Quinoa (pronounced keen-wa) is an under-appreciated grain that originated in the Andean region of Bolivia, Ecuador, Peru, and Colombia and has been consumed by humans for an impressive 4,000 years.
Due to its ability to thrive in dry and generally infertile conditions, the Incas believed the crop to be sacred and referred to it as “mother of all grains.” The Inca emperor himself annually sowed the first quinoa seeds of the season, breaking land with golden tools.
After harvesting, quinoa needs to be processed to remove a coating of bitter-tasting saponins. Though more labor-intensive for the cultivators, the bitter saponins actually help the crops succeed by naturally deterring birds and other would-be scavengers.
When buying quinoa commercially, the saponins have generally been washed away. Still, it is suggested that you rinse it with water, using a fine strainer or cheesecloth, to wash away any remaining residue.
Nutritionally speaking, quinoa is a powerhouse. It has more protein per serving than any other grain, contains essential amino acids, and is a great source of iron, calcium, and phosphorus. Additionally, quinoa is gluten free and easy to digest.
Quinoa is generally treated and cooked like rice, and is a versatile grain that can be used in a wide variety of dishes, ranging from savory to sweet. When cooking, you will know it is done when the germ has separated from the seed, creating a whimsical curl.
Quinoa can replace another grain in almost any recipe, adding its own unique nutty taste, fluffy texture, and punch of protein. Since it is not sticky or heavy like other grains, it is a great grain to eat all year long; even on the hottest days of summer, in a light and cold salad.
To make quinoa even more adaptable, it comes in several forms, including flakes and flour. Since it is still unfamiliar to many people, you may have a hard time finding it in common grocery stores. Check for it in the bulk department or near the other grains at your local natural food store.
If all else fails, you can find it online. Recognizing its impressive nutritional profile, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations has declared 2013 to be “The International Year of the Quinoa.” It’s nice to see this impressive, hearty, and delicious grain finally getting the attention and respect that it deserves.
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