America's finally falling for quinoa, a tasty and complete protein -- and a seed that'll grow on you

Let us now praise quinoa, sacred crop of the Incas.

The seed of a leafy plant grown for centuries in the Andes, quinoa (pronounced keen-wah) cooks like a grain and tastes like a nut.

Known in scientific circles as chenopodium, and as a "super crop" in United Nations parlance, quinoa is a complete protein, meaning it contains all nine essential amino acids.

Vegans embrace it as an alternative to meat, eggs and cheese. Celiac-sufferers, who cannot digest wheat, love quinoa's gluten-free nature. With a score of 35 on the glycemic index, quinoa is great for diabetics. Low in calories and fat, quinoa is high in magnesium and riboflavin, which combine to stave off migraine headaches. High in iron, which helps deliver more oxygen to the brain, quinoa fights senility. For Jewish families who keep kosher, quinoa is a good wheat substitute at Passover.

What's not to love?

Quinoa is versatile and easy to prepare, inexpensive, and does not require refrigeration until it is cooked. Like kasha and couscous, quinoa has an exotic, almost esoteric cachet that feeds into the yearning for authenticity among today's foodies.

Introduced on our shores a mere 20 years ago, quinoa is finally gaining ground with chefs, cookbook authors and caterers.

"In the beginning, we were lucky to sell $10,000 worth a month, and now we're selling millions of dollars of quinoa a month," says Dave Schnorr, whose California-based Quinoa Corp. is one of the largest importers. "In the last year it seems quinoa has become the darling of the food industry. Everybody wants to get into it."

At Philadelphia's Chifa, the new Peruvian-Cantonese restaurant in chef Jose Garces' stable (Amada, Tinto Distito), you'll find ginger-infused quinoa with spicy barbecued lamb and pickled cucumber. But it's also been a dessert there.

"When we opened Chifa, we used quinoa on top of a dessert called Flexible Chocolate that was a milk chocolate custard served with quinoa 'chicharrones,' our play on traditional fried pork rinds," Mr. Garces said.

"We made it by overcooking the quinoa for an hour until it was mushy, then we dried it out overnight and fried it until crispy."

Quinoa has made the menu at stalwarts such as La Croix, Le Bec-Fin, 10Arts, and XIX, too.

Mark Smith at Tortilla Press in Collingswood serves quinoa salad with his black bean and artichoke burrito, and in vegetarian wraps and chile rellenos.

Lucky 13, a gastropub on Passyunk Avenue, serves quinoa in a black-bean salad with scallions, tomatoes and cilantro.

Terence Feury at Fork creates a pilaf of quinoa, parsley, mint and cucumber and serves it with an eggplant caponata, grilled vegetables and kalamata olives. Jon Weinrott of Peachtree & Ward catering pairs quinoa with artichokes and wild mushrooms.

And Chip Roman, at Blackfish in Conshohocken, poaches, dehydrates and deep-fries quinoa to create a finger-food that can be salted for use as a savory bar snack or sweetened as a dessert topping.

Still, the possibilities remain relatively unexplored, says chef Kelly Cook of Uncommon Catering. She's eager to incorporate quinoa in pastas and desserts.

"The biggest drawback, actually the only drawback, to quinoa," Ms. Cook says, "is that people don't know what it is."

You have to say it and spell it to the uninitiated. But after a taste test, most people are sold.

"Two years ago, we served red quinoa with leeks at the wedding of a foodie couple," Ms. Cook said. "I think it was a bit off-putting at first to the non-foodie guests, but their plates came back clean."

Laura Schenone, author of the James Beard-award-winning book, "A Thousand Years Over a Hot Stove," says she searched cookbooks from early America through the 1970s and found no mention of quinoa.

Those who are familiar with quinoa have most likely seen the "regular" yellowish version. But Schnorr's Quinoa Corp., which sells under the Ancient Harvest brand, also offers a red variety, which some say has a slightly earthier taste, as well as quinoa flakes for breakfast cereal, quinoa flour for baking bread and cookies, and quinoa polenta that can be sliced and grilled. Up next: black quinoa.

Home cooks should look for quinoa (it comes in boxes and is available in bulk) that is organically grown and has been pre-washed to remove its inherent bitterness.

"Some people who've eaten quinoa think they don't like it because it's under- or overcooked," says Rich Landau at Horizons. "I've even been served bad quinoa in restaurants."

Like many grains, quinoa has a relatively small window of perfect doneness, Mr. Landau says. Undercooked it is chewy and hard to digest; overcooked, the grains burst into mush. A rice cooker may be the way to go, he says, or 12 minutes on a stove top.

Quinoa cooks virtually the same as rice: add 2 cups of lightly salted water (or chicken, beef or vegetable broth) to a saucepan, with 1 cup quinoa. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat, cover and cook at a gentle simmer for 12 minutes.

"It's not indestructible," Mr. Landau says, "but if you get it just right, it's fantastic."

He's served quinoa fried as patties bound with carrot, and his wife and pastry chef, Kate Jacoby, is just starting to dabble in quinoa flour. But Horizons is a vegan restaurant. Is Mr. Landau's perspective slanted?

Not so, says chef Charles Ziccardi, who runs Drexel University's culinary arts program.

"It's gotten a rap as a vegan food and that's unnecessary," Mr. Ziccardi says. "Maybe that's what kept it from going mainstream until now."

Mr. Schnorr says quinoa, like polenta, was once eaten only by the poor.

"It was an almost extinct grain eaten by peasants in the mountains. When I started in this business, you could stand on a street corner and ask people all week long and still not come across anybody who knew about quinoa," says Mr. Schnorr. "Even in South America, you could go to La Paz or Lima and most people on the street wouldn't know what it was."

