One day last fall I sidled up to the deli counter at Mother Earth’s Storehouse in Poughkeepsie and contemplated what to have for lunch. (Israeli couscous perhaps, or non-chicken chicken salad?) I would frequently try something new, and while I was often satisfied with my experiment du jour (chicken schmicken; the non-chicken salad did the trick), I always felt very virtuous about choosing to eat in such a healthy fashion. “So, how about the quinoa tabouli today?” I thought. It looked interesting — green and grainy at the same time. The problem was that I knew I was about to skewer the pronunciation of the name of the dish. For a word person like me, this produces a sense of shame equivalent to flouncing about the store with my skirt tucked into my underwear. So, I pointed and asked for a “half-pound of that.” But somehow the counter worker couldn’t deduce which bowl I was pointing to; I finally had to blurt out, “a half-pound of the KA-NOAH salad.” “The what?” he gasped. I repeated myself. He looked at me with confusion, while the person in line behind me sighed.
We finally sorted out that I wanted the KEEN-WAH salad. And while I still sometimes momentarily stumble over the pronunciation, it no longer matters. I’m hooked. Mix it up with tabouli, stew it with mushrooms, it doesn’t matter to me — I’ll eat it. And, of course, I’m endlessly patting myself on the back because quinoa — which is loaded with protein, fiber, and iron — is so ridiculously nutritious.
Native to Peru, quinoa has been cultivated in the Andes since at least 3,000 BC. Known for centuries as the “mother grain” of the Incas, quinoa was relegated to the staple of peasants after the Spanish conquest. Now it is grown in Peru, Chile, and Bolivia, where it is widely used in breads, soups, beer, as a rice substitute, and as a medicinal application for sores and bruises. It is also grown in Canada, and — since the 1980s — in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains, where a pair of entrepreneurs have been cultivating this altitude-loving superfood. (This remains the only place in the U.S. where it is grown).
Technically, quinoa is not a grain — it is actually the seed of the broad leaf goosefoot plant — but it is most often used as a grain substitute. “Quinoa is extremely versatile,” says Dwayne F. LiPuma, a chef instructor at the Culinary Institute of America. “It is really something you can eat all year-round. You can serve it light in a nice vinaigrette in the summer, and then stew it in the winter with some tomatoes and wild mushrooms and make it richer, more earthy. It is also served in a breakfast sort of way, with brown sugar and cinnamon, maybe a little honey, berries, almonds. It actually tastes really delicious.”
Quinoa comes in a variety of different colors. “There are reds, purples, orange. It is just a different strain, but they all cook the same way,” says LiPuma. By far the most popular style is the white, but red and black quinoa are also commonly cultivated. The black seeds tend to be crunchier and have a stronger flavor than their lighter counterparts.
At the CIA’s St. Andrew’s Cafe, LiPuma has placed a $12 buckwheat lunch crepe on the menu that is stuffed with quinoa chili, cilantro rice, guacamole, and pico de gallo. “It is a great option for vegetarians,” he says. “But even people who eat meat are discovering it and ordering it when they want a lighter choice.”
But versatility is just one of the many benefits of quinoa. “I love the texture, the earthiness of it. It has a slight bite,” says LiPuma. “The flavor itself isn’t as pungent, like wild rice, so whatever you blend it with is also able to come through. It marries really well with other flavors. I find it sweet sometimes.”
But it is the nutritional qualities of quinoa that are prompting this grain-like goodie to be dubbed a superfood. Quinoa is very high in protein (grains like barley and rice generally have half the protein of quinoa). But — because it contains all nine of the essential amino acids — it is also a rare source of complete protein. Just a half-cup of quinoa a day provides all the protein requirements for a child. Quinoa is also a good source of vitamin E, magnesium, iron, copper, phosphorus, and lysine, an amino acid essential for tissue repair and growth. In addition, it is gluten-free. “It’s just a safe, beautiful ‘grain’ to work with,” says LiPuma, who thinks quinoa would be a delicious addition to your Thanksgiving table. “It would make a beautiful stuffing. You could make a wild-rice stuffing and bind it with the quinoa, or you could do a quinoa-grain salad with it.”
Although LiPuma has long been aware of quinoa (“my very macrobiotic wife was eating it close to 18 years ago,” he says), he is surprised that he doesn’t see it on more restaurant menus. “But as time goes on, that is changing,” he says. “People’s ears are really starting to perk up about it.”
The key to cooking good quinoa is to ensure that you wash it properly. Most chefs recommend that you rinse quinoa several times in warm water to make sure it is free of saponins — a natural protective coating which is very bitter.
The following recipe is taken from Vegetarian At Home with The Culinary Institute of America by Katherine Polenz, which is scheduled for publication by John Wiley & Sons in the spring.
This tart has a little bit of everything — lots of different complementary flavors that work together to make a great tart. Makes one 10-inch tart
Makes six servings
Makes enough for one 10-inch tart