The Duh Factor of Quinoa

I'm hardly new to quinoa, the ancient plant native to the Andes, but I have to admit, it had been a while. But over the weekend, Mister MA and I did a dinner date out on the town, and had the pleasure of sharing a bowl of toasted quinoa to partner with our fish entrees. (He claims it was his quinoa debutante dance.)

Toasted quinoa. (Kim O'Donnel)

It only took a few forkfuls to remember how much I love these nutty, fluffy seeds that pop open almost like tadpoles (a squiggly little comma emerges) when cooked. It's simple fare that cooks up as easily as a pot of rice, but unlike oats, millet or other gruel-style cereals, quinoa is more complex, both nutritionally and gastronomically.

For thousands of years, the Incans have referred to quinoa as "gold" for its uber nutritional content. Not only is it high in protein (about 14 grams per 3.5-ounce serving, uncooked), it's a complete protein, meaning it contains all essential amino acids. It's also high in insoluble fiber, the kind we've come to associate with oatmeal, and because it's free of gluten, its become a culinary dream come true for the 1 in 100 people living with celiac disease.

Although it acts like a grain, botanically speaking, quinoa is the seed of a broad-leafed plant related to greens such as spinach, chard, amaranth and lamb's quarters.

The seed pods vary in color, including black, purple, red, yellow-white, any of which you might find on supermarket shelves now that it has become a hip and trendy "superfood." Although most quinoa is grown in high-altitude countries such as Bolivia, Peru and Ecuador, there is some quinoa being grown in Colorado.

Although I've had my share of quinoa, I had never before toasted it, an extra step that releases oils and deepens the flavor profile. The house smelled like popcorn and peanut butter sandwiches, and I loved how the seeds danced in my cast-iron skillet, taking on a caramel-y hue.

While the seeds were expanding in a few inches of water (stock and juice works equally well), I kept thinking, why? Why had I waited to so long to get reacquainted with quinoa? It is so easy to prepare, it is so nutritious (Was that my brain getting recharged at the dinner table?) and it smells so darn good, I feel like a fool for having denied myself and Mister MA such a virtuous vittle. If there's a no-brainer, snap-to-it side dish, this is it, kids. That's right, I'm saying Duh, I shoulda had me some quinoa....

P.S. Photo at top of page shows quinoa seasoned with diced cucumbers, bell pepper and cherry tomatoes, with a spritz of fresh lemon, a splash of sesame oil and a few tablespoons of soy sauce. The possibilities are endless -- use what's in the crisper.

Today is chat day; talk to me today at Noon ET for What's Cooking.

Care to join me for the MA Eat Local Challenge? To sign up and be part of the ELC Honor Roll, send me an e-mail by July 14. In the subject line of your note, type "ELC"; in body of your note, include city, state and size of household.

Toasted Quinoa

1 cup quinoa (available black, red or white)
2 cups water
½ teaspoon salt

Place quinoa in a sieve under running water and rinse a few times to help rid of the saponins, a naturally-occurring pesticide that can be bitter on the tongue.

Thoroughly drain, then place quinoa in a dry (un-oiled) heavy skillet on the stove, over medium heat. With a wooden spoon, stir the quinoa frequently so that it doesn't burn. Toast until deeper in color; you'll notice popping and crackling after three minutes or so.

Remove from skillet and pour into a saucepan with water and salt. Bring up to a boil, then cover and lower heat, cooking at a simmer, for about 12 minutes, or until water is absorbed.

Remove from heat and allow quinoa to rest for a few minutes. Season as you wish -- it loves experimentation -- and serve warm or at room temperature.

One cup makes about six side-dish servings.

By Kim ODonnel |  July 8, 2008; 8:48 AM ET Dinner Tonight , Side Dishes , Vegetarian/Vegan
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Hi Kim -- I love quinoa, and use it in place of couscous a lot. It cooks well in a rice cooker too. I have a question about toasting it, though. How dry does it have to be, before you can put it in the pan? I feel like I don't get enough of the water off after rinsing, and I'm afraid it won't toast correctly, or will end up steaming it. How long do you let it drain? Are my fears about steaming it unfounded?

Posted by: Veggie in DC | July 8, 2008 10:28 AM

Perfect timing - I just bought my first box of quinoa. Would you recommend toasting as you did above for a first time user or is there an 'master' type quinoa recipe I should try first?

