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There's Power in Quinoa : Tiny Grain Makes Quick Meals With Lots of Protein

February 29, 1996|MARY CARROLL

When quinoa was introduced to American markets in the '80s, nutritionists hailed it as the supergrain of the future. Grown in the Andes of South America, quinoa was one of the three staple foods of the Incas, along with corn and potatoes. It packs an impressive amount of protein, more than any other grain.

We bought a package of the tiny, pale grains. There were some suspicious looks from family members: It may be healthy, but will it taste like birdseed? Maybe the Incas loved it, but will we?

After some trial and error, I learned that, like basmati rice, quinoa should be rinsed before it's cooked. Basmati's starch coating makes it sticky unless rinsed, and quinoa's exterior is naturally bitter. Quinoa processors remove most of this bitter coating, but some residue remains. I rinse it once in a large bowl of water, then drain it through a fine sieve.

I've found quinoa to be one of those truly quick-cooking grains, ranking right up there with couscous and polenta as a 15-minute meal. Its tiny pellets turn slightly translucent when cooked. Because it is lightweight and great for fast meals, it became the basis for many weeknight suppers. The high amount of protein makes quinoa a good vegetarian dinner with vegetables, salad and bread, which my family likes. Supergrain of the future? Maybe. All I know is that my family approves.

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Here's a basic way to cook quinoa: Combine two parts cold water or defatted broth with one part uncooked, rinsed grain. Bring to a boil in a saucepan, lower heat to simmering, cover the pan and cook 12 to 15 minutes or until all the water is absorbed. Fluff the cooked quinoa with a fork as you would rice. Cooked quinoa keeps five to seven days in a tightly covered container in the refrigerator.

The simplest way to add this high-protein grain to your meals is to stir a cupful into winter soups, chowders and stews, in which it thickens nicely. I also like it mixed with rice pilafs or added to corn bread batter before baking. You can even make a rice pudding using your regular recipe but substituting cooked quinoa for the rice.

SWEET POTATO, SWISS CHARD AND QUINOA GRATIN

Gourmet magazine recently introduced quinoa in this delicious recipe, which I adapted for low-fat cooking.

3 large sweet potatoes, scrubbed and pierced with knife tip

1 cup uncooked quinoa, rinsed and drained

2 cups water

1 tablespoon olive oil

2 cups coarse fresh bread crumbs

1/4 cup white wine or defatted broth

2 1/2 pounds Swiss chard, washed

6 large cloves garlic, minced

Salt, pepper

Bake sweet potatoes at 450 degrees 1 hour or until soft. Let cool. Peel and mash with fork.

Bring quinoa and 2 cups water to boil. Reduce heat. Cover and cook 15 minutes or until all liquid is absorbed.

Heat oil in skillet. Add bread crumbs and cook, stirring, until browned. Remove bread crumbs to side plate. Add wine to skillet. Bring to boil. Chop Swiss chard stems and cook them in wine about 5 minutes or until tender. Add garlic and chard leaves. Cook, stirring, 4 minutes or until leaves wilt. Stir in cooked sweet potato and quinoa. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Lower oven temperature to 350 degrees. Lightly coat 2-quart shallow baking dish with nonstick cooking spray. Drop mounds of sweet potato-quinoamixture onto baking dish, arranging decoratively. Smooth top, then sprinkle with bread crumbs. Bake gratin 30 minutes or until hot and bubbly.

Makes 6 servings.

Each serving contains about:

GARLICKY QUINOA SALAD

3 large cloves garlic, minced or pressed

1/2 cup lemon juice

3 tablespoons olive oil

1 tablespoon honey or sugar

2 cups cooked quinoa

1/3 cup chopped fresh parsley

1 small cucumber, peeled, seeded and diced

1 green bell pepper, seeded and diced

2 green onions, chopped, including greens

1/2 cup canned mandarin oranges, drained, or diced tomato

The mild flavor of cooked quinoa makes it a natural for marinated salads.

Whisk together garlic, lemon juice, oil and honey in salad bowl. Add quinoa and let stand at room temperature 20 minutes. Toss with parsley, cucumber, bell pepper, green onions and mandarin oranges. Serve.

Makes 4 servings.

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