Quinoa: fun to say, more fun to eat. This ancient grain gained popularity in Western diets a few years back owing to its nutritional profile, but it’s more than just a complete protein. Here’s the download on your new pantry staple.
What is quinoa?
Though it lives on the supermarket shelf alongside rice, pasta, and lentils, quinoa isn’t a grain or a legume, but a seed. That’s why it takes on so many properties of its seedy brethren. For instance, it’s gluten free, and a complete vegan protein.
Although there are about 1,800 varieties of quinoa around the world, only three types are commonly available in the United States: white, red, and black seeds, though sometimes you can find a mix of all three. Each variation has subtle flavor differences. White quinoa tastes mild, akin to bulgur, and the red variety is nutty and earthy, like wild rice. You can also find puffed or flaked quinoa at the health food store, which can be used for snacking, in lieu of cereal, or in recipes that need a dried grain — for instance, breading fish or making meatballs.
Botanically speaking, quinoa belongs to the lamb’s quarters family, which also includes beetroot, Swiss chard, and spinach. Quinoa was domesticated by people living in the Americas between 3,000 and 5,000 BCE, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United States. And there’s archeological evidence of quinoa in ancient tombs located in Chile and Peru.
Related: High protein vegan foods
Why is quinoa healthy?
The big selling point is its protein. All animal protein is a complete protein, meaning it contains the 9 essential amino acids that we need to eat in our food in order to build muscle. One cup of cooked quinoa contains about 8 grams of protein. Plus, it has 5 grams of fiber, which the body uses to keep the digestive system working properly, and may help bolster cardiac health and the immune system, and lower a person’s cancer risk. As for its macronutrients, quinoa is about 71% complex carbohydrates, 15% protein, and 14% fats, making it a great post-workout food.
That same cup of quinoa provides more than half of your daily manganese needs, which is a trace mineral that helps repair and maintain connective tissue, bones, blood clotting factors, and sex hormones, as well as helping with calcium absorption, blood sugar regulation, and metabolizing carbohydrates. And it contains 28% of your daily value of phosphorus, a mineral that works with calcium to help keep bones and teeth strong, as well as helping waste filtration in the kidneys.
How to cook quinoa
Luckily, this nutritional workhorse does not require you to be a particularly good chef. If you can boil water, you can make quinoa. The red quinoa cooks for a hair longer than the white and black varieties, just as a head’s up.
First, rinse the quinoa. Do not skip this step! Quinoa often contains trace amounts of saponin, a bitter, soapy substance the plant creates to protect itself from insects. To remove any remaining saponin, place the seeds in a fine-mesh strainer and run them under cold water, using a wooden spoon to stir as they rinse (the same spoon you’ll use to cook with).
Then, get the water boiling. The consistency of quinoa should be light and fluffy. Undercooked or too dry, they end up being toothy and unpleasant. Get them overdone or too wet and they become mushy. Different recipes and packaging calls for varying ratios of water and quinoa, but a safe bet is 1 cup quinoa to 1¾ cup water. Place both in a medium pot over high heat. When pot boils, reduce heat to low, stir with wooden spoon, cover, and simmer, 15 minutes. Remove pot from heat and let rest, covered, 10 minutes. Fluff with a fork and you’re ready to go! If there’s leftover water in the pot, but you’ve tried the quinoa and like the consistency, drain with a colander.
Quinoa is great hot or cold, as a side-dish or as the base of a grain salad. Make a big pot of it and it’ll last a few days in the refrigerator. And pro-tip: for more savory quinoa, try subbing in vegetable, chicken, or beef broth instead of water.
Next-level quinoa recipes: What to cook with quinoa
The nice thing about quinoa is that it’s super easy to turn into a meal, whether you have a bunch of other ingredients or not. Here are some easy, no-recipe ideas to get you started.
For this breakfast favorite, quinoa subs in for oats. Rather than water, cook the quinoa with milk or a dairy-free alternative. Note that the cook time may be a little longer. When it’s all fluffy, mix in your favorite oatmeal toppings — nuts, fruit, granola, shredded coconut—and dig in!
Skip the cooking altogether. Combine quinoa and milk or dairy-free alternative using the same liquid-to-quinoa ratio and any other ingredients you want to use for flavor, such as dried fruit, flax seeds, berries, hemp, and cinnamon. Seal it, pop it in the fridge before you go to bed, and in the morning, give it a stir and enjoy! Don’t forget that you still need to rinse the quinoa before use.
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Cold quinoa salad
This cold salad can be enjoyed like an orzo or pasta salad. Cook quinoa and refrigerate until cold. Then toss with whatever you like! Go Mediterranean with halved grape tomatoes, chopped cucumbers, feta, olive oil, and balsamic vinegar. Or make it spicy by mixing it with giardiniera. If you have leftover vegetables, like a broccoli-cauliflower-pea medley, make a quinoa-veggie combo and drizzle it with a lemon vinaigrette.
Quinoa vegetable medley
This one-pot meal makes a great main or side dish, and can be enjoyed the next day hot or cold, so make a big batch. In a wok or pan, heat crushed garlic, minced ginger, and salt in a neutral oil, and season with salt. Add chopped onions, shallots or green onions, and cook until fragrant. Then add vegetables, such as broccoli florets, rough-cut asparagus, chopped fennel, chopped celery, and anything else you enjoy, and season with salt and freshly ground black pepper, as well as any other spices you like. When vegetables are cooked through, toss in quinoa and stir until it’s heated. Serve immediately.
The quickest and cheapest quinoa salad is just moments away. While you cook quinoa, take a look through your veggie drawer. Whatever you have will make a great addition, whether it’s tomatoes and cucumbers or broccoli and lettuce. Just wait to mix it all up until your quinoa is fully cooled.
More healthy living tips from foodspring:
Antonio Vega-Galvez (2010): Nutrition Facts and Functional Potential of Quinoa (Chenopodium Quinoa Willd.), an Ancient Andean Grain: A Review
DGE: Pseudogetreide: Glutenfreie Alternativen für die Körnerküche