If it makes it easier, we can start with how to say it: Keen-wah.
Quinoa was an essential food of the ancient Incas but it's only received some mainstream attention in the last few years. Much of what's written about this whole grain is about how healthy it is and how it contains eight essential amino acids, making it a complete protein. But details like this don't inspire me.
Instead I want to know -- What does it taste like? Will I like it? What do I do with it?
- Quinoa is bought either in bulk at a natural foods store or by the bag or box at many grocers, sold alongside other grains and rice. In it uncooked form, it looks like birdseed. Okay, that may not make you want to rush out and buy a bag. But when simmered with water or broth, it plumps to become a tender and satisfying grain with a mild and nicely complex flavor. It's not as nutty as farro, or as sweet as barley but has a neutral richness that's more like couscous. And like couscous, or rice, or other grains, quinoa takes on the flavor of whatever you're cooking it with. This makes it an excellent choice for pilaf or as a salad with herbs and fresh vegetables.
- It's a sturdy ingredient. You can cook it in advance and store it refrigerated for up to 3 to 5 days or freeze it for up to 2 months.
- Quinoa is gluten-free, dairy-free, vegan and vegetarian. And it's inexpensive.
- When cooked, quinoa's texture is very appealing. The grains take on a slightly translucent appearance as they absorb their cooking liquid but in the mouth they are simultaneously fluffy and chewy at the same time.
- It packs a nutritional punch: 1 cup of cooked quinoa (that's been cooked with water) has 222 calories, 13 mg sodium, 8 grams of protein, 39 grams of carbohydrates and both calcium and iron.
How to Cook With Quinoa
- You can use quinoa in almost any recipe in which you'd use farro, barley, bulgur or any other grain. It can be cooked in water or broth and then combined with other ingredients. It can be toasted in a little olive oil and become the basis of a pilaf. You can even substitute it for your usual Arborio rice and make risotto but remember that the ratio of liquid-to-quinoa is two-to-one, meaning you'll need much less broth or stock than in a classic risotto recipe.
- There's no need to soak quinoa in advance -- it's ready to cook right out of the bag. Some will advocate rinsing quinoa before cooking it but I usually don't; it depends upon where I bought it and what the grains look like. If it's from a bulk bin at a natural food store and it seems a bit dusty, then I'll rinse it. But the rinsing can interfere with some recipes; for instance, if I'm going to toast it first in a pilaf I want the grains to be dry when they hit the hot pan coated with shimmering oil or melted butter.
- I like to combine this grain with cooked or raw vegetables. For instance, you can sauté sliced mushrooms and leeks in a little olive oil and butter and then toss the cooked vegetables with quinoa that's been cooked with vegetable or chicken stock instead of water. This is a perfect lunch to take to work because you can make it ahead, it travels easily, and it can be eaten either at room temperature or warmed in the office microwave.
- Some like quinoa as a cereal, cooked and served warm with milk and sugar, although I prefer it as a savory ingredient.
- Cooked quinoa can be combined with egg and cheese and cooked like a burger. Or combined with cooked vegetables and baked like a meat loaf.
- You can sauté pieces of bacon and diced shallots until the bacon is cooked but not crisped and the shallot is translucent. Then add a cup of quinoa, stir to give it a bit of a toasting in the bacon fat, and then add two cups of chicken stock and simmer for about 15 minutes making it a robust side to chicken or fish.
- Its mild nutty flavor combines well with piquant ones -- like hearts of palm, artichokes, lemon vinaigrette, roasted red pepper and chunks of feta cheese. Or as in a lime-fueled Black Bean and Tomato Quinoa that Gourmet published a few years ago. We've added a link below.
- But my favorite way to use this grain is as the basis of a vegetable salad, one that can be served either warm or cold. See our recipe for Quinoa Salad, made with prosciutto and diced zucchini.
Think of quinoa as an almost perfect food -- it's satisfying, good for us, inexpensive, easy and versatile to cook, and best of all, it has fabulous flavor.