Get a New Grain: What is Quinoa?

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What the heck is quinoa? You’ve probably heard about quinoa at some point by now—in a magazine, by a chef on a show. But is it really up to the hype? In a word: Yes.

whole-grain-what-is-quinoa-postWhat it Looks Like: Quinoa kernels look like little flat, ivory beads (red quinoa is a lovely burgundy hue). When cooked, the germ detaches from the grain like a little tail, making the quinoa look like a bowl of tiny commas.

What it Tastes Like: Quinoa is flavorful enough to be interesting, but mild enough to be versatile. It has a nutty note and slight “pop” when you bite into it.

How to Cook it: Unless you buy a box that’s labeled “pre-rinsed,” be sure to rinse the grains well to wash off the bitter saponin coating (a naturally-occurring insect repellent). Just swish them around in a fine-mesh strainer until the water runs clear and there are no suds. To cook, bring 2 cups water or liquid to a boil. Stir in 1 cup quinoa, cover, reduce heat and simmer gently for 15 minutes.

How to Use it: Quinoa makes gorgeous salads, but it also works as a pilaf, a morning porridge or even in crispy quinoa cakes (see ours below).

Additional Notes: Quinoa is unique in that it’s a “complete protein.” What that means, exactly, is that it contains all seven essential amino acids in correct proportion for our bodies to use effectively, just like it does the proteins in meat or eggs. It is native to South America and was the major source of protein for the ancient Incans.

(For more information on whole grains, see Gotta Get Your Grains.)

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Curry Quinoa Cakes

These quinoa cakes are crispy and flavorful and delightful as a light meal on their own, or as an innovative appetizer. Serve them with our Curry Dipping Sauce.

curry-quinoa-cakes-recipe1/2 cup quinoa, rinsed and drained
1/2 cup water
1/2 cup reduced-sodium chicken broth
1 egg, beaten
1/2 cup peas, (if frozen, thawed)
2 tablespoons shredded onion
2 cloves garlic, grated
1/4 cup whole wheat flour
1 tablespoon cornstarch, dissolved in 1 tablespoon water
2 tablespoons buttermilk
1 teaspoon red curry paste
1/2 teaspoon powdered ginger
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
3 tablespoons canola oil, divided

Combine quinoa, water and broth in small saucepan, and bring to a boil. Cover, reduce heat, and simmer 15 minutes. Fluff with a fork.

In a medium mixing bowl, combine quinoa with remaining ingredients (except oil).

Heat 2 tablespoons oil in a large, nonstick pan over medium-high heat. Drop 8 generous 2-tablespoon scoops of the quinoa mixture into the pan, flattening into a pancake shape with a spatula or spoon. Cook until browned on bottom, about 1-2 minutes. Carefully flip and cook another 1-2 minutes.

Add remaining tablespoon of oil to the pan and bring up to heat. Repeat with remaining quinoa cake batter.

Makes 16 pancakes

  • Kris Haugen

    Hi Lia, Sounds like a great recipe. Can’t wait to try. I struggle with the whole grains idea still. I bought a cookbook about whole grains with recipes but it isn’t exactly what I am looking for…but I am not sure what that is either! Love to see some great breakfast bread recipes that are low in sugar and fat with lots of fiber, etc. Keep telling us about those grains. It will sink in one of these days. :)

  • Alison Ashton

    Love quinoa! Also, I’ve heard that toasting the grains in little oil before adding the liquid is another way to remove the saponin. Also underscores the grain’s nutty flavor.

    Hey, Kris: Village Harvest makes a cooked/frozen quinoa: You might want to look for it (I’ve found it at Whole Foods). That stuff makes it super easy to incorporate quinoa.

    Finally, I’ve heard that quinoa flour (Bob’s Red Mill makes it) is a great substitute for wheat flour for gluten-free baking. I haven’t worked with it yet, but Christina Pirello swears by it.

  • Melissa Wheeler

    Yes yes yes! Thank you for posting these articles because I am that person who wants to try grains but placing them in my diet seems daunting. You have given me the courage to buy a new grain…but which one should I start with??

  • Lia Huber

    I’m so glad you’re enjoying this grain series, y’all! Melissa and Kris–hang in there and keep trying on the grain front. Melissa, quinoa is a great grain to start with because it’s so darn easy to make. But it does have a bit “different” texture and taste.

    Oats are a nice, familiar whole grain to experiment with — And farro, ah farro, is a wonderful, risotto-rice-esque grain to play with —

    Keep an eye out for more … I’ll be moving on to millet, bulgur and more soon!

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  • Ben Hambright
    • liahuber

      Entirely true, Ben. But it tends to be lumped in with whole grains, and for our purposes–to broaden people’s palates beyond brown rice–that generalization works just fine. Sort of like knowing that tomatoes are technically a fruit, but accepting the fact that most of us think of them as vegetables. Thanks for the reminder, Ben!