There aren’t many ingredients that have taken the culinary world by storm quite like quinoa has in the last 10 years. Quinoa [keen-wah] is so versatile you can eat it at every meal. Try it as a breakfast cereal, for lunch in a soup and again at dinner as a simple side dish or as a main ingredient in an entrée. Here’s a little background behind the quinoa craze and a few reasons for quinoa’s rise to the top in the grain game.
Where does it come from? Quinoa has been a staple in South American diets for centuries and was an important part of the ancient Incan culture where it was considered sacred. Today, it plays a significant role in South American cuisine and has grown in popularity around the world. Originally cultivated in Peru, Bolivia and Colombia, quinoa thrives in challenging growing conditions: poor soil, rocky terrain and spotty moisture, and doesn’t need irrigating or fertilizing. Today it’s grown in over 70 countries including the US, but virtually all the quinoa supplied to North America is grown outside of the continent.
Botanically speaking, quinoa is not a grain at all, but the seed of the goosefoot plant which is related to beets, spinach and amaranth. But because quinoa is cooked like other grains it’s often lumped into that category.
Why is it such a big deal? Unlike most other edible plants, quinoa is unique because it is a “complete protein” – meaning it contains all nine essential amino acids needed to fuel and run your body. Essential amino acids cannot be made by our bodies, so we must get them by eating meats, poultry, seafood, beans and other foods with protein. Quinoa has achieved “superfood” status because of its amino acid profile and fiber content. Not to mention the fact that it’s also rich in other vitamins and minerals.
What does it look like? There are over 100 varieties of quinoa but the three most common are white, red and black. The seeds are about the size of sesame seeds when dry but will expand slightly after cooking. White quinoa “fluffs up” the most and gets fairly tender, while the red and black varieties tend to have more of an al dente bite to them after cooking.
What does it taste like? White quinoa is prized for its fairly neutral flavor and can take on pretty much any flavor profile you give it. Black quinoa is said to be nuttier tasting than white and red varieties, but it’s still quite mild.
One thing that can affect the flavor is saponin – a naturally occuring, bitter-tasting coating that prevents birds and insects from eating the seeds in the field. Most packaged quinoa has been rinsed to rid the seeds of saponin, but a lot of recipes call for rinsing the seeds anyway, just for good measure.
How is it cooked? If you can cook rice, then cooking quinoa will be a breeze. For every ½ cup of dry quinoa, simply simmer it in 1 cup Swanson® Chicken or Vegetable broth until the liquid is absorbed and the seeds are tender, usually about 15 minutes (white quinoa will almost double in size when cooked; black and red varieties won’t expand quite as much). For a touch of toasty flavor, sauté the seeds in a little olive oil – add a chopped onion or some minced garlic too – before simmering.
Once cooked, you may see a tiny “string” on each seed. That is the germ of the seed which releases itself slightly during cooking. It’s perfectly normal and fine to eat.
Quinoa is really versatile – like rice, you can shape it into cakes, use as the base for a salad or “bowl” and top with a variety of ingredients, or add to soups – one caveat, though: We suggest stirring a couple of spoonfuls of cooked quinoa into servings of soup, rather than simmer the quinoa in the soup itself. It absorbs a lot of liquid during cooking and may throw off the broth balance in your dish.
With all these options, it’s easy to see how simple it is to add quinoa to your meal plan. But the recipes will speak for themselves – quinoa is a terrific way to add delicious dimension to your dinners.