Quinoa: The Mother Grain

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Growing in popularity, superfood is vitamin packed, wheat and gluten free
By Nevin Martell October 2012 Health & Nutrition

As you would guess from the name, the newly opened Protein Bar in Washington, D.C., is all about the protein. The health-conscious fast-casual restaurant’s signature Bar-ritos include the usual protein-packed suspects – chicken, beef, tofu, and beans – but there’s one surprising addition: quinoa (pronounced keen-wah). With the texture of slightly crunchy couscous and a rounded, nutty flavor, it’s the perfect substitute for rice and a great vegetarian source of protein.

Known as the Mother Grain – even though it’s technically a pseudocereal, so what you’re actually eating are the plant’s seeds – this ancient crop is fast becoming a modern culinary phenomenon. That’s because it’s gluten- and wheat-free, possesses a full complement of essential amino acids, has plenty of fiber, boasts a variety of vitamins and minerals, and is relatively low in carbohydrates. “It’s the highest of all grains in potassium,” says Cynthia Harriman, director of food and nutrition strategies for the Whole Grains Council. “That’s important for blood pressure, since potassium is the anti-sodium.”

Quinoa can be seen as a highly nutritive superfood. “It’s one of the healthiest foods you can eat without packing on the pounds,” says Susan Irby, author of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Quinoa Cookbook. Its extreme healthfulness – coupled with the fact that it is drought-resistant and has a high yield of seeds per plant – has gained the crop the attention of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, which declared 2013 the “International Year of Quinoa.” To coincide with this celebration, two filmmakers, Michael Wilcox and Stefan Jeremiah, are working on a documentary, The Mother Grain, which they hope to premiere within the same timeframe.

The documentarians will have a lot of ground to cover, since there are over 120 varieties of quinoa. It comes in a slew of colors, though the most prevalent are white (also marketed as cream or ivory, though it sometimes possesses a light yellowish hue), red, and black. Sometimes several varieties are mixed together and sold as rainbow quinoa.

Cultivation of Quinoa originated in the upper reaches of the Andes around 4,000 to 5,000 years ago in areas that are now in Bolivia, Peru, Chile, and Argentina. Today, Bolivia produces about 80 percent of the world supply, much of it coming from the soaring plateaus known as the Altiplano. With salt flats on one side and volcanoes on the other, this high-altitude growing region is where Alter Eco exclusively sources its quinoa from a series of family-owned farms. The company has dubbed its product royal quinoa. “That refers to the variety and the terroir where it is grown,” explains co-founder and chief operating officer Edouard Rollet.

The company has been selling its Fair Trade-certified quinoa in France since 2003 and in the United States since 2005. Since then, Rollet has seen a huge growth in interest. “When we first started selling it, people could barely pronounce the name,” says Rollet (many incorrectly pronounced it kwi-noah). For the past seven years, the company has seen 100 to 200 percent sales growth every year for its quinoa and has seen it featured in restaurants such as Los Angeles’ Pitfire Pizza and San Francisco’s Town Hall and Anchor & Hope.

Alter Eco isn’t the only importer of quinoa, which is also marketed stateside by the Quinoa Corp. (which is credited with introducing Americans to the grainlike seed in the late 1970s), TruRoots, Eden Foods, and several other companies.

Next: Prep Tips

Prep Tips

The quinoa plant produces a soapy coating, or saponin, that acts as a natural pesticide. These saponins have a bitter aftertaste that can be unpleasant on the palate. Though most commercially available quinoas have been thoroughly rinsed before packaging to eradicate these saponins, there are still instances when quinoa has not been pre-treated or has not been properly cleaned. To prevent any complications arising from any remaining saponins, Jennifer Iserloh, founder of SkinnyChef.com, recommends rinsing uncooked quinoa under cold running water for at least one minute while mixing it by hand and then draining it completely.

Though many proponents praise quinoa’s nutty taste, Iserloh recognizes that it’s not an across-the-board winner with all diners. “Sometimes there’s a musty undertone to it that some people don’t like,” she says. “Green tea can come across like that.” She advises adding strong flavorings to recipes, such as lemon, orange, garlic, or ginger, and to treat it like you were spicing a pilaf.

Quinoa is relatively quick to prepare, taking only 15-20 minutes to cook in boiling water (1/2 cup of uncooked quinoa yields approximately 2 cups). To fins out whether it’s cooked through completely, cut one of the tiny spheres open. “Check to make sure that the center is translucent,” Iserloh says. When the quinoa is finished, she turns off the heat. By leaving it on the stove with the top on for about five minutes, the quinoa gets fluffed. If you’re not serving it immediately, it can be refrigerated for a week or more for use in future preparations.

If quinoa is being used in baked goods, you’ll have to compensate for the fact that it lacks gluten to assure that preparations bind properly. “You need to combine it with other types of flours or add xanthan gum,” says Irby.

