Nutrition

Quinoa arrives: sprinkled in salads or piled like pilaf, queen grain of the Inca delights

Sprinkled in salads or piled like pilaf, queen grain of the Inca is a delight. Here, quinoa-turkey patties in pita are featured.
MARK DuFRENE | MCT
Sprinkled in salads or piled like pilaf, queen grain of the Inca is a delight. Here, quinoa-turkey patties in pita are featured.
Posted Feb. 14, 2011, at 5:14 p.m.
Last modified Feb. 14, 2011, at 5:31 p.m.
Sprinkled in salads or piled like pilaf, queen grain of the Inca is a delight. Here, quinoa pilaf with lemon, thyme and cilantro is featured.
MARK DuFRENE | MCT
Sprinkled in salads or piled like pilaf, queen grain of the Inca is a delight. Here, quinoa pilaf with lemon, thyme and cilantro is featured.

It’s official: Quinoa has achieved cult status. The ancient Incan grain has captured the public’s imagination with its mix of nutritional superpowers, delicious flavor and rainbow colors, popping up on trendy restaurant menus and holistic health websites alike.

With all nine essential amino acids, it’s a complete protein — like meat — which makes it the Holy Grail of the vegetarian world. And, it’s gluten-free.

The only question is whether it grows magic beanstalks, too. And how best to cook the sometimes tricky grain.

“It has an incredible cult following,” says Alex Postman, editor-in-chief for Martha Stewart’s Whole Living magazine and website, where quinoa is one of the top search terms. “It’s so nutritionally packed. But the first time I cooked it, I said, ‘What is up with this?’ I was not a quinoa connoisseur.”

That’s because there are a few small, but simple tricks for turning that bag of tiny seeds into a gustatory wunderkind. First, quinoa needs to be rinsed before use, to eliminate the bitter coating that surrounds each seed. Overcook it or use too much water, and quinoa loses its marvelous, fluffy texture. And then there’s the color — yes, black quinoa cooks into inky hues and red stays richly vibrant. That can be a perk or a liability.

Postman’s first quinoa escapade resulted in a terminally soggy side dish — and instead of ricelike appeal, her red quinoa was unexpectedly assertive in flavor. The darker the color, she says, the nuttier the taste.

“It comes in a spectrum of colors, from white to pink, orange and black. I would advise first timers to start with the lighter types, because those are a little blander,” she says.

That blandness makes quinoa a perfect palette for creation.

“I’ve come to love it,” says Postman. “It’s so versatile. You can add pesto or a vinaigrette or leftover roasted veggies. It’s a really great vehicle for flavor.”

Professional chefs use quinoa in a wide range of ways. Charlie Ayers, the former Google chef who runs Palo Alto’s Calafia Cafe, uses quinoa in soups, stuffing and salads. It makes a particularly nice pilaf, too, he says.

Tyler Florence tosses fluffy red quinoa into a salad of beets, avocado and fuyu persimmon at his new Napa restaurant, Rotisserie and Wine. Rick Hackett, executive chef at Bocanova, the Pan-Pacific restaurant in Oakland, Calif.’s Jack London Square, combines the grain with shrimp, roasted beets and orange vinaigrette. And at El Hueco, a Peruvian restaurant in Redwood City, Calif., quinoa — which they call the “mother grain of the Incas” — is a key ingredient in vegetarian and seafood entrees.

But don’t stop there, says Postman.

“I have a good friend who has it for breakfast every day,” he says. “She mixes it with honey or agave syrup and tosses on raisins and almond slivers. And quinoa clusters are a great healthy snack.”

Postman’s office is currently in the throes of what she calls, with a laugh, “a monthlong detox of all the stuff we crammed our bodies with over the holidays.” (Their 28-day healthy living plan is outlined in this month’s Whole Living magazine, too.) Going gluten-free is difficult enough, she says. Cutting out snacks would incite a riot. But the apricot and nut-filled quinoa clusters in Postman’s new cookbook, “Power Foods: 150 Delicious Recipes with the 38 Healthiest Ingredients” (Clarkson Potter, 384 pp., $24.99), make a perfect snack that’s portable, packable and good for you.

And they’re proof positive that you can satisfy a New Year’s resolution and still have a little fun.

