Quinoa: An Ancient Grain…Today’s Favorite

While you might think quinoa is one of those food fads, been there done that, it might just be one fad that keeps its status as a favorite.  And for good reason.  Quinoa cooks quickly, has a gentle, nutty flavor and is proving its versatility as a background ingredient in salads as well as soups and vegetarian burgers.  Perhaps its greatest value lies in its nutritional worthiness.   Think “super food”.

If you are a vegetarian or value a plant-based diet, quinoa delivers all nine essential amino acids, those building blocks of protein, so necessary in a healthy vegetarian diet.  The amino acids, lysine and isoleucine, are sufficient in quinoa and are not considered “limiting amino acids”, like they are in common grains such as wheat and rice.   “Limiting amino acids” are those which don’t occur in enough quantity in a food to support protein synthesis.   In addition to protein, a three-fourth cup serving of cooked quinoa provides 220 calories, beneficial amounts of magnesium, phosphorous, manganese, folate and fiber plus anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidant phytochemicals. It is gluten-free.

Cooking quinoa is simple.  Check the label to make sure it is washed.  Otherwise rinse it well in a fine mesh strainer.  To cook, bring one-part quinoa and two-parts water to a boil.  Season with a little salt.   Cover and reduce to a simmer until water is absorbed, about 15 minutes.  It will look translucent with a little twist of white germ. Toss with a fork to fluff.  You can add seasonings for more flavor.

The most common quinoa is white, but red and black quinoa is also available. The flavor is similar across all colors and quinoa’s texture and color lend visual interest to dishes made with it. It is readily available in grocery stores.

Nature gave the people of the Andes Mountain countries, Peru, Bolivia, Columbia and Chile a nourishing gift.  Quinoa, the Inca word meaning “mother grain”, has been cultivated and eaten for as long as 5,000 years or more in this region.  Where protein sources might have been scarce, this little seed was growing and providing protein.  Not a grain, although is treated like one, quinoa is in the same botanical family as sugar beets, beets and spinach. It prefers to be grown at high altitudes where it is cool.

Washington State University researchers are developing strains of quinoa that can be grown in the northwest. where the cool climate and soil offer opportunity to expand cultivation.  Demand for quinoa is growing across the world.

Cooking Tips:
Try this low calorie, healthy salad. Combine quinoa (prepared), avocado, tomato and cucumber tossed with baby arugula.  Just before serving, toss the salad with a small amount of Italian dressing or a simple vinaigrette and garnish with thinly sliced red onion.

Lunch in a Bowl:  This salad works well as a layered or tossed salad and can go to work as lunch or on a picnic. Pack the quinoa and vegetables in separate sandwich bags.  Include a small container of dressing.  Keep chilled. Arugula is the first layer followed by the quinoa and then the vegetables.  Add dressing.  Enjoy a healthy, low-calorie lunch.

Written by: Mimi Cunningham, Registered Dietitian-Nutritionist, Diabetes Educator

Mimi Cunningham is a dietitian-nutritionist living in Eagle, Idaho. Her nutrition specialty is diabetes education and management. She loves writing about embracing healthy eating as fun plus a route to good health. She serves as a member of the Idaho Foodbank board of directors addressing food insecurity as a challenge to good health for Idaho children and adults.

On behalf of Smart Strategies for Successful Living, our sincerest appreciation goes to Mimi Cunningham for her contribution to our community website and commitment to healthy living and aging.