After centuries of neglect, the grain quinoa is enjoying a resurgence. Once a staple of the Incan empire, quinoa has in recent years become widely available in the United States.
That's good news for home chefs because quinoa can be used in multiple ways. Vegetarians and people with food allergies will find quinoa a welcome choice; it's gluten-free and provides a remarkable array of nutrients.
"It's a complete protein, comparable to milk, according to the World Health Organization," says Ashland, Ore.-based food writer Rebecca Wood, author of The Splendid Grain (William Morrow, 1997) and The New Whole Foods Encyclopedia (Viking Penguin, 1999). "For anybody who has an interest in health—and for the many people who have allergies to common grains—it's a delicious alternative."
Quinoa's greatest hurdle is that it's still relatively unknown to many cooks, Wood says, even those with an interest in whole foods and natural approaches. "So many people have limited food choices and don't even know about quinoa," Wood says.
That's unfortunate because quinoa offers many culinary possibilities. Joanne Saltzman, founder of the School of Natural Cookery in Boulder, Colo., and author of Amazing Grains (H J Kramer, 1990) and Romancing the Bean (H J Kramer, 1993), says, "In the process and language we use for cooking, quinoa has myriad possibilities. Its texture, I think, is really delightful; it has a playful quality. It's very light—lighter than rice—with a smaller seed, but it makes more volume than rice, as much as four times its dry volume."
She suggests several uses for quinoa. "Grains are very boring as a palate taste to most Americans, so we usually roast and sauté it, and add spices and herbs," Saltzman says. "It's wonderful in a [salad], similar to tabbouleh. And because quinoa is full of protein, if you add some vegetables and nuts or seeds, it's a really complete meal. That's an easy way to work with quinoa."
Technically, quinoa is not a cereal grain. The seeds are actually the fruits of a leafy green plant in the Chenopodium family, closely related to wild greens such as lamb's-quarters and pigweed, and in the same family as beets, chard and spinach. Saltzman says to wash quinoa before cooking. The seeds are coated with a bitter substance called saponin, which protects the fruit from birds and insects during its growth.
"By nature, its flavor or essence is bitter," Saltzman says. "When we get it in the store, it's already been washed to some degree, but needs to be washed and scrubbed again before cooking. Its bitterness is a beneficial taste for our society," where so few bitter greens are eaten. But when prepared properly, that bitterness is no longer a major part of the cooked grain's flavor profile.
Quinoa was introduced commercially in the United States by food pioneers Steve Gorad and Don McKinley, founders of the Quinoa Corp. in Los Angeles, now the nation's largest quinoa importer. They first heard about the grain through the work of Bolivian-born spiritual teacher Oscar Ichazo, who recommended it as a helpful food for mystics.
The two men eventually began importing the grain from Bolivia and Peru and then developed test crops in Colorado's San Luis Valley, an area with a climate and altitude similar to quinoa's native habitat. One of the early growers, White Mountain Farm in the San Luis Valley, began growing quinoa in 1984. In 1987 the farm became the first large-scale quinoa operation in North America.
White Mountain Farm planted 60 acres last year; they sell most of the crop direct to consumers via their Web site, says spokeswoman Cindy New. She says vegetarians and food-allergy sufferers are the most common customers. "We do have a lot of mail-order customers who have allergies to gluten and use both the grain and the flour quite extensively," she says. "It's also really high in protein. It's recommended as a meat substitute for vegetarians who want a complete protein."
In the Andes, flour made with toasted grain was traditionally added to wheat and corn breads to increase their nutritive value.
Green Earth Farm of Saguache, Colo., also in the San Luis Valley, is another producer. Majority owner Tom McCracken says they grow between 35 acres and 40 acres of quinoa—a fifth of the farm's total acreage—in rotation with potatoes.
Both Green Earth Farm and White Mountain Farm are certified-organic by the state of Colorado, but McCracken says that no domestically produced quinoa should contain herbicide residues, as no herbicides are approved for use on the plant by the United States Department of Agriculture.
Although the Quinoa Corp. helped pioneer the crop in the United States, company President Dave Schnorr says all the quinoa his company sells under its Ancient Harvest brand is produced in Bolivia and Peru. He says the vegetarian market was the company's initial target, but now consumers with gluten intolerance have become a major factor in the grain's increasing popularity. "Quinoa has a well-balanced nutritional profile, so it's not only good for those with food allergies. It's a really nice grain that has much higher protein and fiber [content] than rice, and has a balanced amino acid profile to it."
In fact, the nutrients in quinoa may be the best argument for adding it to the diet. Its protein can be nearly twice that of wheat, and it contains higher-than-average amounts of B vitamins, especially B6 and niacin. One-half cup of the dried grain contains 5 grams of fiber, 11 grams of protein and high levels of potassium, folic acid, iron and magnesium. Perhaps the biggest surprise is its calcium content; a cup of cooked quinoa has calcium equal to a quart of milk.
Finally, there are good social and environmental reasons to support the grain. In the highlands of Peru and Bolivia, where rainfall is scarce, quinoa survives drought when corn and potatoes do not. When purchased from the indigenous people who grow it, quinoa sales positively impact their communities.
After hundreds of years of neglect, quinoa seems worthy of its resurgence.
Mitchell Clute is a poet, musician and freelance writer based in Louisville, Colo.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIII/number 3/p. 88, 90