Quinoa is the seed of the goosefoot plant, and is often referred to as a pseudo grain, although it is actually more closely related to spinach and beets than to cereal grasses. It behaves like a true grain in many ways, and can be used in grain bowls, risottos and salads, or ground into a flour for baking.
Known to many as a superfood, quinoa is rich in vitamins and minerals, and is one of a handful of plants that provide all essential amino acids. It is also gluten-free, making it an ideal grain substitute for coeliacs.
Humans have used quinoa as a source of nutrition for about 4,000 years, and it is thought to have been used as an animal feed for several thousand years before that. It was first cultivated in the mountains of Bolivia, Chile and Peru by the Incan people, who regarded it as sacred, and referred to it as chisaya mama, or ‘mother of grains’. According to legend, the Incan emperor would ceremonially plant the first quinoa seeds each year.
Following the Spanish occupation in the 1500s, quinoa fell from favour due to its association with indigenous South American cultures. It was banned for several years, and crops were destroyed. Various small-scale growers continued to cultivate it, however, and today this once-persecuted plant is loved the world over. Thanks to several millennia of selective breeding, modern quinoa will adapt to a range of different environments, and can be cultivated almost anywhere in the world. Scientists from NASA are even carrying out studies to find out if it can be grown in space.
What does it taste like?
Quinoa tastes a little like brown rice, but with a nuttier, earthier flavour. Because it is quite mild, it is usually seasoned with herbs, spices or stock, and its neutral flavour means it will go with almost anything. It is light and fluffy, with just the right amount of bite, making it perfect for adding texture to salads, grain bowls, and various other dishes.
Health benefits and nutritional values
Quinoa is particularly nutrient-rich and has become popular as a health food in recent years. Despite not being a true cereal, it is considered to be a wholegrain food, and because it is also gluten-free, it’s a great way for coeliac sufferers to get the benefits of healthy wholegrain. It is particularly high in fibre, with more than twice the amount of most grains, and also provides a good source of antioxidants.
Quinoa is also particularly useful as a plant-based source of protein. Firstly, it is extremely high in protein, and secondly, it contains all 9 of the essential amino acids, proteins that your body needs to take in through diet, as it can’t produce them by itself. Plant-based foods that contain all of these proteins are rare, so quinoa can provide an important source of energy for vegetarians and vegans.
Although high in carbohydrates, quinoa also has a low glycemic index, which means that it provides a slow release of energy, and won’t cause a sudden spike in blood sugar. This can help lower the risk of diabetes, and also makes you feel fuller for longer, so it’s easier to resist the temptation to snack between meals.
Quinoa provides several important minerals that are lacking in many people’s diets, with 1 cup, or 185 grams, providing 30% of your recommended daily allowance (RDA) of magnesium, 9% for potassium, 13% for zinc and 15% for iron, which is particularly lacking in the diets of women. It also provides over half of your RDA for manganese, and is a good source of several important B vitamins. Some of these nutrients can be difficult for your body to absorb, but soaking or sprouting your quinoa will make them more easily digestible.
How to introduce quinoa into your diet
If you want more quinoa goodness in your life, there are plenty of ways to work more of it into your diet.
Quinoa keeps well in the fridge, so make a big batch at the beginning of the week and dip into it over the next few days. It goes with pretty much anything, so all you need to do is scatter a handful over whatever you fancy. Healthy eating couldn’t be easier.
Add some flavour
Season your quinoa well to keep things interesting. Popular choices include melted butter, broth, lemon juice, garlic and various different herbs and spices.
Mix it into your favourite salad
Quinoa adds texture and depth to salads, and can make something fairly light into a satisfying meal. It will make you feel fuller for longer, so there’s less risk of ruining your good intentions by snacking in between meals.
Try some for breakfast
Quinoa isn’t just a savoury food. It can also be soaked in milk or yoghurt overnight for an even healthier version of overnight oats. Top with a generous handful of berries, chopped nuts, or flaked coconut. You can even add a sprinkling of cocoa nibs.
Use it to replace other grains
Quinoa is extremely versatile, and can be used as a substitute for many less nutritious grains. Try using it to replace couscous in salads and grain bowls, or use it instead of rice to make a quinoa risotto or pilaf.
The only preparation quinoa really needs is a thorough rinsing under cold water. This is an important step however, as quinoa is coated in a bitter-tasting substance called saponin. Rinsing removes the majority of this bitter substance, leaving the grains with a pleasantly nutty flavour instead.
How to cook quinoa
When cooking quinoa, remember that it will grow to around three times its original size, and portion accordingly. That said, it’s always better to overestimate than to underestimate, as there are plenty of ways to use up your leftovers.
Add more flavour to your quinoa by toasting it in the bottom of the pan for a few minutes before you add the liquid. This will taste even better if you add a little oil or butter and some of your favorite herbs.
Cooking on the stovetop
The conventional way to cook quinoa is on the stove. Add 2 parts water or stock and 1 part quinoa to a medium pan, and bring to the boil. Reduce the heat and simmer, uncovered, for around 10 to 15 minutes, or until all of the water has been absorbed. Remove the pan from the heat and place the lid onto the pan to hold the steam inside. Let it sit with the lid on for 5 minutes, then fluff the grains with a fork and serve.
Cooking quinoa in a pressure cooker (instant pot)
To cook quinoa in a pressure cooker, first spray the bottom and sides of the pressure cooker with oil to prevent the grains from sticking. Next, add equal parts quinoa and water or stock, and stir well. Replace the lid and cook on high for 1 minute, then naturally release for 12 minutes.
Treat your tastebuds and stay healthy with these tempting quinoa recipes.
Quinoa stuffed acorn squash: another simple but elegant vegan appetiser, made from tender acorn squash stuffed with quinoa and fragrant pine nuts.
Gluten-free quinoa bread: quinoa flour is great for gluten-free baking, and this light, fluffy loaf can be used for your morning toast, or to make a round of your favourite sandwiches.
5 quinoa bowl recipes you can easily make: grain bowls are a healthy and delicious way to satisfy your hunger at lunchtime. These tasty recipes have something for everyone, from a warming and hearty roast pumpkin bowl to a light, Asian-inspired ‘spring bowl’.
Quinoa should only be stored in the fridge once it has been cooked. Keep uncooked quinoa in an airtight container in a cool, dry pantry or cupboard and it should stay fresh for up to a year.
Once cooked, quinoa should be stored in the refrigerator and used within 3 to 5 days. You can also freeze it for 1 to 2 months.
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