Author: Nadea S. Minet, MS, RDN, LD Week of May 27, 2013 Quin-what?? You may be pondering why this inconspicuous little grain is such a nutritional superstar but the answer is because it’s actually not a grain.  Quinoa, pronounced “keen-wah”, is the new superhero of the grain world and, like any masked avenger with dogma; it comes with a mysterious back-story. It was originally cultivated on the steep slopes of the Andes mountains in Peru and Bolivia, hence the name that looks nothing like it sounds – keen-wah. Health food stores and hippy cafes were the first to enjoy its magical powers, but now it has become the darling of trend-setting chefs who might be looking for a more nutritious alternative to rice, couscous, etc.

So what is so great about this tiny seed? It’s one of the most nutritionally dense foods available.  Unlike most vegetarian forms of protein, quinoa provides all 9 essential amino acids, and loads of them for that matter.  It looks like couscous and is as versatile as rice, but tastes richer than either of them.  It’s also healthy and can be enjoyed at any meal. It also contains two times the fiber of most other grains. Foods high in fiber and complete proteins help your digestive system and your body’s ability to regulate your blood sugar, which in turns decreases your risk of Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Quinoa is also packed with iron and magnesium, both of which are vital to the proper functioning and well being of the human body. Lacking in either of these essential nutrients can have a huge effect on mental clarity, energy levels, and muscle function. Quin-why?? Originally found in ancient Peru, this nutty seed is packed with protein and nutrients making it a great choice for vegetarians and vegans, as well as individuals following a gluten-free diet. It looks comparable to couscous, however it has a nuttier and more complex flavor. As good as all of the aforementioned benefits, there’s even more good news: Ounce for ounce, quinoa has 2x the calcium as whole wheat, and delivers ~ 20% of the daily value of folate. If you are worried about strong bones, want to improve your memory, and/or are thinking about getting pregnant, start throwing quinoa into your soups, salads, and side dishes now! While all of this scientific data shows why you should eat it, the taste alone is what is most likely to guarantee you will chow down on it. Fifteen minutes is all you need to whip up a delicious dish of quinoa — light and fluffy with just a hint of a nutty flavor.  It can be mixed with savory and sweets, alike. How do you cook quinoa? Quinoa is a great substitute for other grains consumed throughout the day. There are hundreds of varieties; the three main ones most commonly found in your supermarket are white, red, and black quinoa.  They are widely available in prepackaged containers as well as bulk bins. A few tips for cooking:

  • Make sure to wash the seeds before cooking. In its natural state, quinoa has a coating of bitter tasting saponins, which are mildly toxic. Some packaged quinoa has already been rinsed for convenience, however it’s best to run cold water over the quinoa and wash thoroughly using a fine strainer or cheesecloth.

  • To cook, add one part quinoa to two parts liquid in a saucepan. Use low-sodium chicken or vegetable stock as a cooking medium for added flavor.

  • After the quinoa and water mixture is brought to a boil, reduce the heat to simmer and cover. It will usually take 15 minutes for the quinoa to completely cook. As an alternative, try using a rice cooker.

  • Remove from heat and let sit for 5 minutes. Do not remove the cover and stir! Let the quinoa do its thing. Once fully cooked, fluff with a fork and serve.

More tips for cooking quinoa

  • Dry roasting in a pan or oven before cooking will add a nice toasted flavor to the quinoa

  • Spice up your quinoa by adding fresh herbs —no added salt necessary!

What are the best ways to serve quinoa?

  • Combine with yogurt, nuts and fresh fruit for a power-packed breakfast.

  • Add to soups for additional protein and texture.

  • Use it in place of rice in dishes, such as in a stir-fry with vegetables and salmon.

  • Make quinoa burgers as a healthy vegetarian main course.

  • Add to salads for a protein boost.

  • Use ground quinoa flour for gluten-free breads.

Quinoa can also be served on its own as a side dish, with a bit of butter or oil, salt and pepper, or other seasonings. It also makes a great breakfast dish mixed with dried fruit, cinnamon, milk, and maple syrup or honey. Paired with chili, stir-fries, beans or curries, quinoa is a healthy substitute for rice (it also makes a tasty pilaf). As a main course, use it to make meat-free burgers, mix it into stews or toss it into salads. Quinoa works as a baking grain as well, and makes for delicious and nutritious breads and muffins.  However, if quinoa is overcooked, it can be quite unappealing.  Keep the grain firm and slightly nutty, and add your favorite spices (cumin, paprika, ginger, cinnamon and coriander) to keep it excited. This is a great grain for bariatric patients since it provides fiber and protein, something most bariatric patients have to work hard to get enough in their daily eating plan.  Also, most patients tolerate quinoa quite well when compared to other grains, such as rice and pasta.

Remember, quinoa isn’t just for vegetarians.  It is a great way to obtain protein, calcium, fiber, and whole grains from a single food.  It is versatile and a nutritious superstar.  It can be added easily to your daily eating plan and spiced-up to fit your palate.  Give it a try today to reap all the benefits it has to offer.