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Quinoa, the Mother of Grains

Quinoa (say it: keen-wah) may sound new and exotic to many Americans, but it's actually been around for at least 5,000 years. The Inca called it the "mother grain" and considered it a sacred gift from the gods. I have a similar reverence for quinoa: It's close to nutritionally perfect, low-fat and ...

Red quinoa for breakfast, courtesy Flickr user jspace3


Quinoa (say it: keen-wah) may sound new and exotic to many Americans, but it's actually been around for at least 5,000 years. The Inca called it the " mother grain" and considered it a sacred gift from the gods. I have a similar reverence for quinoa: It's close to nutritionally perfect, low-fat and full of protein, fiber, vitamins and minerals like iron and manganese. And it's darn tasty, too!

The first time I recall hearing about quinoa was as a teenager, on a family vacation to Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado, where I learned that it was grown by the ancestral Pueblan people (Anasazi) who lived on those high plateaus about 1,400 years ago.

Colorado is also where the seeds of a quinoa comeback sprouted in the 1980s, when a couple of farmers there brought it back into cultivation. Within a decade, quinoa was available in health food stores (at least where I lived in Vermont, which is admittedly not the greatest barometer for national trends), but it didn't really go mainstream in the United States until the past few years. (Perhaps not coincidentally, there's also a burgeoning demand for gluten-free grains, which quinoa happens to be. Sort of.*) Now even Walmart sells it.

You can eat quinoa as a breakfast cereal, a healthy lunch, a hearty dinner, or even dessert. For a quick, filling meal, I like to toss cooked quinoa with a bit of Italian salad dressing, diced tomatoes and steamed broccoli florets.

Until now, I've been cooking my quinoa on the stovetop, like rice, which works just fine and takes about 20 minutes. But as previously mentioned, I'm gaining some cool kitchen gadgets this year, one of which is a countertop food steamer (love it!). The instructions say this can be used to steam rice, so I tried steaming quinoa according to the same timetable (40 minutes, using one cup dry quinoa in two cups of water).

The result was, well, sticky. That probably means I overcooked it, but it turned out to be a great consistency to shape into quinoa burgers! I won't call this a recipe, per se, but here's what I did if you're interested:

I mixed the cooked quinoa with a bit of olive oil, lemon juice, salt, pepper, garlic powder, a drizzle of Tabasco, maybe 1/2 cup of shredded cheddar cheese, some sundried tomatoes and a handful of leftover green beans (chopped small). While heating up about two tablespoons of olive oil in a skillet, I used my hands to roll the quinoa mixture into balls, and then patties. I fried these in the oil over medium heat, until they got brown and crispy (I think it was about 5 minutes per side, but wasn't keeping track).

They didn't hold together quite as well as your average veggie burger—I think adding an egg to the mixture would have helped—so I decided to use wraps instead of buns. To mix in some different textures, I also threw in some fresh guacamole and raw kale. Delicious!

I've since looked up a few recipes for quinoa burgers, and this one from Hello Veggie sounds worth a try. Martha Stewart's veggie burgers incorporate quinoa with portobello mushrooms, and I'd also like to try these Greek-style quinoa burgers if I ever find myself in possession of a food processor.

Do you eat quinoa?



*From a botanist's perspective , quinoa is actually the seed of a plant in the goosefoot family (like spinach and beets). But from a culinary and nutritional perspective , it's considered a whole grain.
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About Amanda Bensen

Amanda Bensen is a former assistant editor at Smithsonian and is now a senior editor at the Nature Conservancy.

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