They call it the wonder grain, the Incan superfood, the grain of the gods.
I call it delicious.
Quinoa is a nutty, delicious, and somewhat mysterious grain-like seed that hails from the mountains of Peru. It can be used as a grain (and we'll call it a grain from here on out), but has no gluten and is packed with nutrition. An ancient staple food of the Incas for millenia, in the modern U.S. it was traditionally found in hippy health stores until the last five years or so. You know what I'm talking about - co-ops, health food stores, that sort of thing.
With the foodie revolution and growing popularity of chain stores like Wild Oats and Whole Foods (the former of which was bought by the latter back in 2007), as well as the increased visibility of specialty, gourmet grocery stores like the Bay Area's very own Mollie Stone's, has come the increased availability of grains that have largely been unknown to the U.S.
By now quinoa is almost common, if you are anything of a foodie. It's a staple in my pantry, but most people still haven't heard of it. I'll give you the down-low: it's a small, round grain that is high in protein and fiber, and contains important nutrients such as magnesium, phosphorus and manganese. One cup of quinoa has the same amount of protein as a glass of milk, but it's way more satisfying. And it's gluten-free, so those with wheat or gluten sensitivities can enjoy quinoa with impunity.
When cooked, quinoa has a nutty taste and soft texture with a firm bite, though you can adjust cooking time to keep a little bit of a crunch intact. Each grain expands from twice to four times the size, depending on how long you cook it and how much liquid you use. This year I've been pleased with the advent of many varieties of quinoa hitting the shelves, and I tend to mix them to add color and variety to a dish. Most common is white quinoa, but you can also find red and even black quinoa at places like Whole Foods, in the bulk aisle.
I'm an advocate of organic farming, and I always buy organic. Being budget conscious, I can tell you it is possible to eat healthy and organic on a budget - you just have to be creative. Quinoa is one way to stretch your dollar. A filling, satisfying, absolutely delicious grain, a little goes a long way and can lend an exotic and sophisticated feel to a normal dinner. It also makes a killer main dish.
Speaking of which, I give you a recipe of my own that I have modified over the years from an original in an old copy of Vegetarian Times, probably from 1999 or 2000. I've changed it so much that it's not really the same recipe anymore, but I like to give props to the inspiration.
This quinoa risotto features wild mushrooms, bell peppers, and garbanzo beans, and it's totally vegan. In that sense it's not a true risotto - there's no rice, and no cheese or cream. But the flavor is intense and rich, nonetheless. It's also totally flexible, as you'll see in the ingredient list. I call it killer because it'll knock you over with its deliciousness - hard to believe it's also good for you. The great thing is that it doesn't require slaving over the stove like a normal risotto does. I like bold, rich flavor, and this recipe packs a flavorful, spicy punch. Feel free to adjust the herbs to your liking.
It's a good idea to wash any dry grains or legumes prior to cooking, because many of them are not sufficiently washed before being packaged. This is especially true of bulk items, which may accumulate field dirt, pesticides, dirt from customers rifling through bins, you name it. When washing the quinoa, try using a large metal sieve set into a bowl instead of a colander or just a bowl. Pour the quinoa into the sieve, set it in the bowl, and then run water over the quinoa until the bowl is almost full. Then use (clean!) hands to swish around the quinoa and loosen any dirt. Do this three times, or until the water runs clear. When you're done with each wash, just lift out the sieve and dump the water. This will make it much easier to dump the water without losing any of the tiny grains.
Serve this with a vegetable side dish, or serve it over steamed kale or spinach, and you've got a complete, satisfying, healthy, crazy delicious meal.
Killer Quinoa Risotto
Prep time: 10 minutes
Cook time: 60 minutes
Serves: 6-8 people
Ingredients (all organic, if possible)
1 Tbsp Extra Virgin Olive Oil
1 large red onion, finely chopped
3-4 large cloves garlic, minced
2 cups sliced or diced mushrooms (wild, portabello or crimini)
1 large red bell pepper, diced
2 cups dry quinoa, rinsed & drained
1 1/2 cups chickpeas, cooked (can be canned)
3-4 cups vegetable stock (homemade, or your favorite) - more for a softer risotto, less for a crunchier version
1/4 cup fresh basil, finely chopped or sliced in strips OR 1 Tbsp dried basil
2 Tbsp dried oregano
1 Tbsp dried marjoram
1 Tbsp dried thyme
1/8 to 1/2 tsp red chili flakes, to taste
Salt & pepper to taste
In a large skillet or risotto-friendly pan (preferably NOT non-stick), heat the olive oil over medium heat, and add the onion. Saute until translucent and lightly caramelized. Add the garlic and saute until tender, about 1-2 minutes. Add the mushrooms and saute until they start to shrink and smell wonderful, about 5 minutes. If anything starts to stick, just add a little cold water to the pan and scrape the good stuff off the bottom. Add the bell peppers and saute enough to heat through, then add the quinoa. Toast the quinoa with the other ingredients, stirring constantly, until the nutty aroma of the quinoa begins to gain strength, about 5-10 minutes, depending on how much you want to cook it.
Gradually add the vegetable stock, chickpeas, and herbs, as well as chili flakes and salt & pepper, to the mix, making sure to stir well so that nothing is left stuck to the bottom of the pan. Remember that vegetable stock is often salty, so be wary of adding salt as quinoa is not forgiving of excess saltiness.
Also, it's best to add the liquid bit by bit, scraping up a little of the good stuff with each splash, before pouring the whole thing in.
Cover tightly and turn the fire down to a simmer, and walk away. Let it cook for at least 40 minutes, checking on it and stirring every 10 minutes or so. At 20 minutes you can start tasting, and adjust spices as necessary. It will take a good 40 minutes at least for the quinoa to soak up all the liquid and get nice and plump. If you are using more liquid, it will take longer to cook, up to 60 minutes.
Variations & Tips
- For a variation, try cooking this with chopped kale, crimini mushrooms and roma tomatoes. Be sure to cook the tomatoes down a bit before you add the liquid. If you're not adding beans then consider adding a protein to the meal elsewhere, such as a cold garbanzo bean salad.
- You can use any kind of quinoa in this recipe. I like to mix red, black and white quinoa for a colorful, unusual dish that always gets raves from friends.
- Wondering what to eat this with? Try steamed or sauteed kale or spinach as a side, or even underneath a generous helping, for a tasty and delicious complete meal.
- Got leftovers? This is great stuffed in a portabello mushroom cap or a bell pepper. Bake the stuffed veggie in a 375 degree oven for 45 minutes, and you've got a winner.
- I've used this recipe for vegan dinner party meals, served to meat eaters who couldn't believe they were so satisfied after eating no animal products. It's very satisfying, and quinoa can be a little adventurous for some people, but it has a homey, earthy flavor that most people really like straightaway.
- Don't believe packages that say you can cook quinoa in 20 minutes. It's bollocks. While it may be true in some alternate universe, it's not true in mine, where it takes 30-40 minutes to cook fully.
Now I'm thinking about making some version of this tonight. I love me some quinoa!