Quinoa is an ancient plant sown and eaten by the inhabitants of the Andes Mountains in Peru and Bolivia, for possibly thousands of years before the Spanish conquest brought cereal grains to the region. While both the leaves and seeds are edible, most people only eat the seeds in modern recipes.
The simple flavor and appealing rice-like texture of quinoa make it easy to imbue with flavor for serving as a side dish with meat, fish or poultry. It also makes an excellent substitute for stuffing, holding together well with the addition of other ingredients such as finely chopped nuts, mushrooms, dried fruit or pre-cooked wild rice, and egg or flour as binding components. Quinoa makes a good gluten-free substitute for dishes such as couscous or barley salad.
Quinoa seeds are naturally coated with saponin, a bitter tasting element produced by the plant itself, probably as a defense mechanism to insure plenty of seeds left behind by birds or other animals for future generations of the plant. It is harmless, and most commercially available quinoa has already been processed in a way to remove most of the saponin. Still, you can rinse your quinoa using a fine mesh strainer under cold water to be sure. Rinsing also begins to soften the quinoa, making it more open to accepting whatever flavorings you add to it. You can also toast the quinoa lightly in a skillet on top of the stove before cooking it in liquid, to enhance its naturally nutty quality.
Quinoa can be prepared by simply cooking in water until tender, as with any carbohydrate (grains, seeds, legumes, potatoes). Also, as with any other carbohydrate, cooking quinoa in a broth or seasoned water enhances the flavor and nutritional value of this already nutrient-dense seed as a side dish.
Chicken, beef, pork or vegetable broth used in place of plain water for cooking will stretch the ways in which quinoa can be used to expand your list of healthy side dishes. Quinoa can also be used in place of rice or oats as breakfast porridge by adding a touch of sugar and cinnamon to the water, then adding in cream and honey once it’s in the bowl.
Quinoa can be tricky to cook, in that it can easily become mushy. Whether or not you rinse or toast the quinoa first, it will absorb water more easily and more quickly than rice, so be sure to use less liquid than is called for by the package instructions. The amount of liquid to quinoa recommended by most packages is 2 to 1, which will result in fine mush, but if you’re not looking for mush, reduce it to 1.5 to 1, and be sure to let the quinoa sit off of the heat, with the cover off for at least 5 minutes after all liquid has been absorbed, so it can show off its fluffy self.
Ancient foods, like quinoa, have survived for thousands of years, and yet, like ancient wisdom, sometimes they need a little dusting off and reworking to remind us of their contemporary value. To your health!