By Simone Stromer, MD
There isn’t a cookbook these days that doesn’t include a recipe using quinoa. Usually it’s a vegetarian side dish, most often served accompanying the meat. Since it gluten-free, quinoa also seems to be popping up in cookies, breads and breakfast cereals as a wheat substitute. Quinoa, a grain-like seed native to South America, was cultivated originally by the Incas thousands of years ago; nowadays it is grown in North America. There is no doubt that the Incas were on the money—quinoa provides more amino acids, vitamins, minerals, fiber, antioxidants, and phytonutrients than most grains. It has such a diverse profile of essential amino acids that some classify quinoa as a complete protein— meaning that it has the necessary quantities and proportions of amino acids to be considered as important a protein source as meat. As such, I recommend quinoa as a main dish for vegetarians and omnivores alike. For individuals watching their cholesterol or fat, substituting a meat meal for a quinoa-based meal is a good way to reduce your intake of saturated fats.
Two varieties of quinoa are usually available—cream-colored or red—each having their own distinctive flavors. The cream-colored variety has a smooth and creamy taste which lends itself well to hot dishes; the red variety has a crunchier and nuttier taste which is fantastic for cold salads garnished with nuts and other vegetables. Preparation for quinoa is similar to rice, but takes less time. First, thoroughly wash quinoa with running water and a strainer to remove soil and excess bitter resins. Then boil, covered, for about 10 minutes, drain, and mix with a drop of oil to loosen the seeds and avoid clumping. Hot or cold; breakfast, lunch, or dinner; sweet or savory, quinoa is a highly versatile food. My personal favorite is quinoa and blueberries sweetened with agave nectar for breakfast or cream-colored quinoa with cherry tomatoes, baby spinach, and feta cheese for lunch or dinner.