acids. Amino acids can be grouped in non-essential (i.e. those that our body can produce) and essential (those that our body cannot produce and need to be obtained from food).
Animal proteins contain all the essential amino acids, whilst vegetable proteins, in general don’t.
However, quinoa is an exception to this rule as it contains all the essential amino acids, thus providing complete proteins, to the extent that the quality of its protein has been likened by the World Health Organisation as being closest to milk.
This characteristic makes it a very important addition to a vegetarian or (even more) vegan diet, or it can simply be useful for someone who wants to cut down on meat.
In addition, quinoa contains more calcium than cow’s milk, has got excellent antioxidant properties, is rich in fibre, contains more unsaturated fats than any grain plus a low Glycemic index (i.e. the carbs are released slowly and steadily in the blood stream and this gives the body more time to use the energy without turning them into fat).
Having said this about the benefits of quinoa, we can now switch to the culinary part, which is just as important, because the only way to stick to a healthy diet is enjoying it. If eating healthy food is seen as a sacrifice, it will not work in the long run.
Rather than giving a specific recipe, I will explain how to cook the quinoa in its grain form, which is the most common, and for now simply think that you could use it as a replacement for boiled rice, for example. Detailed recipes will come in the next posts.
This is the process:
- First I suggest that you rinse thoroughly the grains. This is needed because quinoa seeds are covered in a soapy-like substance called ‘saponin’. Saponin is very bitter and prevents birds and insects from eating the seeds.
Although commercially available quinoa normally comes pre-washed and ready to cook, it is good practice to rinse it. In order to do that, simply place it in a fine sieve and rinse under cold tap water, rubbing it between your finger tips, and drain well.
Due to the size of the grains, you will need a very fine sieve.
- The second step is optional, and it is toasting, which adds a nutty taste. To do that, dry-roast the grains in a pan until the start to pop (a bit like pop corn but on a much smaller scale; you won’t need to keep the lid on) and release a nice nutty aroma. White quinoa is ready when it turns golden brown, other colours are more difficult to asses.
Some people like it toasted, some don’t, and it also depends on what you are using your quinoa for, so I suggest you try both and decide for yourself.
- Finally, place the rinsed (and toasted if you like it) quinoa in a sauce pan with three parts liquid (water, vegetable stock or even milk), salt to taste, bring it to the boil and then simmer gently until all the liquid has been absorbed (10-15 minutes)
Your quinoa is now read y to be used as part of another dish, a salad or instead of rice.