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QUINOA-TURKEY PATTIES IN PITA WITH TAHINI

Serves 6

This is also delicious served with tzatziki, or mint chutney and Greek yogurt.

Tahini sauce:

1 garlic clove

1/4 cup tahini

1/4 cup fresh lemon juice

1/4 cup water

Patties:

2 cups water, or more

1 cup quinoa, rinsed and drained

12 ounces ground turkey

1/4 teaspoon plus 1 pinch ground allspice

1/2 teaspoon plus 1 pinch ground cumin

Pinch crushed red pepper flakes

2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh mint

2 scallions, finely chopped

Coarse salt

2 teaspoons canola or safflower oil, or more

6 lettuce leaves

1 English cucumber

1 small red onion, halved and thinly sliced

6 pita breads

1. In a food processor, process tahini sauce ingredients until smooth. Chill.

2. Bring 2 cups water to a boil in a saucepan. Add quinoa. Stir once, cover and reduce heat. Simmer until tender, but still chewy, about 15 minutes. Fluff with a fork; let cool.

3. In a clean food processor, pulse turkey, spices, mint, scallions and 3/4 teaspoon salt to a smooth paste. Add quinoa; process until mixture comes together around the blade. Roll into 24 balls; flatten slightly to form patties.

4. Heat oil in a large skillet. Working in batches, fry patties until cooked through.

5. Divide lettuce, cucumber and onion evenly among pita breads. Top each with 4 quinoa patties, drizzle with about 1 tablespoon tahini dressing. Fold pitas over filling and serve.

—”Power Foods” by the editors of Whole Living Magazine (Clarkson Potter, 384 pp., $24.99)

Per serving: 434 calories, 9 g fat (2.1 g saturated), 32.5 mg cholesterol, 60 g carbohydrates, 23 g protein, 380 mg sodium, 5 g fiber.

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QUINOA, APRICOT AND NUT CLUSTERS

Makes 20

1 1/2 cups water

3/4 cup white quinoa, rinsed and drained

1 1/2 cups old-fashioned rolled oats (not instant)

1/2 cup raw shelled sunflower seeds

1/2 cup raw shelled pistachios, coarsely chopped

1 cup unsulfured, dried apricots, thinly sliced

1/4 cup sugar

1/2 teaspoon coarse salt

1/4 cup honey

2 tablespoons canola or safflower oil

1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla

2 large eggs, plus 1 egg white, lightly beaten

Vegetable oil cooking spray

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Bring the water to a boil in a small saucepan. Add quinoa; return to a boil. Stir once; cover and reduce heat to a simmer. Cook until quinoa is slightly underdone and has absorbed most of the liquid, 12 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, transfer quinoa to a rimmed baking sheet. Bake, fluffing with a fork occasionally, until pale golden, 30-35 minutes. Transfer to large bowl; let cool.

2. Spread oats evenly on a baking sheet; bake, stirring occasionally, until lightly browned, 15 minutes. Add oats to quinoa. Spread seeds on baking sheet and bake, stirring occasionally, until lightly toasted, 7 minutes. Add to quinoa; let cool. Reduce oven temperature to 300 degrees.

3. Toss nuts, apricots, sugar and salt with quinoa mixture. Mix honey, oil and vanilla into eggs; stir into quinoa mixture.

4. Line a rimless baking sheet with parchment paper; lightly coat with cooking spray. For each cluster, place 1/4 cup mixture onto sheet, spacing 3 inches apart. Flatten to 1/4-inch thick. Bake, rotating sheet halfway through, until crisp, about 25 minutes. Let cool completely on a wire rack. Store loosely covered with aluminum foil up to 2 days.

—”Power Foods” by the editors of Whole Living Magazine (Clarkson Potter, 384 pp., $24.99)

Per 2-cluster serving: 329 calories, 10.6 g fat (3.4 g saturated), 42 mg cholesterol, 49 g carbohydrates, 10 g protein, 5 g fiber, 139 mg sodium.

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QUINOA SALAD WITH RED BELL PEPPER AND CILANTRO

Serves 4

To make this dish spicier, add the chile seeds.

