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David Lissner
for restaurants

Eat this! Quinoa, an ancient secret of the Andes


What it is: A grainlike seed, quinoa (Chenopodium quinoa), pronounced KEEN-wah, makes a delicious change from starches such as potatoes or rice. It has a fluffy, slightly crunchy texture, similar to wild rice or buckwheat groats, and a mild, delicately nutty flavor.

Over 120 species of quinoa exist, but only two are readily available commercially, a white, or sweet, variety and a dark, red type. Rarely, you can find a black quinoa. The plant is a relative of the weed lambsquarters, as well as beets and spinach. The nutritious seeds, lower in sodium and higher in calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, potassium, iron, copper, manganese and zinc than wheat, barley, or corn, are gluten-free.

Where it comes from: Quinoa has been cultivated in the Andes for some 5,000 years. Its name means “mother grain” in the Incan language. It was all but unknown outside South America until the 1970s, when two Americans, Don McKinley and Stephen Gorad, encountered the food in Bolivia while studying with spiritual leader named Oscar Ichazo, and founded the Quinoa Corp. in 1983, with the plan to grow quinoa in Colorado. That didn’t work out so well.

Bruce Sherman

Bruce Sherman

Quinoa is now grown sporadically in the Colorado Rockies and Canada, but most of the product sold in the U.S. is imported from South America. In 1998, two Chicagoans, Bob and Marjorie Leventry, founded Inca Organics, now based in Georgia, to import quinoa from Ecuador. Most Chicago supermarkets now stock quinoa.

What to do with it: Quinoa is typically boiled or steamed. Some cooks suggest that typical package guidelines call for too much water. The seeds can be used in baking, or put to just about any purpose for which you’d use rice or other grains. It can even be popped like corn. Due to its high oil content, quinoa should be stored in airtight jars in the refrigerator.

At North Pond in Lincoln Park, Chef Bruce Sherman sometimes mixes quinoa with bacon in a kind of pilaf.

North Pond’s smoked bacon quinoa
Chef Bruce Sherman

Serve warm as a side dish with meat and vegetables.

1 cup quinoa
1 teaspoon vegetable oil
2 ounces smoked bacon, diced 1/4-inch
1/2 shallot, peeled and finely diced
2 cups chicken broth
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 sprig fresh sage
1 tablespoon chopped fresh chives
1 tablespoon chopped fresh parsley
1/3 cup slivered almonds, toasted (optional)
Ground white pepper to taste

Rinse the quinoa well through a strainer, until the water runs clear. Set aside to drain.

Heat the oil in medium pot and add the bacon. Cook the bacon, stirring constantly, until it renders its fat, about 2 minutes. Add the diced shallot and stir over medium heat 1 minute, until the shallot softens but doesn’t color.

Add the quinoa, chicken broth, salt and fresh sprig of sage. Bring to a boil. Turn down to a low simmer and place a piece of parchment paper over the surface of the quinoa. Cook gently for 17 minutes and then remove from the heat.

Let rest 5 minutes. Remove and discard. the sage. Fluff the quinoa with a fork, adding the fresh chopped herbs (and almonds, if using). Season to taste with white pepper. 4 servings.

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