Posted by: S for Kitchen Confit | July 8, 2008 12:44 PM

Hello Kim

Quinoa (first, let's tell those unfamiliar with it how it's pronounced: KEE-no-a) has been my grain of choice for many years. I don't bother to wash it first, I like the slight bitterness. My favourite flavourings, added at the beginning of cooking, are the zest of an entire makrud (aka kaffir lime) and an improbably large quantity of freshly grated ginger which, to my palate, doesn't make it spicy, simply tasty.

Posted by: David Lewiston | July 8, 2008 12:56 PM

I love Quinoa, but I've never had it toasted or as a salad type. I've always eaten it in soups. Instead of rice or noodles in the pot of soup add some quinoa, its great. Thats how my family in Bolivia eats it

Posted by: Tina | July 8, 2008 1:01 PM

PS: Surely the Incas were Johnnies-come-lately in the Andean countries. A thousand years before them there were highly developed cultures such as the Mochica and the Chimu, and another thousand years before them, Chavin, so we need a better term than Incan or Incaic for this part of the world. (Unfortunately I can't think of one right now.)

Posted by: David Lewiston | July 8, 2008 1:06 PM

I haven't tried making quinoa 'cause a relative serves this at all family gatherings - quinoa topped with un-toasted pinenuts. Utterly tasteless. My husband calls it "husks and nuts". I always thought the dish would be better if the pinenuts were toasted. Now I'm inspired to try it toasting the quinoa (and adding some other flavorings). Thanks Kim.

Posted by: Fran | July 8, 2008 1:43 PM

Quick question - why do you need to dirty 2 pots for this? Could you just add the water and salt to the pot you just used to toasting, similar to making a pilaf?

I am a quinoa fan, so thanks for including this tip to brighten it up!

Posted by: Hannah | July 8, 2008 2:55 PM

Hannah: You don't need to dirty two pots for this, if the skillet you use is deep enough for a few inches of water and you've got a snug-fitting lid.
Fran: I have had my share of tasteless quinoa too, so I understand. One thing that could be interesting as well -- after you cook quinoa in pot, cook it in a tablespoon of oil in a skillet to yield a crust.
David: Thanks as always for the interesting factoids you bring to the table. keep'em coming!
Veggie in DC: Don't fret about the steaming. Let the quinoa drain in a sieve, then you can hand dry it with a towel. It's all good, trust me.

Posted by: Kim O'Donnel | July 8, 2008 3:54 PM

Hi Kim--
Missed your chat today but wanted to tell you what a HUGE hit your sweet cherry cobbler was on Fourth of July. I took it as my dinner/fireworks party contribution and everyone loved it, especially the heavy cream cobbler pastry. For a patriotic touch I served it with vanilla ice cream and a few raw blueberries scattered on, white and blue! That recipe is definitely a keeper!

Posted by: Jersey Girl | July 8, 2008 5:13 PM

Sorry David, but it's pronounced KEEN-wah, not as you suggested.

Posted by: Mimi | July 8, 2008 11:29 PM

This is my new favorite summer salad, from the 07/07 issue of Gourmet. It's great with grilled meat or tofu and hearty enough to have the leftovers for lunch the next day. During the great tomato scare, I subbed mango and it was fantastic.

Posted by: DC | July 9, 2008 10:56 AM

Just wanted to say that before toasting, definitely dry that quinoa -- last time I made it, I didn't dry enough after the rinse... the end result came out mushy and gummy instead of crunchy, separated grains.

Posted by: Quinoa | July 9, 2008 1:49 PM

PPS: Kim, I've thought of a descriptive phrase you could use the next time you write about quinoa: "this ancient pre-Incaic 'grain' from the Andes." (VW's "Lark Ascending" on KHPR. Lovely.)

Posted by: David Lewiston | July 9, 2008 3:19 PM

Wow, not only does it sound very tasty and healthy, but I am pleasantly and positively surprised by the high and complete protein content! This is a definitely a wonder food, err "gold" standard food. :)

Thanks for the recipe,


Posted by: Walter | July 14, 2008 4:43 PM

Kim, I was very inspired by the article, and although I have heard of quinoa, I am a huge rice eater. White, brown, wild -- any will do. But I bought a bag of organic, white quinoa from my local healthfood store and tried it out. At first I didn't know how to rinse it -- my colanders are large. I had a spoon with a mesh screen (no clue why I have it or what it's for), so I used that to rinse it in small quantities. I have since read of a brand that is prewashed, so I will seek them out in the future. I did toast it, but I didn't stop until the water was gone and no moisture was evident. Tossed it in the rice cooker with an equivilent amount of water and that was it. It was FABULOUS. My new favorite. Thank you so much!

Posted by: convert | July 14, 2008 7:03 PM

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