Don’t worry- a few years ago, I was right there with you. I had never even been through a bulk grains section of a grocery store, let alone pronounced a word like ‘quinoa.’ I know it has recently come to light as a supergrain, and with its growing popularity has come an increase in familiarity. The UN has even declared 2013 the International Year of Quinoa! For some of you this won’t be new information, but for some it might, so let’s dive right in!
Let’s take it from the top, as they say. Quinoa, pronounced “KEEN-wah,” is an almost-grain. Scientifically speaking, its makeup is much closer to things like beets and tumbleweeds than it is to grains, but it is usually sorted into that category for convenience because it cooks up fluffy- much like couscous. It originated in what is now Peru, and was a staple in the Incan diet. Considered “the mother of all grains,” it is a nutritional powerhouse and a great addition to any diet.
Quinoa is generally popular amongst vegetarians and vegans due to its high protein content. The body requires a certain portion of nine different essential amino acids to support biological function, and finding that combination outside of the world of meat protein is tough. Quinoa to the rescue! One serving provides 20% of your daily protein requirement, without all of the saturated fat and cholesterol found in meat. Not only that, quinoa is also high in dietary fiber, phosphorous, iron, calcium, and magnesium. It’s also gluten-free. Powerful stuff!
So now that we know the why‘s, let’s get to the where’s and how’s.
Nowadays, quinoa can be found at almost any grocery store, most often in the “health food” aisle. If your store has a bulk section, it’ll be there too. Here’s my advice: try as hard as you can to find a place that sells in bulk. Whole Foods has a great bulk selection, and that’s where I get my quinoa for about $4 a pound. That sounds expensive, but for one meal I usually only use 1/2 to 1 cup. A pound of quinoa usually lasts me between 2 – 3 weeks, and it is a key part of our meals at least three times a week. One pound goes a very long way. Pre-packaged quinoa, in my experience, tends to be waaaay overpriced, and I avoid it at all costs.
Quinoa comes in three different varieties: white, red, and black. I have found that the white cooks up very light and fluffy, and lends itself well to summer dishes. The red variety is a bit nuttier- still fluffy, but heartier in both flavor and texture than the white. I like my quinoa fluffy, so when I cook red quinoa I usually use a bit more water. It is also my preference for soups. The black variety is a little more elusive, though I know that the Princeton Whole Foods has recently begun to stock it. Black quinoa is very firm, and tends to do well in more structured dishes like salads.
Whichever variety you happen upon, the preparation is the same- easy! First and most importantly, RINSE! Get yourself a cheap mesh strainer or package of cheesecloth and rinse the quinoa under cold, running water for a few minutes. You’ll see soapy-looking bubbles- that’s good! That’s the saponins, a bitter-tasting coating that helps to deter animals from eating the plant’s seeds. It is NOT a pesticide- saponins are naturally-occurring.
Once you’ve rinsed it nice and well, toss it into a mid-sized sauce pot. Quinoa cooks in a 1:2 ratio- so for 1 cup of quinoa, use 2 cups of water. I add a little more water for the red and black varieties- maybe 1/4 and 1/3 cup, respectively, but you’ll develop your own preference.
Throw everything into a pot- I usually add a bouillon cube or a bit of coconut oil for added flavor. Bring it up to a boil, cover, reduce heat, and simmer 15-25 minutes, until the water is absorbed. The easiest way to tell if your quinoa is properly prepared is to look for the “tails”- the germ of the seed. It will look like a little tail spiraling outwards, and its separation from the main seed means that the hard shell has softened and opened.
If you have a rice cooker, it’s even easier- throw everything in, set it to the ‘white rice’ setting, and wait until it’s finished. Fluff with a fork, and serve!
Quinoa is exceptionally versatile. It does well in soups, as a high-protein breakfast porridge, ground into flour for gluten-free cooking and baking, added into a breading (quinoa-crusted onion rings, anyone?), even served up under a pile of sauteed veggies. It’s mild flavor means that it is an excellent vehicle for all things saucy. If you’re itching to give quinoa a fair shot but don’t know where to start, here is a jumping-off point:
No pressure! The quinoa isn’t even the star of the show in this super fresh and homey take on ratatouille, so no matter what happens you’ve still got yummy veggies holding their own. This recipe also makes good use of all of those pretty garlic scapes that have been hanging around the farm markets this season.
Garlic Scape Ratatouille
Prep Time: 20 minutes
Cook Time: 45 minutes
Keywords: roast steam stir-fry saute entree soup/stew gluten-free kosher low-carb low-sodium nut-free soy-free sugar-free vegan vegetarian white eggplant garlic scapes quinoa tomatoes Christmas Passover Rosh Hashanah Super Bowl Thanksgiving French fall spring summer winter
Ingredients (4-6 people)
- 1 large eggplant
- 2 zuchhini squash
- 1 head of cauliflower
- 3 tomatoes
- 1 onion (I used vidalia)
- 1/2 lb. garlic scapes
- olive oil, for cooking
- salt & pepper
Preheat your oven to 350. Gather your ingredients.
Check out the white eggplant!
My favorite local farm has had a host of strange and exciting eggplants available lately- I couldn’t pass this one up. Two of my tomatoes also came fresh from the farm! One of these things is not like the other…
Chop the eggplant, cauliflower and zucchini into bite-sized pieces/slices. I made mine a bit smaller because this was Jack’s dinner too, but if it were just me I would have left the veggies a bit chunkier.
Toss with olive oil, salt, and pepper.
Line a baking sheet with parchment paper, distribute the veggies evenly, and roast for 20-30 minutes, stirring halfway through. I did not use parchment paper. Likewise, I did not peel my eggplant, but go ahead if that’s what you prefer!
While the veggies are roasting, chop the onion, tomatoes and scapes.
In a large pan, saute the onions and scapes in a bit of olive oil, until onions are translucent and scapes are beginning to soften.
Add the tomatoes to the pan, and heat on medium for 5-10 minutes, stirring one or twice.
If you are serving this with quinoa, go ahead and get that on the stove.
Beware of steamed-up camera lenses- one of the hazards of photographing while cooking.
Add them to the onion, scapes and tomatoes, reduce heat to medium-low, and cook until veggies are soft.
I cooked mine waaaay down because it’s easier for Jack, but you may like yours a bit more structured.
Your stove might look something like this…
Season to taste with salt & pepper, plate, and serve!
We had ours over steamed red kale and white quinoa- yum!
Okay, not the most aesthetically pleasing dish, but I assure you it was delicious.
If you’re looking for more ways to enjoy quinoa, here are some of my favorites: