With all the focus recently on pink-slime and ammonia and the health impact of red meat, we’ve been talking much more than usual about meat these past few months. Today I’d like to talk about a fantastic non-meat protein source that has been a staple in my home for years: quinoa.
Pronounced keen-wah, quinoa is gaining attention for several important reasons: it is a complete protein source that can be a big help to vegetarians looking to eat a balanced diet; it’s a great alternative for those looking to cut back on meat but still ingest protein; it’s a delicious dish for those with gluten intolerance or trying to reduce grains or carbohydrates in their diets; it’s a great alternative to oats as a hearty low-calorie meal as it releases energy slowly so you stay satisfied longer; and it is a versatile option that can go from main dish, to side to salad and even to breakfast with ease. It’s a go-to staple in my pantry.
While quinoa is often used as a substitute for rice or other grains, it is actually a seed and not a grain. Prized by the Incas for thousands of years, it was known as “the mother grain” and has long been a foundational element in the diet of people in countries such as Peru, Ecuador, Chile, Columbia and Bolivia. Quinoa is actually related to beets, spinach and swiss chard, not grain, but it can play the role of grain in meals as it has a slight crunch and a mild nutty flavor.
What makes quinoa so special is that it is a complete protein that contains nine essential amino acids as well as minerals, enzymes, phytonutrients, antioxidants and fiber. Quinoa contains the amino acid Lysine, as well as calcium, iron, magnesium, which many of us are deficient in, and much more. Where else can you get all that in one food?
You can find quinoa in most stores in the organic section, some stores carry it on the shelf near rice, and it’s always available in stores like Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s. There are different kinds of quinoa and it’s really a taste preference: the white quinoa is milder and really has little flavor on its own, but that can be good if you want to impart flavors from your cooking into it, and the red quinoa is a little nuttier in flavor and stands a little more solidly on its own. (We buy and use both depending on the meal.)
Most quinoa you buy in stores is pre-rinsed, as the exterior has bitter-tasting coatings known as saponins that need to be removed. Still, it’s a good idea to rinse or soak it briefly before cooking. If the quinoa has not been rinsed, then you need to soak it for several hours, changing the water periodically and re-soaking, or rinse it with water for several minutes using a strainer or a cheesecloth.
Once rinsed, you cook quinoa much as you’d cook rice: a 2:1 ratio of liquid to seed. While quinoa is easily prepared using water, some people like to cook it in chicken or vegetable broth to impart a bit more flavor. Bring it to a boil, then reduce and cover for about 15 minutes, or until the liquid is absorbed. (If you have a rice cooker, you can cook quinoa in it just as you would rice.)
Quinoa is very mild-tasting on its own, but it will take on the flavor of whatever you cook it in, so liberal use of spices and flavors may be in order, unless you are like my daughter who likes it plain and more bland!
For those of you who know me, I rarely cook with recipes, so I can’t give you any precise recipes that I can say are tried and true. I create and innovate and match flavors or spices based on what feels good or appeals to me on that day, and I am always coming up with new ways to use quinoa. But for those of you looking for some ideas, I’ll share a few of the ways we use it that everyone in my family agrees upon.
The most basic way we prepare it is to cook it with a healthy amount of garlic and basil. Then when it’s done, I toss in a little Himalayan salt, some pepper, and a spoon or two of olive oil. That makes a great side dish or rice substitute. (You can also use quinoa to make pilaf or stuffed peppers etc).
Another way we like to make it is a play on sausage, peppers and onions. While the quinoa is cooking down, I sauté peppers and onions (though you can throw in any veggies that appeal to you) and when it’s finished cooking, I mix with the peppers and onions. The quinoa takes the place of the “bun” and it’s a vegetarian version reminiscent of the ballpark classic.
Add your own spices (garlic is a staple for us, along with Himalayan salt and some pepper) and if you want to add meat, you can toss in some chicken or organic chicken sausage for a more authentic variation. I also often add in tomatoes, making it more Italian in style, either using chopped fresh tomatoes or some chopped tomatoes in a box (I use the Pomi brand).
We also like to make a quinoa salad, usually with red quinoa. While the quinoa is cooking, I chop tomatoes, avocado, and cucumbers (we love the Persian kind, but any kind will do) and throw them in a bowl with a little Himalayan salt and some olive oil. Once the quinoa is done, I toss the whole bowl in, salt, oil and all. This makes a delicious alternative to a garden salad with your meal: light and refreshing and my kids scoop it up.
Quinoa works well with just about any veggies you have around, either separate instead of rice or all thrown in together. I often toss in a little olive oil after it is done cooking or in the final minute to get some healthy fat into the meal as well as to make the quinoa a little more moist if it’s sat on my stove for a bit while I was preparing other things.
The best part about quinoa is experimenting and making your own combinations and substitutions. Lastly, we always make extra and keep some in the fridge for breakfast as an alternative to oatmeal. In the morning, quinoa satisfies you without a heavy feeling and releases slowly, just like oatmeal. Mix in seeds, nuts, berries, fruit, and/or a little maple syrup or raw honey and it’s a healthy breakfast in a bowl, and one that is easy to transport if you need to eat on the run.
Let me know how you like to eat it!
To your wellness and health: your true wealth!
Author: Inger Pols is the Editor of the New England Health Advisory and Author/Creator, Finally Make It Happen, the proven process to get what you want. Get a free special report on The Truth About Sugar: It’s Not All Equal at www.IngerPols.com
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