Quinoa: It’s the old/new gluten-free super grain!

By Catharine L. Kaufman


My husband and I are summer sizing to get in shape for our June vacation. I’ve noticed quinoa is the new healthy grain, popping up everywhere from divey diners to high-end eateries and even on supermarket shelves. Should I be eating it as a carb side dish or a main-course protein? What’s quinoa’s status update?

Lisa S., La Jolla


Lisa, darling, a plant food source like quinoa is neither fish nor fowl, making it a ticklish task to label its status. This supergrain is like a combo plate with various quantities of both protein and carbs. So you have to look at your overall carb and protein intake throughout the day to decide whether you want to convert quinoa into a carb side or a main-dish protein.

Embrace its multitasking attributes — toss it in pilafs, stews, salads, stir-fries, turkey burgers or meatloaves or anywhere you want to swap out pasty, empty carbs like white flour and Styrofoam white rice for the nutritional powerhouse busting with nutty and grassy nuances. Quinoa pairs well with legumes making a fine vegan or vegetarian meal or grilled deep-sea scallops or chicken breasts for die-hard pescavores or pollitarians.

Try dry roasting the seeds before cooking for a toasty, savory flavor or boil in apple or orange juice, adding a touch of sweetness ideal when adding to breakfast cereals or desserts like a quinoa “rice” pudding with dried fruit and coconut milk. Whip up muffins, breads, cookies, scones or pancakes with quinoa flour. Or go raw and sprout the seeds, topping off sandwiches or munch them straight up. Even the leaves of the quinoa plant are edible and nutrient rich, so toss with salad greens or steam like spinach, sautéed with garlic and drizzled with olive oil.

Quinoa is nature’s nearly perfect and complete food packed with assorted nutrients. One cup of the cooked grain has more calcium than a quart of milk, ounce for ounce more protein than a slab of meat, eight essential amino acids along with tons of iron, vitamins A and B and phosphorous.

Quinoa, pronounced “Keen-wa,” is not a true botanical grain since it’s the seed of the herb plant Chenopodium or Goosefoot. As a pseudocereal rather than a member of the grass family quinoa makes an ideal substitute for celiacs or gluten intolerant folks.

Although quinoa, a close cousin to beets and spinach, has recently arrived on the culinary radar screen as a hip grain, this Andes native has been around for centuries. A sacred staple of the Incan people since 3,000 B.C., their precious “mother grain” provided a mother lode of nutrients that fortified them to build the largest empire in pre-Columbian America.

While over 120 species, only three are cultivated

today, including the basic cream-colored seed, the crunchier, slightly bitter red variety, and the rarer black seed. You can mix and match for interesting Technicolor on your plate. And since all varieties require the same cooking time, they can be boiled together.

Generally, use 1 cup of raw quinoa to 2 cups of water. Bring to a boil and simmer until the water is absorbed, and the beautiful seed pops, about 12 minutes. When cooked, it’s both fluffy and crunchy at the same time, showing off its characteristic shape, when the outer germ of each individual grain curves outward to form a white spiral-like tail.

One word of quinoa caution: Since the seed is naturally coated with a bitter-tasting substance called saponins, to be on the safe side, simply rinse using a fine sieve before cooking. However, most quinoa (especially that sold in North America) has been processed removing this coating.

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