High in the Andes mountains, the ancient Incas learned to cultivate a crop that would thrive in the region’s barren, rocky soil and thin air. The small, unassuming seed that became a mainstay of their diet was considered the “gold of the Incas” because of the energy and stamina it provided. Today, thousands of years later, it’s one of the most popular and revered foods on the tables of in-the-know foodies and health enthusiasts.
You may have seen quinoa (pronounced KEEN-wah) on the menus of health-food restaurants or in the natural-foods aisle of your supermarket. It is often referred to incorrectly as a grain, although it’s actually the edible seeds of a plant that’s related more closely to beets, kale, and chard.
Quinoa’s increasing popularity is due mainly to one remarkable fact: it’s one of the few plant sources of complete protein.
Quinoa contains all nine of the essential amino acids that make up a complete protein, a feature usually found only in animal products, such as meat, fish, and dairy. That makes it a godsend for vegetarians, who can consume it instead of beans or soy to meet their daily protein requirements. Simple, inexpensive, and versatile, it can be substituted easily into many recipes that call for pasta, couscous, or rice. It has a mild, slightly nutty flavor that melds with many different types of foods, and it’s easy to find in the bulk bins at health-food stores.
Quinoa is also a gluten-free whole grain, low in calories, low on the glycemic index, and extremely high in soluble and insoluble fiber. It contains large amounts of magnesium, which some believe can help alleviate migraines, and studies have shown that the high concentrations of iron, copper, lignans, and other important nutrients it provides help maintain cardiovascular health and may aid in preventing colon and breast cancers, childhood asthma, gallstones, and type 2 diabetes.
Since quinoa behaves so much like a grain, it’s incredibly easy for home cooks to prepare. Try it in casseroles, soups, pasta, salads, and baked goods for a wholesome, tasty twist on classic dishes.
- Pair steamed quinoa with tomato, black beans, lime, and fresh cilantro for a healthy take on a burrito bowl.
- Mix it with fresh vegetables for an easy and tasty quinoa primavera stir-fry.
- A quinoa casserole is easy comfort food when prepared with Gruyère cheese and spinach.
- Try Martha Stewart’s quinoa muffins for a tasty protein boost.
- Add chicken breast, squash, and apricot to a healthy, low-fat quinoa soup.
- For a sweet, nutritious breakfast that won’t cause blood sugar to spike, try adding nuts and spices to make a nutty quinoa cereal.
Before cooking, always rinse quinoa in running water until the water runs clear. Quinoa seeds contain a bitter-tasting coating, and although most commercial quinoa is pre-rinsed, some of the coating can linger.
There are plenty of reasons why this ancient and once-ignored staple is suddenly getting so much more attention: it has fewer calories than traditional grains, plus more nutrients and protein. It’s a great choice for people on a low-fat diet, a gluten-free diet, or a vegetarian diet, as well as for those who just want to eat a little more healthfully. Quinoa may have been considered the “gold of the Incas,” but it’s just as at home on our twenty-first-century plates.