A powerhouse food, known to the Incas as the “mother of all grains”, quinoa is a gluten-free foodstuff that can be a celiac’s best friend, due to its versatility and high protein content.
Many people think of quinoa as being a grain, but it is in fact a light, edible, protein-packed seed that makes a useful substitute for grains in many different kinds of dishes, both cold and hot.
Hailing from the Andes in South America, quinoa earned itself the name “Gold of the Incas” due to the energy and stamina it gave the Inca warriors. Cultivated for over 4,000 years, it was a sacred crop to the Incas and it fell to the Incan emperor to sow the first seeds of the season.
A very hardy crop, quinoa can be grown at temperatures ranging from -3 degrees C to 95 degrees C, and can withstand light frosts, except when flowering. Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador are now the main producers of the crop.
Quinoa has a nutty, smoky taste, and when cooked it has a light, fluffy texture. As it is similar in texture and flavor to couscous and white rice, it can be substituted for these foods in recipes. It can also be substituted in recipes which use bulgur wheat, such as tabbouleh. Quinoa can either be boiled, or it can be cooked in a rice cooker in exactly the same way as white rice, using the same quantity of water as you would use for rice.
The wonderful thing about quinoa is that it is one of the most nutritious foods around. Half a cup of cooked quinoa contains 1.4 mg of iron, all 9 essential amino acids, 2.6g of fiber and is also high in folate, phosphorous, manganese, copper, iron and magnesium. Moreover, quinoa contains around 18% protein and is therefore an ideal protein source for vegans.
To further boost its nutritional value, quinoa can be sprouted. It only takes 2-4 hours to sprout in water, which increases its vitamin content and activates its natural enzymes. This also softens the grains so that they can be added to cold foods such as salads.
When you receive your quinoa it may need to be rinsed first to remove the bitter saponins that make it unpalatable to pests, however these days most companies carry out the rinsing procedure for you, so it can be prepared just like rice.
A very versatile food, quinoa can be used in stir fries, salads, soups, casseroles, vegetable pilafs, and quinoa flour can be used to bake cakes, desserts and cookies.
Quinoa is usually bought in its original seed form, but in some countries quinoa flakes, flour and even gluten-free quinoa pasta can be purchased.
Note that although quinoa is safe in itself, the flour and flakes may have been processed in factories which process wheat products – so read labels to make sure the quinoa has been processed in a gluten-free environment.
Check out How To Prepare Quinoa for some great cooking tips, and a list of delicious quinoa recipes to try!