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Quinoa, The Nutritional Powerhouse

Quinoa (pronounced Keen-wa) is one of the most popular, healthy foods being grown today. You can pretty much find it everywhere probably because it’s one of the most nutritious plant foods now being sold. It is also one of the few dishes found to be close to a complete protein and to be gluten-free as well. Moreover, quinoa is modest in price and flexible in how you achieve delicious flavors. It seems to take on the flavors you cook it with. 


Quinoa was originally grown in high altitude regions of Latin America in Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia. It is now grown in Colorado and parts of California. It grows naturally in brown, black and red colors. Author Deborah Madison finds the black and red versions take a bit longer to cook — only 30 minutes — while the beige or brown take half as long. But Madison tells us that the red and black varieties are found to be more robust in flavor. 


Some hearty eaters claim that quinoa is too neutral in taste, like tofu. But of course the texture does not have a curd-like consistency; rather the texture of quinoa is grainy. My own recent cooking experience indicates that this flexibility is in fact one of the advantages of this little beauty.


I had been asked by family and friends to make my classic holiday BBQ that includes my smoked pulled pork, cinnamon BBQ sauce and my homemade Z’s special coleslaw. All of these dishes are delicious but not what I hoped to do. I felt like I was on a busman’s holiday, trying to relax while driving what was familiar to everyone else. This was not what I hoped to make that day but compromise is important especially with family. 


So I did both — the pork BBQ and a beige-colored chilled quinoa dish that I had cooked in water. Then I added chopped celery and diced red pepper with leeks I had cut, cooked and chilled. Finally I tossed in less than a quarter cup of chopped raisins, dried prunes and cranberries. I seasoned the dish with lemon vinaigrette, a light sprinkling of fresh leaves of marjoram, sage and thyme and some freshly ground black pepper. It was a big hit and a surprise to many especially when compared to the pulled pork. Light, highly flavorful and filling as well. 


Here’s another recipe that Mark Bittman enjoys that combines quinoa with caramelized onions. The quinoa adds a subtle crunch to the slow-cooked onions.


Quinoa With Caramelized Onions 


• 4 medium yellow onions — about a pound — halved and thinly sliced

• 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil 

• 2 tablespoons brown sugar or molasses (optional) 

• ¾ cup quinoa 

• Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

• 1 ½ cups vegetable stock, beer or water 

• 2-3 sprigs fresh thyme


Put the onions in a large skillet with a lid over medium heat. Cover and cook, stirring infrequently until the onions are dry and almost sticking to the pan — about 20 minutes. Add the oil and brown sugar and cook, stirring occasionally, until the onions brown — another 10-15 minutes.


Turn the heat up to medium high, add the quinoa, and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Stir as the grains start popping and toasting, a couple of minutes, then add the stock and bring to a boil. Stir one last time, add the thyme, cover and reduce the heat to low. Cook undisturbed for 15 minutes unless using red or black quinoa. Uncover and test the quinoa for doneness. If the kernels are still sort of hard, make sure there’s enough liquid to keep the bottom of the pan moist and cover them to cook for another 5 minutes.

When ready, taste, adjust the seasoning, and remove the thyme if necessary, adding a few extra grinds of pepper. Serve immediately or let cool to room temperature. 


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