Considering its nutritional profile, it’s a wonder that quinoa isn’t more well known. Once a revered food staple of the ancient Inca, quinoa (pronounced keenwah) is packed with high-quality protein. In fact, at as much as 20% protein, it has more protein than any other whole grain. Add to that a good dose of B vitamins, iron, calcium, potassium, magnesium, and vitamin E, and it’s easy to see why quinoa flies out of the bulk bins at health-food stores.
For those of you thinking, “Yeah, but how does it taste?” the answer is: damned good. It’s a mild, slightly sweet grain with hints of corn, nuts, and grass. But what makes quinoa really interesting is its texture. When cooked, the germ falls away and retains an ever-so-slight crunch, while the seed itself becomes tender and light.
Cooking with quinoa
If you can cook white rice, you can cook quinoa. The formula (2:1 liquid to grain) and method are pretty much the same. Bring it to a boil, reduce the heat to a simmer, cover, and cook until the water is absorbed. It cooks faster than rice, in about 10 to 15 minutes, making it the fastest cooking whole grain out there. Just be sure to fluff it well with a fork before serving.
Before cooking quinoa—and this is important—rinse it well to rid it of its coating of saponin, a bitter, soapy-tasting natural substance that protects the plant from insects and birds. Most quinoa is processed to remove much of the saponin, so submersion and a good swishing in a bowl of cool water is all it takes to finish the process. But some quinoa may need more rinsing: If the water appears very cloudy, keep rinsing in fresh water until the cloudiness is almost gone.
Quinoa is a blank canvas when it comes to flavor pairings. It marries well with lots of other ingredients and readily goes in whatever flavor direction you want to push it. Try preparing it like a pilaf by simmering it in broth with softened diced shallot. Or, fold toasted nuts, chopped fresh herbs, or crisp vegetables like diced bell peppers or corn kernels into plain cooked quinoa. Or turn it into a versatile salad like this tabbouleh. You can find quinoa at natural-foods stores, or at some well-stocked supermarkets, especially those that have a natural foods section.