KEEN ON QUINOA

The Baltimore Sun

In a month when we're all searching for healthful food, quinoa, an ancient staple of the Andes Mountains, is a great place to turn. For those with celiac disease, it's a gluten-free grain; for vegans, a complete protein. It's a cereal, a pilaf, a whole-grain crust, a vegetable stuffer, a surprise binder in baked goods.

Quinoa (pronounced keen-wa) seems to speak the language of every cuisine. And when its germ uncoils during cooking, a batch of quinoa resembles tiny bubbles, ready to add zip rather than weight to a more healthful diet.

Quinoa is also a boon if you're just plain busy. Got a fridge full of leftovers and 15 minutes? Cook some quinoa, toss with meat and vegetables (or even fruit), a few well-chosen spices and some toasted pine nuts, and suddenly you have a harmonious dish.

With more demand from consumers for vegan and gluten-free foods, quinoa is popping up in all kinds of products, from Trader Joe's Quinoa Bread (which makes a surprisingly light and crispy piece of toast) to Quinoa Gold, a line of caffeine-free, gluten-free energy drinks. (Adding quinoa to beverages is not a new idea. According to the Web site vegparadise .com, a Los Angeles-based Web magazine, Incas drank a beer called chicha made from fermented quinoa to celebrate the quinoa harvest.)

"I like to use it because it is so balanced," says Daniela Troia, chef/owner of Zia's in Towson, a cafe and juice bar that emphasizes healthful dishes. "It's pretty much the perfect food."

Troia, of the Cafe Troia family, uses quinoa to make a salad with black beans, lime, red peppers and corn. She's also substituted it for arborio rice in a version of the Italian classic dish risotto.

"It cooks so fast, it'll cook in half the time of a normal risotto," she says. "Whatever I'm going to put in it, I will saute those things on the side and then add the quinoa to that so it really takes on the flavors."

Considered a sacred food by the Incas who cultivated it thousands of years ago, quinoa is related to spinach and chard.

In the book 101 Foods That Could Save Your Life, David Grotto writes that Incan soldiers marched for days sustained by "war balls" of quinoa and fat. Quinoa production went into decline for years in South America after the Spanish conquest, Grotto writes, and only in the past few decades has made a resurgence. Most quinoa still is imported to the United States from countries such as Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador, although it is being cultivated in Colorado, he says.

Regular quinoa is sold in most grocery stores and can be cooked like rice, in about 15 minutes. Red quinoa, cooked the same way, has a deeper, nuttier flavor, which author Robin Asbell used in The New Whole Grains Cookbook to create a pretty crust for the Peruvian snack chicharrones. Dried and baked on shrimp with a coating of flour and egg, the grain becomes delectably crunchy.

You also can find quinoa flour, quinoa pasta and quinoa flakes, which make a quick hot cereal.

"For me, quinoa tastes really clean," says Shauna James Ahern, the author of the book Gluten-Free Girl and the eponymous blog that inspired it (glutenfreegirl.blog spot.com).

The recipes on her blog include a fruit-crumble topping with quinoa flakes; red quinoa topped with butternut squash, tofu and red peppers; a summery quinoa salad with smoked salmon and capers; and a pizza crust built with quinoa, tapioca and sweet rice flours.

For an everyday side dish, she prepares red quinoa with onions, garlic and thyme, finished with champagne vinaigrette and sunflower seeds. "It's hard for me to believe that I once had never heard of it, because it's one of my favorite staple foods now," Ahern says.

It's also a staple for John Cunningham, consumer research manager for the Baltimore-based Vegetarian Resource Group, who follows a vegan diet. Quinoa "is not what one would particularly think of as the protein part of the meal," he said. "It's a great way to sneak protein into your diet."

It's also handy for fortifying vegetables as a stuffing. In the introduction to a recipe for quinoa-stuffed peppers in her book, Vegetarian Suppers From Deborah Madison's Kitchen, Deborah Madison writes that "seasoned with cilantro, chiles and cumin and studded with corn and spinach, the quinoa is so compellingly good that you might just want to dive in and forget the peppers altogether."

