It’s hard to believe that quinoa, the “super food,” has only now been recognized as the powerhouse nutritional food that it is. The United Nations General Assembly selected 2013 as the “International Year of Quinoa.” But this quasi-grain (more closely related to spinach and beets than it is to any of the grassy grains) has been feeding people in Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia for thousands of years and has been making its way into the international marketplace for decades.
As a matter of fact, nearly 30 years ago, the natural food store I shopped at (still considered a little subculture back then) stocked this “new” grain, and we began cooking with it. Because quinoa is one of the few grain-like foods that is a complete protein, it had great appeal to the many vegans and vegetarians we knew. Not only that, it looked cool, the tiny, cream-colored seeds turning nearly see-through, with a little white spiral outside, when cooked; and it was delicious.
We substituted quinoa in recipes that called for rice or wheat berries or barley. We toasted it a little in a hot skillet for a roasted flavor, before simmering it in vegetable stock. We stuffed the cooked quinoa into red and green peppers, eggplant, and zucchini.
Quinoa made a good breakfast porridge, we discovered, simmered with raisins, cinnamon, maple syrup, and almond milk. A scattering of chopped walnuts or almonds over the top, and some seasonal berries didn’t hurt, either.
I have used cooked quinoa in vegetarian chili to bulk up the spicy stew, both nutritionally and on the palate. It has shown up on our dinner plates topped with Morroccan-style vegetables, or topped with leftover curried tofu and peas.
I will admit that I strayed from using quinoa for a number of years. The rising international interest in quinoa has led to controversy. Indigenous people in some areas of Bolivia and Peru are growing quinoa for its market value, and consuming less. This means that many in greatest need of its nutritional content are turning away from eating quinoa, due to its increased price locally. According to the July 2013 Aljazzera report “Quinoa Boom A Mixed Blessing For Bolivians,” prices have risen 10-fold since 2000.
There is the argument that quinoa farmers are able to substantially improve their quality of life, because of the new demand for quinoa around the world. But an exploitation of land use and traditional farming practices could backfire, leaving quinoa farmers with less than they ever had, at some point in the future.
So, there’s the quandary: eat a healthy alternative simply because it is there; or be a one-woman boycott against taking food from the mouths of those in greater need.
There is some production of the crop in the United States, in Colorado, California, Washington, and Oregon, but I can’t imagine it will ever challenge the 58,000 tons produced last year by Bolivia alone.
I’ve compromised, or perhaps merely rationalized, on my use of quinoa. I buy it sparingly, and I try to buy brands that are either grown stateside, or that profess to be highly supportive of the farmers that have harvested this ancient food. Buying and cooking with quinoa, like so many foods we have access to today, is a personal decision.
Quinoa cooks up quickly. Using a mesh-lined or very fine sieve, rinse and drain the quinoa. This removes the natural coating called saponins, which protect the plant from birds and bugs. They taste pretty nasty and can cause stomach upset, so even if a packaged quinoa says it is “pre-rinsed,” I tend to give the seeds a good swish, anyway.
Using a 2:1 ratio of liquid to quinoa, bring it to a boil, reduce to a simmer and cover tightly. The quinoa should be done in about 15 to 20 minutes. A little olive oil, salt and pepper, and lemon juice turns plain quinoa into a quick side dish. Naturally, there are plenty of fresh herbs — rosemary, parsley, or dill, for instance — that marry well with quinoa, not to mention turning it into a fiesta on the tongue with the compatible additions of curries, chili powders, minced hot peppers, cilantro, crushed red pepper, or toasted cumin seeds for a spicy side dish to grilled fish or chicken.
Quinoa is a favorite “go-to” in warmer months. Its quick-cooking quality means that it does not heat up the kitchen. Because it does not have a particularly robust flavor, it is the perfect starting point for a main course salad; depending on the fruits, vegetables, herbs and spices, as well as the dressing selected, it is a chameleon-like in its versatility.
Getting back to the “super food” designation, it should be noted that in the poorer sections of the South American countries that grow quinoa, it is considered a vital food. Whether it is the pale golden seed, or red or even black variety of quinoa, (which I have found to take about 5 minutes longer to cook), not only is it a protein-rich food, but one that contains high levels of potassium, magnesium, iron, and calcium.
More recent research, as reported by www.whfoods.com, a foundation of Health Valley Foods founder George Mateljan, shows that quinoa contains greater concentrations of antioxidant and anti-inflammatory phytonutrients, such as quercetin and kaempferol, than common grains like wheat and barley. Quinoa is a gluten-free food, offering an alternative for those suffering from celiac disease.
Different foods are fun, and it is good to appreciate the bounty of the world. When eaten with a thankful heart, I think the idea of cooking with quinoa is easy to digest.