1 cup quinoa, rinsed and dried on a towel

1 1/2 cups water

Salt and pepper

1/2 red bell pepper, seeded and chopped fine

1/2 jalapeno chile, stemmed, seeded and minced

2 tablespoons minced red onion

1 tablespoon minced fresh cilantro

2 tablespoons lime juice

1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil

2 teaspoons Dijon mustard

1 small garlic clove, minced

1/2 teaspoon ground cumin

1. Toast quinoa in a large saucepan over medium heat, stirring often, until lightly toasted and aromatic, about 5 minutes. Stir in water and ¼ teaspoon salt; bring to a simmer. Reduce heat to low, cover and simmer until quinoa has absorbed most of the water and is nearly tender, 12 minutes. (Any remaining water will evaporate as the quinoa cools.) Spread quinoa in a rimmed baking sheet and set aside until tender and cool, 20 minutes.

2. Transfer quinoa to a large bowl. Stir in the bell pepper, jalapeC1o, onion and cilantro.

3. In a separate bowl, whisk the lime juice, oil, mustard, garlic and cumin. Pour over quinoa and toss to coat. Season with salt and pepper and serve. Or refrigerate in an airtight container up to 2 days; season with salt, pepper and lime juice to taste before serving.

—”America’s Test Kitchen’s Healthy Family” (America’s Test Kitchen, 528 pp., $34.95)

Per 3/4 cup serving: 200 calories, 6 g fat (1 g saturated), 0 mg cholesterol, 30 g carbohydrates, 6 g protein, 3 g fiber, 220 mg sodium.

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QUINOA PILAF WITH LEMON AND THYME

Serves 6

1 onion, minced

1 teaspoon olive oil

Salt and pepper

1/2 cups quinoa, rinsed and dried on a towel

1/4 cups low-sodium chicken broth

1 teaspoon grated lemon zest

1 teaspoon minced fresh thyme or ¼ teaspoon dried

2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice

2 tablespoons minced fresh parsley, basil, cilantro or scallions

1. Combine the onion, oil and ¼ teaspoon salt in a large saucepan. Cover and cook over medium-low heat, stirring occasionally, until the onion is softened, 8 to 10 minutes.

2. Stir in the quinoa, increase the heat to medium, and cook, stirring often, until the quinoa is lightly toasted and aromatic, about 5 minutes. Stir in the broth, lemon zest and thyme and bring to a simmer. Reduce the heat to low, cover and simmer until the quinoa is transparent and tender, 16-18 minutes.

3. Remove the pot from the heat, lay a clean folded kitchen towel across the top of the pot and replace the lid. Let sit for 10 minutes, then fluff the quinoa with a fork. Stir in the lemon juice and fresh parsley or herbs. Season with salt and pepper to taste and serve.

—”America’s Test Kitchen’s Healthy Family” (America’s Test Kitchen, 528 pp., $34.95)

Per 3/4 cup serving: 170 calories, 3.5 g fat (0 saturated), 0 mg cholesterol, 30 g carbohydrates, 6 g protein, 4 g fiber, 220 mg sodium.

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THE LOWDOWN

We may call quinoa — pronounced KEEN-wah — a grain, but it’s really the seed of the South American goosefoot plant. The gluten-free seeds are high in protein, and quinoa’s amino acid profile is comparable to casein, the complete protein found in milk, according to the United Nations’ Food and Agricultural Organization.

Quinoa is easy to digest and quick to prepare, but the seeds, which are coated with saponin, must be rinsed before cooking to remove bitterness, says the America’s Test Kitchen crew. Some cooks prefer to soak the seeds for a few minutes, before placing them in a fine-meshed sieve under running water. Dry the kernels on a kitchen towel before proceeding. Some recipes also suggest toasting the seeds in a dry, hot saucepan for a few minutes until the water evaporates and the quinoa becomes aromatic, before adding simmering stock to cook.

Then, use the same proportions you would with plain white rice, a 1:2 ratio of grain to water or stock. Bring it to a boil and simmer it, covered, for 10-15 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat source, then leave the lid on for a few minutes more — the America’s Test Kitchen staff, which loves the grain for its “addictive crunch, ” suggests placing a clean dish towel over the top of the pot and replacing the lid on top for that final steaming. Then, fluff the grains with a fork, as you would couscous. The kernels should be translucent and fluffy, with small threads.

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