Known as the "mother grain" of the Incan empire, quinoa (pronounced "keen-wah"), is a small, flat seed. It's a staple for millions in South America and is available in a gorgeous array of colors, from golden-tan to brick-red. In Bolivia, Ecuador, and Chile, where the plant grows abundantly, it has been eaten continuously for 5,000 years. (In the Incan language, the word quinua means “mother grain.”)
Quinoa, which is gluten-free, is a powerhouse of nutrition. It’s called a “superfood” because it’s a complete protein that contains all of the essential amino acids. It’s also a good source of minerals and fiber, as well as iron, zinc, potassium, calcium, and vitamin E.
But how does it taste? It's a mild, slightly sweet grain with hints of corn, nuts, and grass. But what makes quinoa really interesting is its soft-but-crunchy texture. When cooked, the germ falls away and retains an ever-so-slight crunch, while the seed itself becomes tender and light.
In recent years, quinoa has also become a Passover staple for many observant Jews. Since it is not truly a grain, it is generally considered kosher for Passover, as long as it is processed in a facility that does not also process other forbidden grains.
Despite its moniker, quinoa is not actually a grain. Unlike wheat, barley, corn, and rye, which comprise both seed and fruit, quinoa is seed only. It’s also not a member of the grass family, from which most grains are harvested. It’s more closely related to beets, spinach, and even tumbleweeds. Yet quinoa is considered a grain in the culinary world because it’s cooked and eaten just like grains and has a similar nutrient profile. Once cooked, the quinoa becomes translucent, and the white germ partially detaches, appearing like a white-spiraled tail.
Substitute bulgur wheat or couscous, though they don't have the same texture.
Look for quinoa in natural-foods stores or well-stocked supermarkets. It's a staple at stores with bulk bins.
First, rinse it well. This is an important step to rid the quinoa of its coating of saponin, a bitter, soapy-tasting natural substance that protects the plants from insects. Most quinoa is processed to remove much of the saponin, so submersion and a good swish in a bowl of cool water is all it takes to finish the process. If the water appears very cloudy, keep rinsing in fresh water until the cloudiness is almost gone.
Cook quinoa as you would rice: use a 2:1 liquid-to-grain ratio. Bring the water to a boil, reduce the heat to a simmer, cover, and cook until the water is absorbed. Quinoa cooks in about 10 to 15 minutes, making it the fastest cooking grain out there. Fluff the quinoa well with a fork before serving.
Store quinoa in an airtight container in a cool, dry place for up to a year.