Quinoa: Ancient Grain, Modern Gourmet

With so much media, marketing, and hype for healthy eating one can easily forget that food is not only for sustenance, but also for pleasure. Since its heyday, heirloom varieties of quinoa have been preserved impressively well. Until recently it was only available in specialty stores but more and more it appears in its various forms in everyday supermarkets. While the health benefits of this tasty little seed are unmatched by any other grain, it is not a ‘health food’, but a delicious ingredient we are lucky to have access to. It has taken a long time to make its comeback, but the tour is headlining in pantries of modern cooks all over.

As with so many foods that are versatile and nourishing quinoa has ancient roots. Evidence suggests that it has been cultivated for nearly 5000 years. The most widespread cultivation we have records of dates back to South America about 1000 years ago where it sustained the Inca Civilization, one of the most admirable cultures ever known. It was so nourishing that they believed it to benefit them physically, mentally and spiritually as well. They called it The Mother Grain, and considered it a gift from the gods above.  And it did indeed come from above.  As a crop indigenous to the Andes Mountains, quinoa grows at altitudes thousands, even tens of thousands of feet above sea level. So important and central was this crop to the Incans that the first seeds of the year were ceremoniously sown with golden tools by the emperor.

When Christian Europeans came in the 1500’s, quinoa, along with countless invaluable aspects of ancient South American cultures, was dramatically changed. Europeans were not only unappreciative and close-minded when it came to this staple food, but because it was sacred and used ceremoniously in non-Christian ways, they actually suppressed and forbade its cultivation.  Luckily for us, it grew naturally in the wild and continues to offer its versatility, health and gustatory delights today.

Quinoa is one of the healthiest foods available. It is actually the grain-like seed of a leafy plant from the Chenopodium (Goosefoot) genus, opposed to true grains which come from grasses. Perhaps this has something to do with its unique and touted health profile. The main thing to know when it comes to the nutrition of this pseudo-grain is that it is low in carbohydrates, high in protein and fiber, and easily digested.  What makes it special and especially healthful is the kind of protein it offers, that is, complete protein. This protein contains all of the essential amino acids needed to keep humans up and running, something that no other grain does.

Quinoa is an excellent source of nutrition for vegetarians, vegans, people with allergies and other health and dietary special needs. It is gluten free and low on the glycemic index, which means it helps to maintain and regulate blood sugar levels. All in all, it promotes the utmost physical health and provides great alternatives for people with dietary restrictions.

Widely available in different forms, the three main varieties of quinoa are whole, flakes, and flour. They should all be stored in airtight packaging in a cool, dark place, like your pantry. It keeps well for about 6-9 months in the pantry and can also be stored in the refrigerator or freezer to last a bit longer. The flavor of each style is slightly different, in general quinoa has a nutty and earthy flavor, pleasant and deep.

The whole ‘grains’ come in white, red, and black varieties, each with their own subtle differences.  To prepare, add one part quinoa (rinsed) to two parts water or broth, a pinch of salt, bring to a boil, cover and reduce to a simmer for 15 minutes, strain any extra liquid, fluff with a fork and let stand 10 minutes. The grains can also be toasted in a dry or lightly oiled pan with aromatics like onion and garlic before adding the liquid to bring out a nuttier flavor. Once cooked, they are small round grains with a bit of a snap to them, naturally al dente.  Cooked quinoa can be used as a substitute for rice, barley, bulgur wheat, practically any grain at all. It is wonderful to add in to soups and salads or serve on its own with a light coating of olive oil and herbs. This versatility makes it a great ingredient for those who are naturally creative in the kitchen.

Quinoa flakes can be your best friend, replacing traditional ingredients with its super-food nutrition in unexpected and delicious ways.  Wherever breadcrumbs are used, weather in a dish like meatloaf or meatballs or as breading for anything fried or sautéed, quinoa flakes are a delicious substitution. In addition to bringing a depth of flavor, the healthful aspects like fiber and protein really boost the nutritional value of the dish. The flakes can also be used to substitute oats in baking to make granola, cookies, fruit loaves and cobblers, and works stunningly well as a hot cereal.

Because it is gluten free, quinoa flour is different than most other flours.  Gluten is responsible for creating the texture of baked goods, so it is best to mix quinoa flour with another type of flour to easily achieve typical results. If you have an allergy to gluten, you can always mix it with rice flour and other starch powders. Quinoa flour can be substituted for flour and other starches when thickening sauces or soups. Even at this level of processing, the flour is high in protein and fiber and incredibly healthful.

