Quinoa is something that I’ve been meaning to cook for quite a while. About ten years, in fact, ever since I read Nigel Slater‘s Real Fast Food. He has several recipes for this protein-packed ancient grain and, as with all his writings, I was seduced by the delicious descriptions. Not seduced enough, however, to seek it out in Ireland but, since arriving in New Zealand, I’ve come across it on several occasions. Eventually, an article in Cuisine led me to buy some from Piko which…just sat in the pantry until an inquiry about it from the Boyfriend’s mother made me decide that it was time to actually try cooking it instead of admiring it every time I opened the door of the pantry.
Quinoa (pronounced keen-wa) is an ancient grain from the Andes in South America and was one of the staple foods of the ancient Incan civilization. With more high quality protein than any other grain, rich in nutrients, gluten free, easy to digest and quick to prepare it is easy to see how it has become touted as a new supergrain – and why it is so popular with vegetarians.
Another fact in its favour is its versatility. It can be boiled in plenty of water and then strained, cooked by the absorption method, used to make a type of risotto/pilaf and, like couscous or bulgur wheat, is a great base for salads. Like both those grains, it has a very neutral taste so it’s best to season it well to avoid blandness.
For my first time cooking quinoa I decided to make it into a salad. Although I cooked it by the absorption method, the next time I have it in a salad I will use plenty of boiling salted water as it was a little stuck together. Or maybe that’s just the way it turns out normally – I’ll have to do some more tests! It was fascinating to watch the quinoa as it cooked. A small white thread appeared around each grain and then the grain swelled, becoming tender and juicy.
When it was cooked and the water evaporated off, I tossed it in my basic vinaigrette – extra virgin olive oil, balsamic vinegar, wholegrain mustard and plenty of seasoning – with a few chickpeas that I had also cooked that morning, some chopped red onion and fresh coriander from the garden. With enough good vinaigrette and everything tastes good anyway but, the real interest of the quinoa was in its texture rather than taste. My two testers – the Boyfriend and an English friend who is staying at the moment – and I had the salad for lunch and there were definitely seconds eaten!
When cooked, the small spherical grains turn translucent and soft while the thread – the external germ – remains crunchy. Quinoa has a unique bobbly texture which one of the lads described as porridge-like but I thought it was closer to fish roe, in a tasty way. Actually, it was so tasty that I had to go out to the kitchen just there and have another spoonful of the salad, in the name of research, you understand! I also went to Piko again this afternoon to buy some more quinoa for the next experiment. A tasty success.
Cooking quinoa: the absorption method
Quinoa – 1 cup
Water or stock – 2 cups
Bay leaf – 1 leaf
Mace – 1 blade
Salt, freshly ground black pepper
Put the quinoa in a sieve and rinse well under cold running water.
Put in a saucepan with the water or stock, bay leaf and mace. Season, cover and bring to the boil. Reduce heat to a simmer and cook until the quinoa is tender and the water has been absorbed, about 15 minutes.
Remove the lid, turn off the heat and let the quinoa steam peacefully to evaporate more of the liquid. Use as desired.
Serves 2 as part of a salad.