Sometimes you eat something and think, “Where have you been all my life?”
That is how I feel about Quinoa (Keen-wa). This totally ancient grain so delightful and light while lending itself perfectly to so many recipe applications. It is indigenous to Bolivia and Peru; the Inca called quinoa chisa mama, “mother of all grain” and they called corn “our life.”
This nutritious grain grows at higher altitudes than maize, which may be why the commercial version we can buy locally is grown in the Rocky Mountains today due to the similar terrain and climate of the Andes mountain range in South America.
I really love its delicate texture simply cooked, hot with some butter. It doesn’t stop there—it is very easily adaptable to soups, stews, stuffings, and combines well with almost any vegetable. I would compare it with wild rice in some ways as it also expands to four times its size when cooked and loves to pair with vegetables.
Quinoa contains nine of the amino acids that we humans need in our diet, plus a healthy supply of iron and potassium. In addition, it is a good source of zinc and many B vitamins. Yeah, all good things. Iron is especially important, as it helps the blood stream carry oxygen which keeps the red blood cells plump and strong. When red blood cells shrink, this makes the other organs like lungs and heart work harder, thus causing fatigue.
Quinoa only contains 130 calories per half cup when cooked, which is less than other high protein foods like meat and dairy. Since it cooks quickly you must take care not to overcook it—mushiness will occur. And, it needs to be well rinsed before cooking to remove a coating of a natural detergent called saponin. It will rinse off and keep the grain from tasting bitter. However, commercially produced quinoa in North America has been processed in such a way that the saponins have been removed.
The taste of quinoa is often compared to that of couscous, a North African grain much like semolina. The best and easiest way to cook it is to bring two cups of water to a boil, add one cup of quinoa, cover and cook for ten to fifteen minutes. From here you can use it in salads, soups, casseroles, baked dishes, in fact, you might want to experiment with it by incorporating it into some of your own traditional classic recipes. You can use it as you would white rice, pastina or orza. Even as a newcomer to the American market, it is available packaged as a grain in red and white, or in pasta form and even ground into flour. This ancient grain will become more and more popular in our Native American diet as we find interesting ways to use it and incorporate it into our healthy food regimen. Everything old is new again.
Quinoa & Beans
2 teaspoons light vegetable oil
1 cup uncooked quinoa
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 medium onion, chopped
1-1/2 cups vegetable or chicken broth
2 cans (15 oz) black beans, drain and rinse
1 cup frozen or fresh corn kernels
1 teaspoon cumin
¼ teaspoon cayenne
Salt and pepper to taste
Fresh cilantro sprigs
Heat the oil in a large saucepan, then stir in the garlic and onion and cook until browned. Stir in the quinoa and add the broth, stir some, then season with cumin, cayenne, salt and pepper. Bring to a boil, cover, reduce heat and let simmer 15 to 20 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in frozen or fresh corn. Heat again for two minutes. Serve hot with cilantro as garnish.
2 cups of cooked quinoa, chilled
½ green or red bell pepper, sliced thin
1 medium tomato, chopped
2 stalks scallion, sliced thin
½ ripe avocado, sliced and cubed
¼ cup chopped cilantro
Optional for more crunch: chopped celery stalk or ¼ cup of chopped jicama or cucumber, a sprinkle of pine or walnuts
juice of ½ lemon
¼ cup light tasting olive or vegetable oil
½ teaspoon salt
Fresh ground black pepper
Pinch each of cayenne and garlic powder
Combine all ingredients and toss lightly. Serve room temperature or chilled.
Dale Carson, Abenaki, is the author of three books: New Native American Cooking, Native New England Cooking and A Dreamcatcher Book. She has written about and demonstrated Native cooking techniques for more than 30 years. Dale has four grown children and lives with her husband in Madison, Connecticut.