So far in 2009, sales are up 40 percent, Mr. Schnorr says. And therein lies the possible danger: as demand grows, some Andes farmers are tempted to sell all they grow, instead of keeping enough to feed their own families.

"We're trying to work with the farmers on that problem," he says, "so they don't end up feeding their families a diet of cheap white rice and sugar."

Versatile as it is, quinoa can't do everything. "We tried it in rice cakes but it just crumbled," Mr. Schnorr said. "I think what you'll see next is more products that contain some quinoa, for the marketing value -- but not enough to make a difference nutritionally."

Quinoa Salad With Mangoes and Curry Vinaigrette
  • Salt
  • 1 1/3 cups quinoa, rinsed thoroughly
  • 2 large mangoes
  • 1 jalapeno chile, seeded and diced
  • 3 scallions, including 1 inch of the greens, thinly sliced
  • Curry vinaigrette (see attached recipe)
  • 1/3 cup roasted almonds

Bring 3 cups of water to a boil in a saucepan. Add 1/2 teaspoon salt and the quinoa to the boiling water. Lower the heat, cover, and simmer until the quinoa is tender, about 12 minutes. Drain. Do not overcook.

Cut the mangoes by standing each 1 upright and slicing down either side of the seed, which you can't see, but which runs lengthwise through the center of the fruit. Score the 2 pieces, then bend the skin. Cut off the squares of mango where they attach to the skin.

Toss the quinoa with the mangoes, chile, scallions and vinaigrette.

Chop the almonds and add them last so they stay crisp.

Makes 4 servings.

-- "Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone" by Deborah Madison.

Curry Vinaigrette
  • 1 garlic clove
  • Salt
  • 2 tablespoons yogurt, mayonnaise or sour cream
  • 2 teaspoons curry powder
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
  • 5 tablespoons light olive or sunflower seed oil
  • 2 tablespoons finely chopped cilantro

Pound or mince the garlic and 1/4 teaspoon salt in a mortar until smooth, or put the garlic through a press.

Combine the garlic and salt with the yogurt and curry in a small bowl. Stir in the lemon juice, then whisk in the oil. Let stand for 15 minutes, then stir in the cilantro. Taste for tartness and salt and adjust if needed.

Makes about half a cup, or 4 servings.

-- "Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone" by Deborah Madison.

Quinoa Veggie Burger
  • 1/2 cup red quinoa
  • 1 sweet potato (about 6 ounces), baked and flesh scooped out
  • 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1/2 cup onion, finely diced
  • 1 tablespoon garlic, minced
  • 1 teaspoon cumin, ground
  • 1/2 teaspoon smoked paprika
  • Half of a 14-ounce can of kidney beans, rinsed and drained
  • 3/4 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon black pepper, ground
  • 2 tablespoons fresh cilantro, chopped
  • 1/2 cup bread crumbs

Place quinoa in a fine sieve and rinse under cold water until the water runs clear (this helps to remove any bitter residue). Place quinoa in a 1-quart saucepan, cover with 3/4 cup of water, and bring to a boil. Reduce to a simmer, cover, and cook until all of the water is absorbed (about 10 to 15 minutes). Set aside to cool.

Coat a nonstick pan with extra-virgin olive oil and place over moderate heat. Add the onion and garlic and gently sauté until translucent. Add the cumin and smoked paprika and cook for another minute. Place in a mixing bowl.

In a food processor, combine the sweet potato and kidney beans; pulse until it attains a pastelike consistency.

Add the potato mixture to the mixing bowl with the onions and garlic. Add all the other ingredients and mix thoroughly. Chill in a refrigerator for one to two hours.

Remove from refrigerator and form into patties. (If mixture is too loose, add more bread crumbs). Cook on a grill or in a pan.

Makes 6 to 8 servings.

-- Kelly Cook, chef, Uncommon Catering of Philadelphia

Quinoa Paella With Chicken and Chorizo
  • 1 pound boneless chicken thighs or breasts, cut into 1-inch pieces
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 teaspoon smoked Spanish paprika or other paprika
  • 1/2 teaspoon granulated garlic
  • 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes, or to taste
  • 3 1/2 cups low-sodium chicken broth, plus more if needed
  • 1 tablespoon tomato paste
  • 2 cups quinoa
  • 1/2 cup finely chopped dry-cured chorizo
  • 1 cup frozen peas
  • 1/2 cup thin strips roasted red bell pepper, preferably fire-roasted
  • 3 tablespoons chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley

Season the chicken with salt and pepper. In a heavy 3-quart Dutch oven, heat the oil over high heat. Brown the chicken pieces, using tongs to turn, about 2 minutes on each side. Transfer the chicken to a plate.

Turn off the heat and let the pan cool for a minute. Stir the paprika, garlic, and red pepper flakes into the hot oil in the pot. Stir the broth into the pot, scraping up any browned bits sticking to the bottom. Blend in the tomato paste, and bring to a boil over high heat. Stir in the quinoa and chorizo. Cover and reduce the heat to medium. Cook for 12 minutes.

Add salt to taste. Stir in the chicken. Cover and cook over low heat until the quinoa is done -- it should have no opaque white dot in the center -- and the chicken is cooked through, 2 to 3 minutes. If the mixture seems dry and the chicken or quinoa is not thoroughly cooked, stir in a little more broth or some water, cover, and cook a few minutes longer.

Stir in the peas and roasted red pepper. Cover and let sit for a minute. Stir in the parsley just before serving.

Makes 4 servings.

-- "Whole Grains For Busy People" by Lorna Sass (Potter, 2009)

Contact Inquirer staff writer Dianna Marder at 215-854-4211 or . Read her recent work at .


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