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The quinoa question. April 7, 2011

Posted by ourfriendben in recipes, wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. Suddenly, I seem surrounded by quinoa. Just the other day, my friend Amy gifted me with samples of red, white and black quinoa (“KEEN-wah”), the tiny, ancient, high-protein grain of South America. Then our local paper featured an article in which James Beard Award-winning chef and cookbook author Michelle Bernstein referred to quinoa as “wonder food.” (Barbecue guru Steven Raichlen lists quinoa in his top healthy food recommendations in the same article.)

Quinoa (Chenopodium quinoa), called the “mother of all grains” in its native Andes, is related to a well-known weed, lamb’s-quarters (Chenopodium album), which makes its home here at Hawk’s Haven and is renowned in herbalist circles for its nutritious leaves. (We pull ours and feed them to the chickens, who seem to relish them.) Lamb’s-quarters also produces abundant seedheads; I wonder if its seeds could be used as a quinoa substitute?

Wikipedia gives an emphatic yes. The leaves can be cooked like spinach but are also used in a variety of Indian dishes, including curries and breads, it notes, and the seeds are used to make gruel. In Africa, lamb’s-quarters are used in traditional medicine, and the seeds have been found at Iron Age sites and in the stomachs of Danish “bog people,” whose bodies have been preserved rather like leather in the acidic bog environment; humans have apparently been eating Chenopodium seeds and leaves for at least 4,000 years. The article even notes that lamb’s-quarters are used as chicken feed!

Another quinoa relative, Good King Henry (Chenopodium bonus-henricus), native to central and southern Europe, was once a popular cottage-garden plant known as the poor man’s asparagus. As the common name implies, the stalks of this perennial species were harvested each spring and cooked like asparagus, and the leaves were later prepared and eaten like spinach.

Chenopodium berlandieri, another quinoa relative, was cultivated throughout the prehistoric Americas and still is in Mexico for its broccoli-like stalks, seeds, and spinach-like leaves. One cultivated variety is known in Mexico as ‘Chia’ (not to be confused with Chia Pets, which use an entirely different plant, Salvia hispanica, also the source of chia seeds, another current health-food craze). A bit of trivia: The Mexican state of Chiapas is named for chia (S. hispanica), indicating its importance as a food crop. 

But I digress. What of quinoa, and why haven’t I tried it before? Well, three things: The tiny seeds look more like birdseed than food. They’re protected by a bitter saponin coating, so the seeds have to be washed (and washed and washed) to remove it and render the seed edible, which, as one package noted, depletes flavor and nutrients. Not to mention it’s a huge pain when dealing with seeds the size of pinheads, roughly the size of couscous, seeds that make millet look big. The third drawback is best described by Amy (who actually loves quinoa) herself: “Let me just warn you that quinoa looks, well, a little unusual when it’s cooked. The cooked seeds have these little tails that come out.” All I could think of were developing tadpole eggs. Now, I myself am very fond of frogs and toads, but that doesn’t mean I want to eat their eggs. Gack!

On the plus side, quinoa is highly nutritious, so much so than none other than the great plantsman Luther Burbank introduced it to the U.S. as a food crop. It’s high in fiber and has the best amino acid profile of any grain, making it comparatively high in protein, as well as having decent amounts of vitamins B1, B2, B6 , and folate, and the minerals magnesium, iron, phosphorus, and zinc. It’s also gluten-free, good news for folks like Amy who are gluten-intolerant. And the package claims that it’s as versatile as rice.

But how do you cook it? The package of white quinoa seed, from Eden Organic (which also says it rubs off the saponin layer so you don’t have to go through the ordeal, which we’ll read more about in a minute), suggests that you rinse 1 cup of the seeds in cold water, add them to 1 1/4 cups of boiling water, then cover, reduce heat, and simmer for 12 minutes. Finally, let stand for 5 minutes, fluff, and serve. 

