In case you haven't discovered it, let me tell you about an age-old grain that is migrating from health food stores to grocery store shelves.
Some are even calling it the super grain of the future.
That's ironic, considering that quinoa (pronounced KEEN-wah) is an ancient grain that originated in the Andes region of South America. It was one of three staples of the Incas, along with maize (corn) and the potato. Although it was a significant source of protein in the Inca diet, it was overlooked by the Spanish explorers.
Quinoa contains between 16 percent and 20 percent protein -- higher than the 14 percent of wheat, 9.9 percent of millet and 7.5 percent of rice.
All these protein statistics may seem like no big deal to you, but consider this: Two-thirds of the world's dietary protein originates from grains and legumes. And the meat-, milk- and egg-rich protein we get in the United States has been shown to contribute to heart disease.
Quinoa is very simple to prepare. Add it to twice the volume of boiling salted water, simmering until tender and all the water is absorbed, about 15 minutes. The directions call for covering the pot, but I get better results by very slow simmering with the lid removed. Add garnishes of nuts and fresh herbs and serve. Spices are best added to the boiling water so that they may evenly disperse through the dish.
I prefer to prepare the quinoa with the rice pilaf technique. Heat a small amount of olive oil in a saucepan. Add the dry quinoa and cook until hot. Add twice the volume of boiling salted water, with spices if you like, cover and place on the lower rack of an oven heated to 350 degrees for 12 to 15 minutes, until tender. Carefully remove from the oven, remembering the handle and lid are very hot. Stir in the garnishes and serve.
Vegetables may be added to the cooking quinoa. Cut vegetables into a smaller dice so that they may finish cooking about the same time as the quinoa. Firmer vegetables such as young carrots, beets, parsnips, beans, broccoli, celery root, members of the onion family and even potatoes make a wonderful combination if cut very small.
Softer leafy vegetables such as spinach, chards, mustards, greens and herbs are best chopped very fine and added in the last few minutes of cooking time.
Garnish vegetables to add at the end of the cooking are roasted sweet or hot peppers, tomatoes, sauteed mushrooms, roasted fennel.
Quinoa is great served warm or cold. After the quinoa is cooked, transfer it to a large broad dish and spread evenly across. Allow to cool. Break up large lumps, if they occur. The cooled quinoa is terrific in green and vegetable salads and young tender greens.
Quinoa and vegetable
2 cups of quinoa
1/2 cup virgin olive oil, divided
1 red onion, peeled, ends removed, diced
2 whole cloves of garlic, finely minced (optional)
4 cups light vegetable stock or water, brought to a boil
salt to taste
black pepper to taste
1 cup mushrooms, cleaned, sliced
1 large red pepper, seeded and diced
1 cup of baby haricot vert or french green beans, trimmed and cut into 2-inch sections, blanched in boiling water until al dente
1/2 cup chopped fresh basil leaves
1/2 cup grated Parmesan or Romano cheese
4 sprigs of fresh basil or herbs for garnish
Place the quinoa in a fine strainer and rinse under running cold water to remove any residue of the bitter husks. Allow to drain thoroughly. In a large saucepan, heat 1/4 cup of the olive oil over medium-high heat. Add the onion and the garlic, cooking until translucent and tender. Add the quinoa and cook until hot. Remove from the heat and carefully pour the boiling vegetable stock or water over the quinoa. Return to the heat and bring to a simmer. Season with salt and a generous dose of black pepper. Cook until just about all the liquids are reduced, about 8 minutes.
Meanwhile, in a skillet heat the remaining olive oil. Add the mushrooms, cooking until browned on the edges, about 4 minutes. Add the peppers and cook until al dente. Transfer the mushrooms and the peppers to the quinoa saucepan and combine.
Add the blanched haricot vert to the quinoa. Cook until the quinoa is softened but not mushy. Add the basil.
Transfer to soup bowls. Top with grated cheese. Garnish with the sprig of herbs and serve immediately.