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Quinoa

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Quinoa, a species of goosefoot (Chenopodium), is a grain-like crop grown primarily for its edible seeds. It is a pseudocereal rather than a true cereal, or grain, as it is not a grass.

Left: Chenopodium quinoa.

As a chenopod, quinoa is closely related to species such as beets, spinach and tumbleweeds. Its leaves are also eaten as a leaf vegetable, much like amaranth, but the commercial availability of quinoa greens is currently limited.

Quinoa originated in the Andean region of South America, where it has been an important food for 6,000 years. Similar Chenopodium species, such as Pitseed Goosefoot (Chenopodium berlandieri) and Fat Hen (Chenopodium album), were grown and domesticated in North America before maize agriculture became popular.

The Incas, who held the crop to be sacred, referred to quinoa as chisaya mama or mother of all grains, and it was the Inca emperor who would traditionally sow the first seeds of the season. During the European conquest of South America quinoa was scorned by the Spanish colonists as food for Indians, and even actively suppressed, due to its status within indigenous non-Christian ceremonies.

Quinoa in its natural state has a coating of bitter-tasting saponins, making it unpalatable. Most quinoa sold commercially in North America has been processed to remove this coating. This bitterness has beneficial effects during cultivation as the plant is unpopular with birds and thus requires minimal protection. There have been attempts to lower the saponin content of quinoa through selective breeding to produce sweeter, more palatable varieties. When new varieties were introduced by agronomists to native growers in the high plateau, however, the native growers rejected the new varieties despite their high yields; because the seeds no longer had a bitter coating, birds had consumed the entire crop after just one season.

Quinoa has a light, fluffy texture when cooked, and its mild, slightly nutty flavor makes it an alternative to white rice or couscous.

The first step in preparing quinoa is to remove the saponins, a process that requires soaking the grain in water for a few hours, then changing the water and resoaking, or rinsing it in ample running water either in a fine strainer or in cheesecloth. Removal of the saponin helps with digestion; the soapy nature of the compound makes it act as a laxative. Most boxed quinoa has been pre-rinsed for convenience.

A common cooking method is to treat quinoa much like rice, bringing two cups of water to a boil with one cup of grain, covering at a low simmer and cooking for 1418 minutes or until the germ separates from the seed. The cooked germ looks like a tiny curl and should have a slight bite to it (like al dente pasta). As an alternative, one can use a rice cooker to prepare quinoa, treating it just like white rice (for both cooking cycle and water amounts).

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Vegetables and seasonings can also be added to make a wide range of dishes. Chicken or vegetable stock can be substituted for water during cooking, adding flavor. It is also suited to vegetable pilafs, complementing bitter greens like kale.

Left: A spoonful of quinoa.

Quinoa can serve as a high-protein breakfast food mixed with honey, almonds, or berries; it is also sold as a dry product, much like corn flakes.

Quinoa flour can be used in wheat-based and gluten-free baking. For the latter, it can be combined with sorghum flour, tapioca, and potato starch to create a nutritious gluten-free baking mix. A suggested mix is three parts quinoa flour, three parts sorghum flour, two parts potato starch, and one part tapioca starch. Quinoa flour can be used as a filling for chocolate.

Quinoa may be germinated in its raw form to boost its nutritional value. Germination activates its natural enzymes and multiplies its vitamin content. In fact, quinoa has a notably short germination period: Only 24 hours resting in a glass of clean water is enough to make it sprout and release gases, as opposed to, e.g., 12 hours overnight with wheat. This process, besides its nutritional enhancements, softens the grains, making them suitable to be added to salads and other cold foods.

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