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Cooking with Keen-wha?

By John DiGilio in Food on Aug 25, 2011 7:00PM


Quinoa. You might not know how to pronounce it, but you have probably seen it on a menu or two or in the health food section of your local grocery store. To the untrained eye, it looks like a grain... almost like rice. But cooks and healthy eating aficionados know that it is something more. Quinoa is an ancient and nearly perfect food, as good for you as it is good tasting. As the fight against obesity and unhealthy diets ratchets up, we think you are going to be seeing and eating a lot more of it in the days ahead.

Pronounced keen-wah, this super food is actually a seed and not a grain. What makes it so valuable from a nutritional standpoint is that each tiny seed is packed with protein. In fact, outside of lean meats, it has the highest concentration of protein per ounce. Quinoa is also a great source of amino acids, iron, fiber and calcium. Add to that the fact that it is filling in the tummy and you can see the true dietary implications. Originating in South America, the plant was actually considered sacred to the ancient Incas. They seem to have been among the first to recognize its true power and palate pleasing qualities.

Quinoa can be cooked and used as though it were a grain. In fact, it makes an excellent and healthier alternative to white rice. From hot cereal-like dishes, to cold salads, and tasty sides, quinoa is very versatile in the kitchen. It cooks up fluffy and has a mildly nutty flavor that does not overpower anything with which it is served. Our only real complaint, and one we can live with for now, is that given its newness and exotic nature, quinoa is still fairly expensive to buy in the store. It is not uncommon for a single package to run anywhere from four to ten dollars. Luckily a little bit goes a very long way. There is not a lot of difference between the kinds you find in the stores (red or white, for example). But you will pay more for fancier brands that are guaranteed organic. Oh! And did we mention that it is gluten free? Another plus for gluten allergy sufferers.

Our favorite ways to serve quinoa are either straight up as a side dish or with an assortment of dried fruits and nuts as a morning cereal. Preparing it is easy. Most store brands are ready to be cooked without soaking or rinsing. Check your package to be sure. We like the red quinoa for its deep wine-like color. There is not really a taste difference otherwise. Just add one cup of dry quinoa to two cups of water with a pinch of salt. Bring it to a boil over high heat before reducing to a simmer and covering. It should take about 10 to 15 minutes for it to absorb the water, get soft, and fluff out. You know your quinoa is done when it looks like the seeds have sprouted little tails. This is the seed germ popping out. It may look a little odd, but trust us, it is good. Add a little butter and seasoning and you have a great side dish. For a healthy morning cereal, try adding raisins, honey, nuts, and/or dried cranberries. The sky is the limit when something is this good for you!

For other great recipes using quinoa, we recommend the ever-handy VegWeb recipe collection. Eating healthier means taking control of your diet, which itself can mean trying new things. Don't be intimidated by the unusual name, quinoa tastes great and is so good for you. With its versatility and easy preparation, it should be a no-brainer the next time you are stocking your pantry.

Do you have favorite quinoa recipes? If so, share them in the comments below!

Photo by Shizhao.