A grain-like food gaining ground on plates and palates is quinoa (pronounced KEEN-wah). Mildly nutty in flavor, quinoa, like rice, has the delicious ability to soak up and compliment the flavors of any ingredients with which it’s combined.
What’s even better about this pseudo-cereal — which looks like a mass of tiny beige-colored seeds before it’s cooked and is related to beets and spinach rather than rice and wheat — is its rich nutrient content. Everyone from ancient Inca warriors to NASA astronauts have found quinoa an ideal food to keep them fueled and fit.
The Incas in South America were the first to cultivate quinoa about 3,000 years ago. It grows as prolifically as the magic beans in the fairy tale Jack in the Beanstalk. According to research compiled by the Whole Grains Council, it takes only a half-pound of quinoa to plant a full acre that yields up to 2,000 pounds of new seeds.
Quinoa also grows well in poor soils, is drought resistant and, as a result, been named a super crop by the United Nations for its potential to feed the world’s hungry. Today, it’s quinoa’s reputation as a superfood that has gained it notoriety. The regional office for Latin America and the Caribbean at the United Nations has declared 2013 the International Year of Quinoa.
One of the nutritional hallmarks of quinoa is its protein quantity and quality. One cup of cooked quinoa contains 8 grams of protein, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s nutrient database. This is equal to the amount of protein in 1 egg, 1 cup of milk, or 1 ounce of meat, poultry or fish.
Like these animal-based foods, quinoa contains the nine essential amino acids the body needs to build muscle and repair body tissues and organs. This makes quinoa one of the few plant foods that provides a complete source of protein.
Quinoa also dishes up essential minerals. A one-cup, cooked serving provides 15 percent of the daily requirement for iron, which helps deliver oxygen to our body’s cells. Too little dietary iron is one cause of iron-deficiency anemia.
The same size serving contains 28 percent (for men) and 38 percent (for women) of the day’s requirement for magnesium. Magnesium is necessary for proper muscle and nerve function as well as more than 300 biochemical reactions in our bodies.
Quinoa is a whole grain. It supplies 5 grams or more than 10 percent of the recommended intake of dietary fiber per one-cup serving. Fiber helps food pass through the digestive tract in a timely manner and reduce the risk for intestinal cancers, such as colon cancer. The dietary fiber and other nutrients in quinoa can also help lower blood cholesterol and keep blood pressure and blood sugar in a normal range.
Calorie-wise, quinoa provides only 220 per cup cooked, and it’s naturally fat, cholesterol and sodium free.
People who have celiac disease or are gluten-intolerant can enjoy quinoa as it’s gluten free. It’s a great replacement for wheat in soups, side dishes and baked goods.
At the supermarket, you’ll find quinoa that is white, yellow, red or black. There’s not a big difference in taste or texture between the colors, however some say the darker the color the nuttier and chewier. Some people like to mix two or three colors to make an appetizing presentation.
In terms of flavor, do remember to rinse quinoa before cooking. There’s a coating on the outside that’s called saponin and it has a bitter taste. The off-flavor is what keeps insects off quinoa naturally as it grows in the field. Cooking time is only 15 minutes, so it’s a fast-food to put on the table. Just fluff with a fork before serving.
There are endless ways to enjoy quinoa. Celebrity chefs offer a peek at just a few of the tasty ways. For example, Gordon Ramsey makes Quinoa, Chickpea and Mango Salad; Rachel Ray whips up Quinoa-Crusted Chicken; and Mario Batali creates a Crown Roast Lamb with Quinoa and Yogurt Sauce.
Carol Bareuther is a registered dietitian and a regular contributor to The Triton. Comments on this column are welcome at email@example.com.