Quinoa (pronounced keen-wa) known to the Incas of the Andes as “Mother Grain” is an attractive plant, nutritious crop, and a delicious food. If you have ever cooked this psuedograin you have seen the funny little squiggle or partial spiral of the seed’s germ. Let’s take a look at this interesting crop.
The plant grows high in the mountains of South America, in an area known as the altiplano, where it withstands extremes of climate– not only freezing temperatures and poor soil but also high intensity of sunlight. The Queche Indians, heirs to the Inca legacy, have grown the “mother grain” for 3,000 to 5,000 years and developed many varieties adapted to various conditions.
It is not a true grain from the grass or cereal family, but a member of the Goosefoot family. Quinoa is related to spinach, orach, and beets, but most closely linked to the weedy edible lamb’s quarters and epazote the pungent, culinary herb from Mexico. Like them, Quinoa has leaves with toothed margins and a powdery texture. The plants grown at the Abundant Life trials garden grow 3 to 5 feet tall. As the autumn air turns crisp, the foliage turns a stunning array of yellows and purples. The flowers have no petals–they look like tiny green balls with dense, pyramid shaped clusters of seeds, that mature into an attractive golden color.
The individual millet-sized seeds are flat on two sides. You may recall washing the “grain” before preparing it. That’s because the seed coat has saponins, a bitter property that protects it from the intense sunlight and repels insects and birds.
Most quinoa exported from South America has been mechanically buffed to remove the saponins in the outermost edge of the kernel, (thus is nonviable as seed stock) in a process known as pearling. Some seeds bypass the machines, so it is still advisable to rinse it before cooking.
The embryo of quinoa takes up a greater portion of the seed than normal cereal grains, so the protein content is higher. The National Academy of Sciences calls it “one of the best sources of vegetable protein in the vegetable kingdom”. It is also high in calcium and iron.
Quinoa is prepared by simply boiling but traditionally it was used as flour or dry roasted. Try this recipe next time instead of plain rice: Place 4 cups of water in a pot with 1/4 c wild rice and a piece of dried kombu or other sea vegetable (for flavor and nutritious trace elements). Bring to a boil and after 10 minutes add 1c short grain brown rice. Lower heat and cook another 25 minutes Add 3/4 c of rinsed quinoa. Let it simmer 15-20 minutes Enjoy the nutty, nutritious flavor of quinoa as a regular part of your diet.