Wonder Grain

Quinoa gains a big following as perfect protein full of taste
Sprinkled in salads or piled like pilaf, queen grain of the Inca is a delight. Here, quinoa, apricot and nut clusters are featured.Mark DuFrene/Contra Costa Times/MCT

It's official: Quinoa has achieved cult status. The ancient Incan grain has captured the public's imagination with its mix of nutritional superpowers, delicious flavor and rainbow colors, popping up on trendy restaurant menus and holistic health websites alike.

With all nine essential amino acids, it's a complete protein — like meat — which makes it the Holy Grail of the vegetarian world. And, it's gluten-free.

Seed of the Incas

We may call quinoa (KEEN-wah) a grain, but it's really the seed of the South American goosefoot plant. The gluten-free seeds are high in protein, and quinoa's amino-acid profile is comparable to casein, the complete protein found in milk, according to the United Nations' Food and Agricultural Organization.

Quinoa is easy to digest and quick to prepare, but the seeds, which are coated with saponin, must be rinsed before cooking to remove bitterness, says the America's Test Kitchen crew. Some cooks prefer to soak the seeds for a few minutes, before placing them in a fine-mesh sieve under running water. Dry the kernels on a kitchen towel before proceeding. Some recipes also suggest toasting the seeds in a dry, hot saucepan for a few minutes until the water evaporates and the quinoa becomes aromatic; then add simmering stock to cook.

Use a 1-to-2 ratio of grain to water or stock, the same proportions you would with plain, white rice. Bring the mixture to a boil and simmer it, covered, for 10 to 15 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat, then leave the lid on for a few minutes more; the America's Test Kitchen staff, which loves the grain for its "addictive crunch," suggests placing a clean dish towel over the top of the pot and replacing the lid on top for that final steaming. Then, fluff the quinoa with a fork, as you would couscous. The kernels should be translucent and fluffy, with small threads.

The only question is whether it grows magic beanstalks, too. And how best to cook the sometimes tricky grain.

"It has an incredible cult following," says Alex Postman, editor-in-chief for Martha Stewart's Whole Living magazine and website, where quinoa is one of the top search terms. "It's so nutritionally packed. But the first time I cooked it, I said, 'What is up with this?' I was not a quinoa connoisseur."

That's because there are a few small, but simple tricks for turning that bag of tiny seeds into a gustatory wunderkind. First, quinoa needs to be rinsed before use, to eliminate the bitter coating that surrounds each seed. Overcook it or use too much water, and quinoa loses its marvelous, fluffy texture. And then there's the color — yes, black quinoa cooks into inky hues and red stays richly vibrant. That can be a perk or a liability.

Postman's first quinoa escapade resulted in a terminally soggy side dish — and instead of rice-like appeal, her red quinoa was unexpectedly assertive in flavor. The darker the color, she says, the nuttier the taste.

"It comes in a spectrum of colors, from white to pink, orange and black. I would advise first-timers to start with the lighter types because those are a little blander," she says.

That blandness makes quinoa a perfect palette for creation.

"I've come to love it," says Postman. "It's so versatile. You can add pesto or a vinaigrette or leftover roasted veggies. It's a really great vehicle for flavor."

Equating the versatility of quinoa to rice, cookbook author Rebecca Wood was among the first American cooks decades ago touting the grain and others as staples of the macrobiotic diet. In the diverse category of whole, "ancient" grains — including amaranth, kamut, millet and teff — quinoa still stands above the rest, says Wood, formerly of Ashland.

"None of them are as easy to use ... or have such a delicious texture, and also it's a nutritional powerhouse."

Wood published "Quinoa the Supergrain: Ancient Food for Today" in 1989 and expanded on her initial research for "The Splendid Grain," which won two of the food industry's top honors, the Julia Child cookbook award and the James Beard KitchenAid cookbook award, in 1998. She'll be the keynote speaker for the March 24 "Ancient Grains Symposium" at Oregon State University Extension centers in Jackson and Josephine counties.

The event is co-hosted by Ashland Food Co-op, where culinary educator Mary Shaw says shoppers "go crazy" when she prepares samples of quinoa. Shaw recalls that Co-op customers who tasted a salad with red quinoa last summer went on to purchase 34 pounds of the grain that day alone.

Other kitchen professionals use quinoa in a wide range of ways. Charlie Ayers, the former Google chef who runs Palo Alto's Calafia Cafe, uses quinoa in soups, stuffing and salads. It makes a particularly nice pilaf, too, he says.

Tyler Florence tosses fluffy red quinoa into a salad of beets, avocado and fuyu persimmon at his new Napa restaurant, Rotisserie and Wine. Rick Hackett, executive chef at Bocanova, the Pan-Pacific restaurant in Oakland's Jack London Square, combines the grain with shrimp, roasted beets and orange vinaigrette. And at El Hueco, a Peruvian restaurant in Redwood City, Calif., quinoa — which they call the "mother grain of the Incas" — is a key ingredient in vegetarian and seafood entrees.

But don't stop there, says Postman.

"I have a good friend who has it for breakfast every day," she says. "She mixes it with honey or agave syrup and tosses in raisins and almond slivers. And quinoa clusters are a great, healthy snack."

An expanded culinary repertoire awaits participants in the Extension's March symposium, says Wood and Shaw. The Co-op is providing 20 recipes tested by OSU's Family Food Educators and available for tasting during the event.

"The whole experience is so way beyond Wonder bread," says OSU associate professor Sharon Johnson, who planned the event.

"It's like food for the first time."

Reporter Sarah Lemon contributed to this story. Reach her at 541-776-4487, or e-mail slemon@mailtribune.com.

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