Incorporating delicious and natural ingredients into a regular diet is not a chore, but a privelage. If you love to cook or are looking to boost your day-to-day nutrition, quinoa is a must.  Native to the Americas, this delicious food has survived through centuries of political and social upheaval, continuing to offer superior nutrition, flavor and culinary versatility. So do yourself a favor and start experimenting with this super (tasty) food, it will benefit your health, impress your exotically minded friends, and most importantly, tantalize your palate!


Quinoa Granola

This recipe uses quinoa flakes in place of oats to make a hearty and healthy snack or morning treat. Unlike most commercial granola which is just sugar and carbohydrates, this protein packed grab and go snack will provide you with the energy you really need and the flavor you really crave.

In a bowl mix together:

1 cup regular flour

3 cups quinoa flakes

2 tsp cinnamon

sprinkle of freshly grated nutmeg

1 tsp baking powder


In a separate bowl, cream together:

¾ sugar

¾ brown sugar

1 stick butter softened to room temperature

2 eggs

1 tsp vanilla

2 tbs milk or cream


Combine the contents of the two bowls together, adding in ¼ raisins and any other dried fruit, nuts or seeds you like. The mixture should be a bit crumbly but moist enough to stay together when squeezed.  Grease a large cookie sheet with butter and press mixture onto the sheet forming a thin layer across the entire sheet.  Bake at 400 for 15 minutes or until brown at the edges.  Let it cool thoroughly and completely, then break up into snack sized pieces.  Makes 10 hearty servings for you to enjoy with your morning fruit and yogurt or a quick snack during the day.


Quinoa Tabbouleh

This Mediterranean and Middle Eastern salad is fresh, light and delicious.  The traditional recipe calls for bulgur wheat which is so easily interchangeable with whole quinoa.  The best part about this salad is that the proportions are totally up to you, if you like more or less of something, adjust the recipe to suit your taste.


1.5 cups cooked quinoa, any color

1.5 cups chopped fresh parsley, loosely packed

¼ cup chopped fresh mint, loosely packed

2 plum tomatoes chopped

½ medium onion chopped

juice of one lemon

3 tbs good olive oil

salt and pepper to taste


Combine all ingredients unceremoniously, taste for seasoning. Serve room temperature or slightly chilled, be sure to squeeze some extra lemon juice on after refrigeration. Makes 4 servings. Enjoy this salad as a side dish, on sandwiches, or as a light lunch topped with feta cheese.


Quinoa Mozarella Sticks

These are the healthiest mozzarella sticks you’ll ever have, and the most beautiful too.

Crisp outer coating, beautiful gourmet appearance, great flavor with more depth than regular breadcrumbs and at the same time lighter and easier to digest. Using quinoa flakes here instead of traditional flour or breadcrumbs makes this treat low in carbohydrates and low on the glycemic index. Healthy mozzarella sticks…what could be better?


For the breading, in a rimmed flat dish like a baking pan mix together:


1 cup quinoa flakes

1 tbs + 1 tsp salt

1 tsp herbs de provence

¼ tsp hot pepper flakes

½ tsp garlic powder


Using one 8 oz package of low moisture mozzarella, cut 6 sticks about half an inch thick and wide and 4 inches long (standard mozz stick shape), set aside.

Beat together one egg plus 1-2 tablespoons of water in a bowl placed next to the breading.

Working gently with one stick at a time, roll it in the egg, place it in the breading dish and coat gently using the other hand. Put it back in the egg and repeat one time.  Double dip and set aside all 6 sticks.

Heat enough peanut or olive oil to be at least ¼ inch deep in your pan. Throw in a couple of quinoa flakes to test the oil, when they sizzle (not burn), the oil is ready. Gently place the sticks in the pan being careful not to overcrowd it and fry on all 4 sides abut 20 seconds each depending on how hot the oil is or until golden brown.

Transfer to a wire rack to cool for a few minutes, serve up warm and fresh on a bed of greens, with chopped parsley or your favorite marinara sauce.


Spicy Mexican Quinoa Pilaf

Sautee ¼ cup cubed bacon in a pan until just crisp on the outside but not all the way through, remove with a slotted spoon and set aside

Add in 1-2 tbs cumin seed and toast in the oil until fragrant

Add (all chopped):

½ poblano pepper

½ half medium onion

1 long hot green chili

4 cloves crushed garlic

pinch of salt and sauté for 5-8 minutes until the mixture takes on a deep color and juices begin to concentrate on the bottom of the pan

Deglaze with a spoonful or two of water, stock, or wine and stir to pick up the brown bits

Mix in one cup of cooked quinoa with the mixture along with ½ cup of fresh chopped cilantro and the reserved bacon.

Makes one portion large enough to share with up to 4 people. Serve warm and enjoy the savory and smoky flavors of this authentic dish.