Ancient Grain, New Trend

by Michelle Lanz

Quinoa is a protein-rich alternative to rice

Sheri L Giblin/FoodPix/Getty Images

Quinoa—pronounced keen-wah—is not yet a staple in American diets as of 2011, but it is quickly moving beyond specialty health food stores and onto chain-supermarket shelves. Quinoa’s health benefits, palatability and versatility have increased demand for this protein-rich seed in the United States.

I think that the previous generation was very much into meat and potatoes, but we are now in a time of people loving alternatives to this. ... Quinoa is complete with an abundance of nutrition and can be used for any meal as a main course or as a side.

Noelle Martin, registered dietitian

Quinoa is often considered a grain, but it is actually a seed from a species of goosefoot plant, which belongs to the same family as beets and spinach. It was first cultivated throughout the Andes in South America thousands of years ago.

At one time, quinoa was known as the “Gold of the Incas” because Incan warriors believed it gave them strength. Legend says that warriors subsisted for days on “war balls,” which were balls of fat rolled in quinoa.

Although no longer the stuff of war balls, quinoa remains a superfood, providing nutrients that other whole grains lack.

Lisa Matsunaga, a California State University, Long Beach, graduate student who is preparing for a career as a certified dietitian, called quinoa a good addition to anyone's diet.

"Quinoa is one of the few vegetarian protein sources that contain all essential amino acids," Matsunaga said. "It’s a complete protein. Since quinoa is one of the few food sources that contain complete proteins, it's a great food for vegans and vegetarians."

Matsunaga added that quinoa is high in protein, fiber, potassium, vitamin E, iron and magnesium, among other vitamins and minerals.

Newfound Popularity

How to Cook Quinoa

If you've ever made rice, you already know how to make quinoa. In fact, it’s much easier to cook than rice and should take only 15 minutes from start to finish. Plus, quinoa doesn’t stick to the saucepan as readily as rice, so the cleanup should be painless.

While you may cook quinoa in a rice cooker, the most common method is on a stovetop. Here’s one method.

• Rinse 1 cup of quinoa in cold water using a strainer. You may also soak the quinoa in cold water for 15 minutes to an hour if you want to diminish the natural bitterness of the seed. For most people, however, a simple rinse will suffice. • Bring 2 cups of water to a rolling boil. You may use chicken or vegetable broth for more flavor. • Add rinsed quinoa to boiling water, then reduce the heat to medium and cover the pot. • In about 12 to 15 minutes, the water or broth should be absorbed and evaporated. You will be left with fluffy granules that resemble couscous, only smaller. • Stir the quinoa so there is no water sitting at the bottom. If water is still pooling, leave it on the heat for a few more minutes. • You should notice tiny white curls coming from the seeds. This is simply the germ of the seed breaking away from the outer shell. • Serve quinoa hot as a side dish or allow it to cool and toss it into a salad. Quinoa also keeps well when refrigerated, so make extra if you want to save time for future meals.

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About the Author

Based in Los Angeles, Calif., Michelle Lanz began writing professionally in 2004. Her articles on the arts, pop culture and food have appeared in "Wired," "Good," "Teen People," MSN and Metromix among others. She holds a B.A. in English and film studies from University of California, Santa Barbara and a M.A. in journalism from the University of Southern California.