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Perhaps the first thing to learn about quinoa is how to pronounce it. The word itself is Spanish in origin and is pronounced “KEEN-wah”. Although quinoa looks like a grain, the part we eat is actually the seed of a flowering plant in the amaranth family. Spinach and chard are close relatives. The most widely cultivated varieties of the seed are white, red and black. You can readily find white quinoa in your grocery store. The red and black varieties are available at larger grocers or at specialty grocery stores. A mix of the colors is also available as are various precooked combinations of quinoa, wild rice and other grains.

Health benefits

Quinoa, loved for its sweet and nutty flavor, also has excellent nutritional benefits. According to Dr. Dawn Null, Registered Dietician and Assistant Professor in the SIU Human Nutrition and Dietetics program, “Quinoa is a good source of protein, iron, calcium, fiber, and antioxidants. Studies indicate Quinoa is a great alternative to wheat for those with celiac or non-celiac gluten sensitivity.” Always check the nutrition label, though. Even items traditionally gluten-free may be made in factories that process wheat. For vegetarians who want to add more protein to their diet, quinoa is a great addition.

How to cook quinoa

Quinoa can be used in sweet or savory dishes. It can be eaten as a breakfast cereal, used as the base for salads, added to breads and cakes, or substituted for rice. In short, quinoa is very versatile.

Quinoa seeds have a bitter coating that serves as a natural deterrent to birds that would otherwise eat the seeds. This coating must be soaked off before cooking. Most packaged quinoa has been pre-soaked, but check the packaging to make sure. To ensure all of the bitterness has been removed, simply rinse your quinoa under cold water, rubbing the seeds with your hands to remove any coating that might remain after processing. You can also soak one cup of quinoa in two cups of water for about 5 minutes, then rinse and drain.

To cook, add the rinsed one cup of quinoa to a pot with two cups of water or broth and a half teaspoon of salt and bring to a boil. Once the mixture comes to a boil, cover with a tight fitting lid and reduce the heat to low. This will allow the quinoa to simmer. Simmer the quinoa for about 15 minutes then remove the pot from the heat and let it sit with the lid on for 5 more minutes. Remove the lid and use a fork to gently fluff the quinoa. Fully cooked quinoa pops open, exposing the germ of the seed.

If you have an electric pressure cooker, add one cup of quinoa and two cups of liquid to the pot, secure the lid ensuring the valve is set to “seal” and cook for 8 minutes on normal pressure. Do not use the whole grain or rice setting as it may not cook correctly. If you need more, use one part quinoa to two parts liquid.

How to toast quinoa

Toasting quinoa prior to cooking brings out its nutty flavor and is easy to do. Heat a large saute pan on medium-low. Soak or rinse your quinoa as previously described and add a cup of the still wet quinoa to the hot pan. Gently stir the quinoa with a wooden spoon until the water evaporates and you start to hear a popping sound. This is when you know the quinoa is beginning to dry out.

Continue stirring until the quinoa turns a nutty brown color. This won’t take too long, so don’t walk away. You can stop at this point and store your toasted quinoa for later use as a crunchy topping for casseroles or added to salads. You can also continue cooking by adding another cup of liquid and simmering until done.

One cup of dry quinoa yields about three cups or six servings when cooked. Cooked quinoa will keep in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to a week, so this is a perfect food to fix ahead and eat throughout the week. It will keep in the freezer in airtight containers for up to a year.

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