Dining

Food: A Perfect Protein

Quinoa is a healthy, flavorful alternative to rice and other grains.

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Thursday, February 23, 2012

Although many cooks are still unfamiliar with quinoa, this ancient Peruvian grain can be found in most health food stores and, more and more, in the specialty sections of many groceries. When cooked, it is fluffy yet slightly crunchy, each grain remaining separate, with a delicate, nutty flavor. It can be used in a variety of ways: in place of rice at dinner or in place of oatmeal at breakfast, as well as in salads, soups, casseroles, desserts, and other dishes. Quinoa pasta and quinoa flour are also available. A gluten-free, complete protein, it's great for vegetarian, vegan, and gluten-free diets.

Pronounced keen-wah, the word means mother in the ancient Inca (Quechua) tongue. Quinoa is native to the high Andes of Peru, Chile and Bolivia, where it has been cultivated for more than 5,000 years. The Incas considered it sacred, the ancient mother of all seeds and grains.

Unfortunately, after Francisco Pizarro invaded in 1532, the Spanish conquistadors attempted to destroy the native culture, including the fields where quinoa was grown. Quinoa cultivation was punishable by death, and the crop was virtually wiped out. Fortunately, some strains survived in the high mountain meadows. Today, as its nutritional qualities have come to light, the mother grain is having a revival. It is cultivated not only in South America but in the mountains of Colorado, California and Canada as well.

Botanically, quinoa is not a true grain but is a cousin of lambs' quarters, spinach, and beets. Bolivians use the whole plant: the leaves are delicious in salads or cooked as a vegetable, and the stalks are used as kindling. The seeds are high in protein, containing a good balance of all essential amino acids. In addition, it has more calcium than milk, and is an excellent source of fiber, iron, phosphorus, potassium, magnesium, manganese, vitamin E and several B vitamins. The high levels of magnesium help relax blood vessels, so they're beneficial for cardiovascular health and relief of migraines.

Quinoa seeds have a natural bitter coating, saporin, which protects them from birds. This soapy saponin is removed by modern processing methods used in the commercial cultivation; however, some residue may remain. For best flavor, it is best to rinse the quinoa to remove this residue. To do this, place the grains in a fine-meshed strainer and rinse under cold water. Taste the seeds to see if they're still bitter. I have found I can skip the rinsing if I'm preparing it with strong-tasting ingredients.

Quinoa cooks quickly. Combine one part quinoa with two parts liquid, bring to a boil, lower heat, and cook about 12-15 minutes. You can also cook it in the microwave: combine half a cup quinoa with 3/4 cup boiling water or stock in a covered glass bowl. Microwave on high for 5 minutes. Uncover, stir, and cook an additional 2-3 minutes until all liquid is absorbed. Fluff with a fork.

When cooked, the quinoa grains will be translucent and fluffy with a sweet nutty flavor.

For a nuttier, richer flavor, dry-roast the quinoa in a pan for a few minutes before cooking, stirring constantly.

Quinoa with two-bean stew

Ingredients:

1 Tablespoon Canola oil
2 medium onions
8 ounces sliced mushrooms
1 stalk celery, sliced
1/2 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup quinoa
1 1/2 cups broth or lightly salted water
1 clove garlic, minced
1 cup diced ham, optional
10 ounces frozen green beans
1 can (16 ounces) butter beans
1 can (14.5 ounces) diced tomatoes
1 teaspoon basil

Directions:

Heat oil in a large skillet. Peel and dice onions; add; cook one minute. Add mushrooms and celery, cover, and continue cooking on low heat about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. While the vegetables are cooking, cook the quinoa. Bring broth to a boil, stir in quinoa, reduce heat to simmer, cover, and cook about 15 minutes.

Add garlic and ham, if using, to the skillet. Stir in remaining ingredients; cook about 10 more minutes, until vegetables are cooked through. Serve the stew over quinoa, with a side salad and crusty whole-grain bread, if you wish. Serves three.

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