Thursday, February 5, 2009

Quinoa - The Super Seed

Above photo taken by Nicole Spirodakis for NPR

I first started eating quinoa (pronounced KEEN-wah) in college. Yet, I didn't start appreciating the seed until last year when I moved to New York and found myself missing those delicious Wheatfields salads in Lawrence, Kansas.

According to my Healing with Whole Foods book, quinoa is " of the ancient staple foods of the Incas, it was called 'the mother grain.' (Botanically, quinoa is not a true grain, but it can be used as one.) Compared with all grains, it has the highest protein content. Quinoa has more calcium than milk and has a higher fat content than any grain." It is also a good source of iron phosphorous, B vitamins, and vitamin E. Because it is actually a seed and not a grain, quinoa is great for a person with gluten intolerance. Quinoa is cooked much like rice using the basic 1 to 2 ratio (1 part quinoa to 2 parts liquid). It also absorbs flavors similar to rice. It has a great mouth feel with a chewy yet crunchy texture and nutty flavor.

When preparing quinoa be sure to rinse the seeds in a sieve to remove the bitter tasting saponin (which is a coating that protects the seeds from birds and intense sun). Most quinoa bought in an American grocery (you can find quinoa in a box or in the bulk section) store is already pre-rinsed, but I like to still rinse mine to be sure. I usually let mine soak for 5 minutes in hot water and then give a couple more rinses. For more information about quinoa, check out this article and this site.

My coworker who is an amazing cook and baker (we call her Martha-which I am so jealous about), brought a delicious chilled quinoa salad to our Obama Inauguration Potluck. The dish is a light citrus flavored Mediterranean salad with pops of tomato and leeks. She served it with mini pitas and thick slices of bread. The salad is great with both and just as tasty by itself. I had to get the recipe and recreate it for the Super Bowl potluck I was invited to.

The recipe is really simple, but please note you need to make it a head of time so it has time to cool. The salad is great as a leftover; it will stay fresh throughout the week. The recipe states you can use whatever vegetables you like, but I really feel the vegetable choices were right on the mark so I wouldn't change them, plus leeks are in season. I also doubled the recipe, but here is the original version:
-1 cup quinoa (be sure to rinse it thoroughly to remove the coating)
-4 cups stock (chicken or veggie) - I used veggie
-1 large leek (or 2 small) - diced thinly
-4 or 5 tomatoes small dice (I used a container of grape tomatoes and just halved them)
-2 lemons zested and juiced
-1/4 to 1/2 cup of extra virgin olive oil
-1 bunch Italian flat leaf parsley (use your judgment on this - I think my bunch was way bigger than her bunch, so I used about half)
-Salt and pepper to taste

First, combine quinoa and 2 cups stock and bring to a boil, then to a simmer covered for about 15-20 minutes until the grain is translucent and the germ (little white tail) comes out of grain. Drain off any excess liquid once cooked. Note: I cooked mine for 15 minutes and found the quinoa to be too soft for my liking, so check as you go to get the preferred bite.
While the quinoa is cooking, dice your leeks. I had never cooked with leeks before so I was excited. I referred to Martha Stewart's Cooking School: Back To Basics for an informative dicing how-to. You simply cut both ends of the leek off and then slice lengthwise. Now you can start thinly dicing. It might be weird to say, but leeks are really fun to cut up.
The most important thing to know about leeks is that there is sand in between every layer so you should put the diced leeks in a bowl of water and swish them around to allow the sand to fall to the bottom. Use a sieve to strain the leeks out.
Cook leeks in enough stock to cover them (about 2 cups) and add 2 tablespoons of butter and salt and pepper. Cook leeks until tender about 10 minutes on medium high heat. Drain from liquid before adding to cooked quinoa.
After the quinoa and leeks are cooked combine all the rest of the ingredients in a large bowl and then chill. I served mine on thick slices on ciabatta bread.
Note 1: I use Better Than Bouillon to make my stock. If you don't have this, you must get it (it comes in chicken, beef, and vegetable)! It is great quality, super flavorful, saves money and is easy to carry home from the grocery store compared to a liquid stock. I will write more on this later.
Note 2: According to Aliza Green in Starting with Ingredients page 524-25, "Leeks are both milder and sweeter than its cousin, the onion. The peek season for leeks begins in late April and lasts through early February. Although they are available year-round, leeks are at their best in cold weather. Choose leeks that are firm and smooth, free of blemishes, with crisp, brightly colored leaves. Avoid leeks with rounded instead of flattened bulb buttoms (an indication of an overgrown leek) or if they have withered, yellowed, or slimy leaves. Sometimes you'll find leeks that are so overgrown that the inner layers of leaves get bunched up and start to fold in on themselves. The center stalk may have a hard, woody core that must be discarded before using. These leeks belong in the stock pot."

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