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Quinoa: ancient grain with modern uses

Quinoa: ancient grain with modern uses

Quinoa wasn’t always on the foodie radar screen. It rose to prominence several years ago, as the idea of plant-based eating took off. Now it’s seemingly everywhere — in cereal, fake meat products, snack bars, restaurant menus, and prepared foods. You’d think it was the Perfect Food, and a mandatory part of anyone’s plant-based diet. Is it really all that?

I dislike food fads, so I’ve never been on the Quinoa Promotional Bandwagon. There’s nothing wrong with it, but plenty of other grain/seed foods are just as healthful. They just don’t have a giant PR machine on their side. The internet is full of recipes that use quinoa You might conclude that if you’re not into quinoa you’re not eating healthy. In fact, you can eat a wonderfully healthy diet, but never touch quinoa.

Interesting Facts about Quinoa

  • Quinoa is a native plant of South America and was a staple food in the Andes region for thousands of years.
  • Quinoa is not a cereal grain, like wheat. Rather it’s related to beets and spinach. We eat the seeds.
  • The seeds have a soap-like coating, which should be rinsed off before cooking. Packaged quinoa may be pre-rinsed and ready to cook, but you can rinse again if you like.
  • Quinoa is frequently touted as being a “complete protein”, but research on amino acid content shows that the protein quality and content is similar to cereal grains.
  • The quinoa plant tolerates many different climate and soil conditions, which makes it an ideal crop for harsh environments where other crops would do poorly.
  • There are many different varieties of quinoa. Protein content is affected by the variety grown and the local soil and climate.

Protein

One of the main quinoa marketing messsages is the supposedly high, and high quality, protein content. A high protein plant food would be an invaluable addition to a plant based diet, right? But, as noted above, this claim isn’t very accurate. The protein content isn’t remarkable. The protein quality can be somewhat better than that of wheat, but certainly isn’t comparable to milk or soy beans. I wouldn’t depend on quinoa for all my protein needs. A vegetarian or vegan diet still needs to include a variety of protein sources, such as legumes, soy, dairy, nuts and other grains to boost protein. I don’t see the protein content as a reason to choose quinoa over other grains.

Here’s a comparison between wheat and quinoa for some nutrients. The amount is a 43 gram dry “serving”, which cooks up to about 3/4 cup (source is USDA FoodData Central website):

NutrientWheatQuinoa
Protein6 grams6 grams
Calories150158
Fat0.5 grams2.6 grams
Fiber6 grams3 grams
Iron1.4 mg2 mg
Zinc1.1 mg1.3 mg

Like all whole grains, these two are good sources of B-vitamins and minerals like magnesium, potassium and trace minerals.

Cooking Quinoa

Raw quinoa seeds are coated with saponins, soapy substances that repel pests. Soaking or rinsing untreated quinoa will remove this substance. But as I noted, many pre-packaged quinoa products are already rinsed and ready to cook.

NOTE: Even with rinsing, some people just do not handle quinoa well. It’s not dangerous; the problems are more like gas or stomach aches. If you find that quinoa disagrees with you, there are plenty of other grains to substitute. Most recipes that use quinoa can be prepared with other grains like barley, brown rice, farro, freekeh or millet. Couscous is another easy option.

I cooked quinoa in my multi-cooker. The package instructions said 15 minutes on stovetop, but the multi-cooker instructions only required 1 minute of high pressure cooking, followed by 5 minutes of Warm. Well, ok, give it a try. It worked perfectly, so if you’ve got a multi-cooker, I highly recommend it for making quick work of quinoa recipes.

Quinoa has a mild, nutty flavor. It goes well with all sorts of vegetables, nuts and legumes. I wouldn’t overpower it with heavy duty hot sauces or other strong flavors. I put together a quinoa salad with red grapes, pecans, basil and red peppers. Here’s my recipe:

Quinoa Grape salad

April 19, 2022
: 4
: 1 hr
: 30 min
: moderate

I used a multi-cooker to pre-cook the quinoa, then put together the salad a few hours later. It's better to let the cooked quinoa cool down before mixing in the other ingredients.

By:

Ingredients
  • 3/4 cup quinoa (rinsed if necessary)
  • 1 cup water
  • 1 cup seedless red grapes, halved
  • 1 red pepper, cut into small chunks
  • 3/4 cup chopped pecans
  • 1 cup crumbled feta cheese or fresh mozzarella pieces (optional)
  • 2 tsp dried basil
  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  • juice of one lemon
  • salt to taste
Directions
  • Step 1 Cook the quinoa according to package instructions. This recipe is written for a multi-cooker, 1 minute high pressure and then 5 minutes on Warm.
  • Step 2 Put cooked quinoa into a bowl, fluff with a fork, allow to cool.
  • Step 3 Sauté the chopped red pepper briefly, about 3 minutes, in olive oil.
  • Step 4 Add the red pepper, grapes, pecans, olive oil, lemon juice, basil and cheese to the quinoa. Mix gently to combine. Add salt to taste.
  • Step 5 Serve at room temperature, or chill and serve cold.

Take Away Message

Quinoa is a fine addition to your sometimes vegetarian or vegan diet.  Adventurous cooks should give it a try.  It’s easy to use and works well as a vegetable/nut/fruit salad, in a grain bowl, in a veggie burger or as a hot cereal.