Red_quinoaby Pam Vukelic

Quinoa is not likely to show up in one of your mother’s favorite recipes but everyone seems to be talking about it. What is it, why all the hype, and does it deserve it?

Quinoa (pronounced keen-wah) is an ancient crop which South American people have eaten continuously for 5,000 years. Quinoa means “mother grain” in the Inca language, but technically it is not a grain but a seed. Incidentally, this is true of wild rice, too. It is highly nutritious, containing all of the essential amino acids we look for in protein, a quality uncommon in plant foods. So, although it is considered a complete protein, the amount of protein provided in one serving of quinoa compared to one serving of beef, for example, is significantly less. Quinoa also contains significant amounts of other valuable nutrients such as calcium (more than milk!), manganese, magnesium, iron, phosphorous, and zinc. For the many people who have issues with gluten, quinoa is a good gluten-free alternative.

Quinoa has been called “vegetable caviar.” The Weight Watchers people list quinoa as a “most valuable ingredient.” They describe it as a powerhouse product that is “healthy, tasty, and cheap, giving you the best bang for your buck.” Quinoa is on Dr. Oz’s list of 100 foods that should be in your shopping cart.

As a whole grain, quinoa is user-friendly and versatile. It cooks relatively quickly and works well in soups, salads, side dishes, and stuffings. Many quinoa-lovers prepare several cups of quinoa at once, storing leftovers in the refrigerator for a variety of uses throughout the next week. One cup of uncooked quinoa yields three cups cooked. It also works as an ingredient in sweets and desserts due to its nut-like qualities. Quinoa flour is readily available, too. Like other whole grains, the fat content shortens the shelf life. Store in the refrigerator or freezer if you don’t intend to use it quickly.

Cook quinoa the way you would cook rice. Many experts recommending rinsing thoroughly in warm water before use to remove a bitter natural coating called saponin. Some brands describe their product as pre-rinsed. Use a one-to-two ratio of quinoa to water for 15-20 minutes of cooking time. Quinoa develops a halo, the appearance of its germ, as it finishes cooking. Some recipes recommend browning the seeds slightly as a first step, again similar to many rice dishes. Quinoa can be heated in hot oil and popped, like popcorn. The size of the seed does not change markedly, but the texture does. The “popped” seeds have a nutty flavor and they become crispy and easy to chew.

I’ve read that 2013 is going to be the year of quinoa. It’s hard to know how the seeds can become more ubiquitous than they currently are, but we will see. Reportedly the widespread popularity of quinoa among the health-conscious populations around the world has dramatically increased demand to the extent that the indigenous South Americans who have depended on the grain for centuries can no longer afford it. My mother-in-law lives by the axiom that “nothing is so bad something good doesn’t come out of it.” I wonder if the reverse is true, at least when it comes to quinoa. Nothing is so good something bad doesn’t come of it. An unfortunate development, to say the least.

The following two recipes are adapted from recipes in “The Quintessential Quinoa Cookbook” by Wendy Polisi (2011). I ran across the delightful cookbook in a Dickinson health food store last summer. It is well-written and finished products are beautifully photographed. Then I discovered Wendy’s website,, and subscribed to her e-newsletter. I highly recommend it and believe you will enjoy her sense of humor as well as her knowledge of and experience with quinoa. She now has several quinoa cookbooks, all of which are available as e-books.

Quinoa Black Bean Soup
1 T olive oil
1 small to medium onion, chopped
½ red bell pepper, diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
¾ c quinoa, rinsed
1 ½ t chili powder
2 ½ c vegetable broth
1 15 oz can black beans, well rinsed
1 c grated carrots
1 c corn kernels
1 bay leaf
1 T chopped cilantro
2 T fresh lime juice
salt and pepper to taste
Optional: thinly sliced green onions and shredded Cheddar cheese for topping

Heat oil over medium heat. Add onion and red pepper; sauté for 5 minutes. Add quinoa, garlic, and chili powder; sauté another 3 minutes.

Stir in broth, beans, carrots, corn, bay leaf, and 2 c water. Season with salt and pepper.
Bring to boil. Reduce heat to medium-low and simmer covered for 20 minutes. Stir in cilantro and lime juice.

Note: The quinoa will continue to absorb liquid if you allow the soup to stand or intend to store it. I’ve increased the broth amount to 4 c when I’ve frozen the soup in individual packages for later use. This is a flavor-filled, colorful, and very satisfying soup. It makes a good non-meat main dish.

Quinoa Chocolate Bark
1 T peanut oil
½ c quinoa, rinsed and dried
½ c slivered almonds
1 t sea salt
1 12 oz pkg very dark chocolate chips

In a small saucepan, heat oil. Add quinoa and stir constantly for approximately five minutes. (You are waiting for the seeds to turn slightly golden brown and to “pop.”) Remove from pan to small bowl and place almond slivers in same pan. Toast over medium heat until the aroma develops and they are lightly browned. Add almonds to quinoa, stir in salt, and mix well.

Line a 10 x 15” baking sheet with parchment. In a microwave-safe bowl, melt chocolate. Stir about ¾ of the quinoa mixture into the chocolate. Spread evenly on parchment paper. Sprinkle remaining quinoa mixture over the top. Allow to set until firm. Break into pieces. (Note: Eat as candy, or break into small enough pieces to use as a topping for ice cream. It is particularly good with coffee-flavored ice cream.)