Quinoa (pronounced keen-wa) is a grain-like crop that has ancient origins. Quinoa has only recently been gaining in popularity because of its numerous health benefits, but it’s actually been around for centuries. It originated in South America over five thousand years ago and was so central to the ancient Incan culture that it was referred to as the Mother Grain. Although quinoa is considered a whole grain, botanically it’s actually a plant with edible leaves that is closely related to beets, spinach, and Swiss chard. However, it is primarily grown for its edible seeds. Besides the fact that it is tasty and easy to prepare, quinoa is a nutritional powerhouse. It has many unique qualities and health benefits such as:
-It has a very high protein content (about twice the protein of regular cereal grains), which makes it a great source of protein for vegetarians
-It is the only grain that is a complete protein, meaning that it contains a balanced set of all nine essential amino acids
-It is gluten-free and easy to digest which makes it a nice option for people who are gluten-intolerant
-It is a good source of dietary fiber
-It is a good source of several B Vitamins, Vitamin E, calcium, iron, phosphorus, and magnesium
Numerous studies have shown that increased dietary fiber is associated with lower rates of coronary artery disease.(1)
A 3-year prospective study of 229 postmenopausal women with coronary artery disease, published in the July 2005 issue of the American Heart Journal, shows that those eating at least 6 servings of whole grains each week experienced slower progression of coronary atherosclerosis, the build-up of plaque that narrows the vessels of the heart through which blood flows.(2)
Because of all of its healthy properties, quinoa is a great choice for people with cardiovascular disease, high cholesterol, and high blood pressure. It’s also a nice alternative for anyone trying to cut down their intake of refined, processed carbohydrates and include more healthy whole grains in their diet.
In nature, the quinoa plant grows 4 to 6 feet high and has many angular branches with large clusters of seeds at the end of each stalk. The seeds have a bitter coating from chemical compounds called saponins, but most of the commercially sold quinoa in the U.S. is pre-rinsed to remove this bitterness. Quinoa is usually cooked like rice in water or other liquids such as broth, and only takes about 10-15 minutes. It can also be cooked in a rice cooker. As it cooks, the germ separated from the seed. When it’s done, the grain appears soft and translucent, and the germ ring will be visible along the outer edge of the grain. It has fluffy, slightly crunchy texture and a mild, nutty flavor. It is a great side dish, and takes on different flavors depending on how it is cooked and what it’s mixed with.
Other products available are quinoa flour, quinoa pasta and quinoa flakes. Quinoa has a wide range of colors but only three main varieties are cultivated- white, red, and black.
You can basically substitute quinoa for rice or cous cous in any recipe. Or try one of these ideas:
– Use it as a breakfast dish: cook quinoa flakes instead of oatmeal and mix with your favorite fruits and nuts
– Cook quinoa in water or broth and mix with vegetables and herbs for a quinoa pilaf
– Make a cold quinoa salad by tossing cooked quinoa with a vinaigrette and grilled or roasted vegetables (and chicken if desired)
– Add quinoa to your favorite soup or stew
– Use quinoa mixed with your favorite herbs to stuff vegetables like bell peppers
– Make a new dessert- quinoa pudding instead of rice pudding
– Cook it in chicken broth then toss with baby spinach, walnuts, pomegranate seeds, and goat cheese
-Make an Indian version by cooking quinoa with onion, ginger, garlic, curry powder and chicken broth or water. Stir in peas and cilantro
– Make a Spanish version by cooking quinoa with onion, garlic, saffron, and chicken broth. Stir in peas, chopped piquillo peppers and parsley.