The complete dish - with pretty peppers and braised red onions - was divine when we tested it, and the quinoa stuffing was indeed good enough to stand alone.

Though most quinoa products these days come ready to use, many experts recommend rinsing quinoa seeds before cooking with them. They can be coated with saponin, a natural detergent that clings to the plant's cuticle and can leave a bitter taste. (Drain the small seeds in a tightly woven sieve to keep them from escaping.)

Quinoa flour can offer a gluten-free baking alternative to wheat flour, though many experts don't advise substituting it alone.

We adapted a banana-bread recipe found on the Celiac Sprue Association Web site using quinoa and rice flours, and produced a moist, tasty loaf with a nice crumb and a bit of crunch.

Ahern combines quinoa flour with sorghum, rice flour and teff to make a quiche crust. "I'm interested in what it might be like with a Cornish pasty or some kind of empanada," she says. "I'm still playing with ideas."

kate.shatzkin@baltsun.com

Quinoa With Sausage, Orange and Fennel

Serves 4 to 6

1 1/2 cups quinoa

3 cups water

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 pound mild Italian sausage

1 tablespoon butter

3 shallots, minced

1 bunch green onions, green parts only, chopped

1 tablespoon fennel seeds

1 to 2 oranges, peeled and coarsely chopped

1/4 cup orange juice, or more to taste

3/4 cup pitted dates, chopped

3 tablespoons pine nuts

salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

Stir quinoa together with water in a pan and bring to a boil. Cover and reduce heat to a simmer; cook 10 to 15 minutes, until quinoa is fluffy and water is absorbed. Keep warm.

Meanwhile, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat. Crumble sausage into pan and brown. Remove meat from pan and set aside. Add butter to pan, scraping up browned bits of sausage.

Add shallots and green onions and cook about 30 seconds, until fragrant. Add fennel seeds and cook another 30 seconds. Add oranges and juice, dates and pine nuts. Reduce heat, return sausage to pan and cook for several minutes, until flavors meld and sausage is cooked through. (Stir often to avoid burning pine nuts.)

Put quinoa in a bowl, add sausage mixture and combine. Add salt and pepper to taste. Serve warm.

Kate Shatzkin

Per serving (based on 6 servings): 438 calories, 16 grams protein, 19 grams fat, 6 grams saturated fat, 54 grams carbohydrate, 6 grams fiber, 35 milligrams cholesterol, 394 milligrams sodium

Peppers Stuffed With Quinoa, Corn and Feta Cheese

Serves 4

1/2 teaspoon sea salt, plus more to taste

1 cup quinoa, rinsed well several times

3 tablespoons olive oil (divided use)

1 bunch of scallions, including 2 inches of the greens, thinly sliced into rounds

2 jalapeno chiles, finely diced, seeded if desired

1 garlic clove, finely chopped

1 teaspoon ground cumin

2 cups, more or less, fresh or frozen corn kernels (from 3 ears of corn)

1 bunch spinach, leaves only, or 1/2 pound spinach leaves

1/2 cup chopped cilantro

1/4 pound feta cheese, cut into small cubes

freshly ground pepper

2 large red onions, thinly sliced into rounds

1/2 cup white wine (can be riesling)

4 yellow and/or orange bell peppers

Bring 2 cups of water to a boil. Add the 1/2 teaspoon salt, then the quinoa. Give it a stir, then cover and simmer over low heat until the grains are tender and reveal their spiraled germ, about 15 minutes.

Warm half the oil in a wide skillet. Add the scallions and chiles, cook over medium heat for about 2 minutes, then add the garlic, cumin, corn and spinach, along with 2 tablespoons water. When the spinach is wilted, add the cilantro, quinoa and feta. Toss everything together, taste for salt, and season with pepper. Heat a tablespoon of oil in another wide skillet. When hot, add the onions and saute, stirring frequently, until they start to color around the edges, after several minutes. Pour in the wine and deglaze the pan, giving the onions a stir as you do so. Season with salt and pepper and distribute in a baking dish or two large enough to hold the peppers.

