What it is: Pronounced “KEEN-wah,” quinoa (Chenopodium quinoa) is a tiny, grainlike food with a deliciously nutty flavor and a light, fluffy, slightly crunchy texture. It’s a complete protein and high in calcium, lysine, manganese, magnesium, folate, riboflavin and other healthful nutrients.
A member of the goosefoot family, quinoa is related to lamb’s quarters, and more distantly to spinach, chard and beets. It isn’t a true grain because it comes from a broadleaf plant. It’s ranked as a “pseudocereal,” along with buckwheat and amaranth.
Where it comes from: Quinoa is native to the Andes Mountains of Bolivia, Chile and Peru, and grows at 10,000 to 20,000 feet above sea level. It was a staple food crop for the Incas, and has been cultivated in Latin America for some 8,000 years, although the Spanish conquistadors tried to wipe it out in their efforts to vanquish Incan culture. It’s now grown in Colorado and Canada, but most quinoa sold in the U.S. comes from South America.
It became popular in the U.S. after two American students of Bolivian spiritual leader Oscar Ichazo, who believed quinoa was an aid to meditation, began to import and grow it in the 1980s.
What to do with it: Quinoa can be used in just about every dish where you’d use rice.
“I was lucky that I’ve been cooking with quinoa, long before the ‘healthy trend’ started. I was excited to see that people were interested in it — so replacing rice with quinoa has been a popular substitution here at the restaurant,” says Chef Sunil Kumar of Bombay Spice in River North. As a spring special, Kumar mixed quinoa with tofu and spinach for a vegetarian lettuce wrap.
While most commercial quinoas have been processed to remove the bitter saponin that coats the seeds, it’s a good idea to give the seeds a rinse in a fine mesh strainer before cooking.
To cook 1/2 cup of quinoa, Kumar says, combine it with 3/4 cup of water, 1 tablespoon of oil and a pinch of salt. Bring the water and quinoa to a boil in a small saucepan over medium heat. Reduce heat and simmer, covered, until quinoa is cooked (12 to 15 minutes). When finished, the seeds will exhibit a spiral showing the outer germ separating from the body.
For extra nutty flavor, toast quinoa by stirring over medium heat in a dry frying pan for a few minutes before cooking.
Bombay Spice’s quinoa and tofu lettuce wrap
Chef Sunil Kumar
1/4 cup cooking oil
8 ounces extra-firm tofu, diced
1 medium red onion, diced
1 green pepper, seeded and diced
3 tablespoons sweet chili sauce
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1/2 teaspoon salt
7 to 8 grape tomatoes, sliced in half
1/2 cup cooked quinoa
Handful of spinach leaves (about 25)
1 head iceberg lettuce
Heat the oil in a skillet over medium-high heat; add the tofu and cook 2 to 3 minutes, until brown. Add the onion and green pepper and cook for another 2 minutes.
Stir in the sweet chili sauce, balsamic vinegar, soy sauce, salt, grape tomatoes and cooked quinoa; cook for 1 minute. Add the spinach and mix all ingredients together. Serve in lettuce cups. 4 servings.