Well, that sounds easy enough. But I had a hunch that you could make quinoa in your rice cooker, too, so I pulled down The Ultimate Rice Cooker Cookbook (Beth Hensperger and Julie Kaufmann, The Harvard Common Press, 2002), and sure enough, there it was, along with a description of the taste and texture that I found a bit, well, disquieting. Amy had described the flavor as nutty and the texture as crunchy, a descriptor that brings to mind undercooked rice. Ow!

Here’s what Ms. Hensperger and Ms. Kaufmann have to say: “The seed is a round, flat disc with a very mild flavor that has a gentle tangy aftertaste. Quinoa turns translucent and fluffy when cooked. A hoop-like bran layer surrounds each grain, and it looks like a half-moon-shaped crescent or curly tail in the pot with the grain after cooking (a sure sign it is cooked enough). Quinoa is very light and extremely digestible, with a surprising crunch despite its tiny size.” Ack, there’s that crunch part again, reminding me of the descriptions of edible insects featured in yesterday’s post, “Stinkbugs: The final solution.” But again, I digress.

The authors note that “You can add tamari soy sauce, minced fresh herbs, garam masala, or cumin to the water to vary the flavor.” (Or, perhaps, simply to add flavor.) Then they tell you how to get that saponin layer, designed to protect the seed from insects, who apparently can’t stand the taste either, off: “Place the quinoa in a deep bowl, fill with cold water, and rub between your fingers. Drain in a fine strainer. Rinse two or three times, until the foam disappears.” Sound like fun? I didn’t think so.

Once you’ve washed off the saponin, to cook quinoa in a rice cooker, the authors recommend using 1 1/2 cups quinoa to 2 cups water or chicken stock (I, of course, would use veggie stock) and 1/4 teaspoon salt. When the machine switches to the Keep Warm cycle, let it sit for 10 minutes, then fluff with the rice paddle before serving. You can hold it on the Keep Warm cycle for up to an hour, according to the authors, before serving hot or cooling and refrigerating for future salads.

They also point out that quinoa makes a great dessert cooked in fruit juice (they use orange or passion fruit-orange juice, add brown sugar, butter, salt, and toasted chopped nuts, then serve with heavy cream). Hmmm. This sounds good in principle, except for that crunch thing. I wonder if brown rice wouldn’t be better.

But their most interesting recipe was for a quinoa tabbouleh that substitutes cooked, cooled quinoa for the usual bulgur wheat. They combine the quinoa with diced tomato, cucumber, red onion, and minced parsley, then drizzle it with a dressing of lemon juice, olive oil, Tabasco sauce, and black pepper, stirring to combine. Amy also prefers her quinoa in a chilled salad. She mixes in crumbled feta cheese, cucumbers, chopped artichokes, tomatoes, and diced scallions (green onions). I’d add sliced kalamata olives to the mix and a little extra-virgin olive oil, salt or Trocomare, black or lemon pepper, and fresh-squeezed lemon juice.

The Eden package offers a hot variation on this theme: Minted Quinoa. Once you’ve cooked the quinoa, you add ume plum vinegar, extra-virgin olive oil, toasted pine nuts, chopped scallions, chopped fresh mint, blanched cauliflower florets, and blanched diced carrots, stir, and serve. (Lots-o-crunch in here! I wonder if sauteeing the blanched cauliflower and carrots in the oil, then adding the cooked quinoa to the saute, and finishing with the other ingredients wouldn’t make a richer, more flavorful dish. Not to mention subbing that veggie stock for the quinoa cooking water.)

Hmmm. Who else is cooking quinoa, and how are they cooking it? Mollie Katzen has a couple of quinoa recipes in her Vegetable Heaven (Hyperion, 1997). One is a simple mix of cooked quinoa and millet (page 88) combined with processed-to-meal, dry-roasted cashews and sunflower seeds. (She suggests topping it with citrus wedges, cherry tomatoes, minced parley, or grated carrots to add some color; I’d bet that adding some plain yogurt and powdered cumin or curry powder would kick it up a bit, too.) 