Slice the peppers in half lengthwise without removing the tops or stems, then cut out the membranes and seeds. Simmer them in salted water until tender to the touch of a knife but not overly soft, 4 to 5 minutes, and remove. Fill them with the quinoa and set them in the baking dish or dishes.

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Drizzle the rest of the oil over the peppers and bake the peppers until heated through, 20 to 30 minutes, then switch the heat to broil and brown the tops. Serve hot, warm or at room temperature.

From "Vegetarian Suppers From Deborah Madison's Kitchen," by Deborah Madison

Per serving: 520 calories, 17 grams protein, 20 grams fat, 6 grams saturated fat, 73 grams carbohydrate, 10 grams fiber, 25 milligrams cholesterol, 665 milligrams sodium

Quinoa With Sausage, Orange and Fennel

Serves 4 to 6

1 1/2 cups quinoa

3 cups water

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 pound mild Italian sausage

1 tablespoon butter

3 shallots, minced

1 bunch green onions, green parts only, chopped

1 tablespoon fennel seeds

1 to 2 oranges, peeled and coarsely chopped

1/4 cup orange juice, or more to taste

3/4 cup pitted dates, chopped

3 tablespoons pine nuts

salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

Stir quinoa together with water in a pan and bring to a boil. Cover and reduce heat to a simmer; cook 10 to 15 minutes, until quinoa is fluffy and water is absorbed. Keep warm.

Meanwhile, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat. Crumble sausage into pan and brown. Remove meat from pan and set aside. Add butter to pan, scraping up browned bits of sausage.

Add shallots and green onions and cook about 30 seconds, until fragrant. Add fennel seeds and cook another 30 seconds. Add oranges and juice, dates and pine nuts. Reduce heat, return sausage to pan and cook for several minutes, until flavors meld and sausage is cooked through. (Stir often to avoid burning pine nuts.)

Put quinoa in a bowl, add sausage mixture and combine. Add salt and pepper to taste. Serve warm.

Kate Shatzkin

Per serving (based on 6 servings): 438 calories, 16 grams protein, 19 grams fat, 6 grams saturated fat, 54 grams carbohydrate, 6 grams fiber, 35 milligrams cholesterol, 394 milligrams sodium

Peruvian Quinoa Shrimp Chicharrones With Green Aji Sauce

Serves 4

SAUCE:

1 large jalapeno chile, seeded

2 cloves garlic

1 bunch cilantro, cleaned and stemmed (2 cups leaves)

2 tablespoons lime juice

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil

SHRIMP:

1/2 cup red quinoa, rinsed

16 jumbo shrimp or prawns, tails on, deveined

1/2 teaspoon dried oregano

1/2 teaspoon dried cumin

1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper

1/2 cup unbleached white flour

2 large eggs, lightly beaten

olive oil cooking spray

For the sauce: In a food processor or blender, finely mince the jalapeno, garlic and cilantro by pulsing several times. Add the lime juice and salt and puree. Drizzle in the olive oil to make a smooth sauce. Reserve.

Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add the quinoa and cook for 10 minutes, then drain. Spread the quinoa out on a baking sheet lined with paper towels to dry. (It should be quite dry to the touch before you put it on the shrimp; pat with towels if necessary.)

Pat the shrimp dry, if damp, and put in a medium bowl. Mix the oregano, cumin and cayenne and sprinkle over the shrimp; toss to coat.

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Prepare 2 pie pans -- one with the flour, one with the beaten eggs. Dip the shrimp in the flour, then the eggs, then the quinoa.

Place 2 heavy baking pans in the hot oven for 5 minutes. Take each out, spray liberally with oil spray, then quickly place the shrimp on the hot pans, keeping them from touching. Spray the coated shrimp with oil spray and bake for 5 minutes.

Flip shrimp with tongs, then bake for 5 minutes more. Cut one through the thickest part to make sure they are cooked through; the baking time will vary with the size of the shrimp.

Serve shrimp hot with aji sauce.

From "The New Whole Grains Cookbook," by Robin Asbell

Per serving: 324 calories, 12 grams protein, 18 grams fat, 3 grams saturated fat, 27 grams carbohydrate, 2 grams fiber, 149 milligrams cholesterol, 235 milligrams sodium

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