Quinoa: A Quick Guide (with a Recipe!)

Over the past few weeks, I’ve fielded a fair few questions about quinoa (all in a day’s work, friends). And while I posted about quinoa once before, that was long ago. So today, I’m going to update you on the basics of this amazing little seed: what it is, how to cook it, and loads of tasty ways you can use it (including a recipe for a simple and satisfyingly cheesy quinoa side dish). Without further ado, here it is: a quick guide to quinoa!  

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The History: Quinoa (KEEN-wah) has a long history, getting its start as a domesticated crop in the north-central parts of South America (got that?) thousands of years ago, where its tiny, edible seeds made up part of the Incan diet. And though cousins of quinoa were also grown in North America way back in the day, it wasn’t until the 1970s that quinoa really began making its mark on North American food culture. Within a few decades, its good-for-you qualities attracted the label of superfood and, like other healthy exotics like goji berries and açaí, it’s since found its way into plenty of mainstream grocery stores.  

The Nutritional Stuff: Though the pseudo-scientific classification as a superfood might not mean a lot in its own right, quinoa does have plenty of good things going for it. Like most whole grain cereals, quinoa – itself a pseudocereal, meaning it can be processed like a traditional cereal (think rice, wheat and corn) even though it’s not a grass – is high in fiber and essential vitamins and minerals. Unlike the grass pack though, quinoa is both gluten-free and one of the few plant-based complete proteins – good news for anyone looking for a substitute to meat!

The Basics: In its dried, seedy form, quinoa makes for an easy substitute for other pantry-staple starches like rice, oats or couscous; it has a long shelf life (think years rather than the months typical of comparable whole grains), cooks up as easily as white rice, and has a lightly nutty flavour and chewy texture that make for a good base to a meal. That being said, it’s a little more expensive than your standard starch (I recently paid $1/100g for organic). As we’ve seen though, it does offer up a lot in the way of nutrition and tastiness.  

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These days, you can find all sorts of quinoa products kicking around the grocery store, from the straight seeds to refined products like quinoa flours, flakes and pastas. Today, I’m going to stick to the seeds and tell you what’s up with the three kinds of dried quinoa you’re most likely to come across in the store. All can be cooked using the instructions outlined in the next section!

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White Quinoa: Pretty standard stuff, this has all of the nutritional benefits I outlined above, and cooks up pretty much just like rice. The results are slightly chewy, with a mildly nutty flavour.

Red Quinoa: Word has it that red quinoa has all the same nutritional benefits as white and cooks up the same way too, but produces results that are slightly chewier and nuttier. If you come across black quinoa, you can think of it as being similar to red – just as good for you as white, but with more chew.

Sprouted QuinoaThese seeds have been subject to the process of “sprouting”, where they’re soaked in water for several hours before being dehydrated. The sprouting process activates enzymes and boosts the quinoa’s vitamin content. In its dehydrated form, sprouted quinoa looks and cooks up the same as regular quinoa. If you want to take a stab at sprouting your own white, red or black quinoa (it’s not hard!), give these instructions a try and be sure to read the bit about how to cook with your freshly sprouted quinoa. 

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Cooking quinoa is white-rice easy – in just a few simple steps, you can transform your dried seeds into fluffy curlicues. The instructions below work for white, red, black and dehydrated sprouted quinoa. A single cup of dried quinoa will yield about 3 cups of cooked quinoa. 

Ingredients
1 cup of dried quinoa
2 cups of water or low-sodium stock 

Directions
1. Rinse your quinoa well – the seeds are coated with bitter compounds (saponins) that need to be washed away before they’re cooked — then combine with 2 cups of water in a pot over high heat. Bring to a boil. 
2. Once boiling, cover and reduce heat to low, simmering for 15 minutes.
3. Once 15 minutes is up, remove the pot from the heat and let stand, covered, for 5 minutes.
4. Remove the lid, fluff with a fork, and serve!      

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Cooked quinoa can be kept in an airtight container in the fridge for a few days. Dried quinoa can be stored in a cool, dry place for a few years! 

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Dried quinoa is an exceptionally versatile ingredient. Here are just a few ideas to help get you started dreaming up your own quinoa creations:

  • Substitute quinoa for rice, couscous or small pastasStir-fry on a bed of quinoa? Quinoa-based tabbouleh? Tomato and quinoa soup? Why not! Just remember that 1 part dried quinoa will soak up about 2 parts of whatever liquid you’re adding to the dish
  • Combine rice & quinoa: Because quinoa and white rice use essentially identical cooking methods, feel free to swap out half a measure of dried rice for an equivalent of quinoa. The two require slightly different grain/seed to water ratios (rice is 1:1.5 while quinoa is 1:2), so up the water accordingly. For example, ½ cup of rice plus ½ cup of quinoa will require 1¾ cups of water. Cook according to the instructions above, or as you would a pot of white rice
  • Make a simple, speedy side dish: Try quinoa with zucchini & cheddarCook 1 cup of quinoa according to the instructions above. Immediately after fluffing, stir in 1 cup each of a sharp cheese of your choice (I used old cheddar) and grated zucchini, along with 1/4 tsp salt and 1/2 tsp of freshly cracked pepper. Serve hot and melty and try time and again with new cheeses and veggies! Recipe via this site

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Want more ideas? Give these a try:

  • Work quinoa into breakfast: For a filling, protein-packed breakfast, follow this simple recipe for breakfast quinoa. You can also try cooking quinoa the way you would a stovetop batch of oatmeal and topping with ingredients that work well with the nutty flavour of the seed – cinnamon-sugar, sautéed apples or pears, or toasted nuts would be great!
  • Use quinoa as the base for a dinner-worthy saladThis one, made with cooked quinoa, dried cherries, toasted almonds, feta, chickpeas and romaine is one of my favourites!
  • Work quinoa into your holiday feastTry quinoa stuffing.
  • Get creative with leftovers: Transform leftover quinoa into veggie-burger-esque quinoa patties or almond-cranberry quinoa cookies.

But enough about me: how do you like your quinoa?

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