Quinoa in the Kitchen

For chefs, one of quinoa’s greatest assets is its versatility. “It takes well to a lot of different seasonings,” Iserloh says. She uses it in a broad variety of dishes – as a breadcrumb alternative on chicken fingers and to healthily pad out burger patties. At Juniper Restaurant inside the Fairmont Hotel Washington, D.C., Georgetown, executive sous chef Ian Bens uses quinoa with black beans to make a veggie burger that comes topped with caramelized onions and sautéed mushrooms.

“People think of it as a side dish, but only because they don’t know what to do with it,” says Irby, who grinds it up as flour for pancakes and waffles and uses it as a substitute for graham crackers in pie crust and as a base for her interpretation of a Waldorf salad.

Tucker Yoder, the executive chef of  the Clifton Inn in Charlottesville, Va., discovered quinoa about six years ago through a video that the staff at elBulli had posted online. “They coated a fish with it, then seared it,” he remembers. “It got all crispy and crackly.”

Intrigued, he tracked some quinoa down and began experimenting. “I liked its nutty, almost wild ricelike flavor,” he says. “And the texture has that pop like caviar.”

Now it’s a staple in his pantry. A standard vegetarian entrée option is housemade tofu paired with a quinoa salad dotted with seasonal vegetables, while a recent special featured red quinoa with duck breast, carrots, and a balsamic reduction. Quinoa also sometimes makes an appearance on the dessert menu. “We cook it with a little bit of sorghum syrup, butter, and water, then serve it with some grilled apples,” Yoder explains. “It comes out like a creamy porridge.” 

Quinoa can even be used as a beverage base. It can be fermented into a traditional South American drink known as chica, puréed into a health shake that’s marketed as Quinoa Gold, and blended it into smoothies for an extra protein kick.

Next: Quinoa Burritos Are The New Hamburger

Quinoa Burritos Are The New Hamburger

Protein Bar founder Matt Matros discovered quinoa when he was 22 years old, just out of college, and overweight. He realized he was at a turning point in his life. “My father passed away when I was young – he had a sudden heart attack – so I was afraid that I was heading down that path,” he says.

The Atkins Diet and the low-carb craze were in full swing, which made Matros consider his own diet. “I loved rice and pasta – like most people do – but I realized that my body couldn’t digest it and it made me heavy,” he says.

He began researching alternatives and came across quinoa. He was intrigued, because it was low in carbohydrates, but high in protein. Over the course of a summer, he switched to a quinoa-heavy diet and began an exercise regimen. Matros ended up losing 50 pounds and shed an additional 10 pounds in a dieting jag after that. The home recipes he developed during this period became the inspiration for the dishes and drinks that made up the menu at the first Protein Bar location, which opened in Chicago in the spring of 2009. The concept was a hit. Now there are eight locations in Chicago and the Washington, D.C., areas with several more slated to open in the coming months.

As well as the quinoa-filled Bar-ritos, the health-conscious eatery uses the grainlike seed in its breakfast bowls (sample: the Pepita Spice with warm quinoa, choice of milk, agave nectar, golden raisins and pumpkin seeds), salads, and lunch-dinner-focused quinoa bowls like the Spinach & Pesto, the Healthy Parm, and the Buffalo. Though you don’t expect to see quinoa in the fast-casual environment, Matros thinks that will change. “In five years, it’ll be in every Chik-fil-A,” he predicts.

Quinoa is clearly no longer just the darling of the Men’s Health readers and conscientious co-op shoppers. Though its health benefits are undeniable, there’s more to quinoa than that. “Nobody falls for the ‘hold your nose and eat it; it’s good for you’ line,” says Harriman of the Whole Grains Council. “People have to try it and love it. And then they can say, ‘And I don’t even need to feel guilty, because it’s healthy.’”

Suggested Reading

The Complete Idiot’s Guide Quinoa Cookbook by Susan Irby
Everything you wanted to know about quinoa, but were afraid to ask. On top of that, there are 180 recipes, including 20 contributions from well-known chefs such as Los Angeles’ Randal St. Clair of Mohawk Bend, Katsu Hanamure of Osaka and Sherbourne’s Chris Barnett.

Quinoa Cuisine: 150 Creative Recipes for Super Nutritious, Amazingly Delicious Dishes
by Jessica Harlan and Kelley Sparwasser
From appetizers to desserts, this cookbook focuses on easy-to-make recipes with seasonal twists for health-minded diners. 

Ancient Grains for Modern Meals: Mediterranean Whole Grain Recipes for Barley, Farro, Kamut, Polenta, Wheat Berries & More by Maria Speck
This Medi-minded cookbook was a New York Times Notable Cookbook of 2011 and a winner at the Gourmand Awards that same year. Several quinoa-centric dishes are included, such as lemon quinoa with currants, dill, and zucchini, and cumin-scented quinoa with red beets.

Quinoa 365: The Everyday Superfood by Patricia Green and Carolyn Hemming
A collection of healthful quinoa recipes spanning appetizers and entrees to snacks and desserts.

The Quintessential Quinoa Cookbook: Eat Great, Lose Weight, Feel Healthy by Wendy Polisi
Over 150 recipes are packed into this book, including many vegan, gluten-free, sugar-free, kid-friendly, and no-fuss options.