I hate to admit it, but it took me an embarrassingly long time to figure out the appropriate pronunciation for quinoa. “KEY-noa” was one particular iteration I remember using in casual conversation many years back, and I may have even used “KWA-noa” at the moments I was feeling particularly unsure. However quinoa (appropriately pronounced as “KEEN-wah”) is much more than its confounding name. Once a staple to the Incas, which during the European conquest of South America was regarded by colonists as a lowly food and outlawed by the Spanish conquistadors, quinoa has bounced back and become, not just trendy, but widely embraced by everyone from vegetarians looking for a protein fix, but highly touted chefs looking for a new flavor profile.
Quinoa, widely thought of as a grain (as the Incas liked to call it chisaya mama, or “mother of all grains,” because of its astounding nutritional profile and relative heartiness) is actually more of a seed than a grain. Composed of yellow pods that are actually the seeds of the plant chenopodium quinoa, which is native to Peru and Bolivia and related to beets, chard and spinach, quinoa is a complete protein. This means that, along with being enormously attractive to vegetarians, it contains all nine essential amino acids, along with lysine, which promotes tissue growth and tissue repair. In addition it is a good source of manganese, magnesium, iron, copper, and phosphorus, and for all of those gluten-intolerant people out there, it is decidedly gluten-free.
Along with being enormously good for you, quinoa is enormously versatile as well. It comes in a spectrum of colors (from black to orange) and can be boiled into pilafs, turned into soups, ground into flour for pasta and/or breads, made into an oatmeal-styled breakfast porridge (I like mixing mine with dried apricots and cinnamon) or even chicha, a beer made from fermented quinoa. Quinoa is largely a culinary blank slate that can be infused with just about any flavor (sweet or savory) and made to assume any form from bread to drink (remember: when preparing quinoa, rinse the seeds before cooking to remove any lingering soapy saponin, which is a naturally occurring bit of pest control on the outer membrane of the seeds).
Just this week, NPR ran a story about the relative quinoa boom driving up demand, as well as prices for the Andean staple. According to the report, ” a few years ago 16 ounces of Andean Naturals quinoa retailed for $2 at Trader Joe’s. It’s now $4.” The concern is that if prices keep climbing, quinoa could stop showing up in traditional soups and porridges in Bolivian farmers and peasants. But judging from the virtual plentitude and vigor of the crop, those days of lack seem to be unlikely.
Now quinoa, like anything else, is not for everyone. Many find the flavor and/or consistency to be less than desirable, while others just simply don’t really know what to do with it. Below are a few links to some quinoa recipes posted on Care2, but I am sure readers and quinoa enthusiasts have their own take on quinoa? What are some of your favorite recipes? Is it really as versatile as they say, or is it best used as mortar to seal up cracks in your foundation? Enlighten us?