But Mollie also has a recipe for Couscous-Quinoa Tabbouli (page 6), and it looks like a winner. As noted, quinoa and couscous are about the same size and seem like a natural combination. Jazzed up with cumin, coriander, parsley, mint, scallions, red onion, cucumber, garlic, cinnamon, salt, black pepper, lemon juice, and extra-virgin olive oil, and topped with (optional) cherry tomatoes and/or toasted walnuts, served with warm pita, this sounds like a flavor fiesta that’s only waiting for herbed crumbled feta and plain yogurt, hummus, and/or baba ghannouj on the side to take it from good to great.

Needless to say, I’d only begun to look for quinoa recipes in my extensive cookbook collection. I just knew that the innovative vegan chef Bryant Terry would have done great things with quinoa, so I pulled his Vegan Soul Kitchen (DeCapo/Long Life, 2009) and Grub, the book he coauthored with Anna Lappe (Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin, 2006). Though the title Grub brings those edible insects unfortunately and forcibly back to mind, Chef Terry didn’t disappoint. On page 195, He suggests cooking 1 cup quinoa in 1 cup coconut milk with 1 cup water and 1/2 teaspoon salt. (Bring the liquids and salt to a boil before adding the quinoa with 2 tablespoons dried unsweetened coconut, return to a boil, reduce heat, cover, simmer for 20 minutes, remove from the heat, allow to sit, covered, for 5 more minutes, then fluff and serve.) He also gives a luscious-sounding, uncomplicated recipe for Quinoa-Stuffed Cabbage Packages (see pages 214-215 of Grub), which he swears will bring prosperity in the new year. 

In Vegan Soul Kitchen, Chef Terry presents his Power Porridge (pages 132-133), using those Inca and Aztec power seeds, quinoa and amaranth, to kick start your morning with protein, calcium, fiber, and minerals. But as a cornbread fanatic, what caught my attention was his recipe for Quinoa-Quinoa Cornbread (page 159, so called beacuse he adds both whole quinoa and quinoa flour to his cornmeal, unbleached flour, and other ingredients to make a super-nutritious cornbread with, in his words, “a rich, nutty flavor and some crunch.” He also recommends cubing leftover pieces with garlic and olive oil and baking them for croutons.

Continuing the search, I saw that Donna Klein had included a yummy-sounding Curried Quinoa Salad with Mango on page 71 of her book, The Tropical Vegan Kitchen (Home/Penguin, 2009). Basically, you cook the quinoa, then add canola oil, cider vinegar, mango chutney, mild curry powder, salt, dry mustard, freshly ground black pepper, chopped fresh mango, chopped seedless cucumber, and sliced scallions. (I’ll bet the fresh mango salsa now available from groceries’ produce sections would make a fine substitute for the mango and veggies.) Sounds like a must-try!

Finally, I looked in How to Cook Everything Vegetarian by Mark Bittman (John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2007). Mind you, I’m not normally a big fan of these huge, all-inclusive tomes; I don’t trust them, and they bore me. But I had to admire Bittman for tackling vegetarianism, so I’d broken down and bought it. So okay, I had to admit it: Mark Bittman takes the prize for largest number of quinoa recipes in any Silence Dogood-owned cookbook.

In addition to discussing quinoa, quinoa flour, and quinoa pasta, Mark presents recipes for quinoa with silky cabbage, cottage cheese pancakes with quinoa, white bean and sage tart crust with quinoa, baked quinoa with goat cheese, caramelized quinoa with leeks, caramelized quinoa with onions, roasted quinoa with potatoes and cheese, red peppers stuffed with goat cheese and quinoa, quinoa-ricotta dumplings, spicy quinoa and carrot rosti, quinoa and parsnip rosti, quinoa salad with lemon, spinach, and poppy seeds, quinoa salad with tempeh, and finally, Southwestern quinoa and sweet potato salad. Hmmm, looks like this will keep me busy for some time. Thanks, Mark!

I’ll keep you all posted about my quinoa-cooking progress, and, of course, how our friend Ben and I like the various quinoa-centric dishes. Meanwhile, please, if you have experience cooking and enjoying quinoa, share your tips and recipes here!

                  ‘Til next time,

                           Silence

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