Sunday, 14 July 2013

completely keen for quinoa


First things first.

Let's get one thing straight - 'quinoa' is pronounced 'keen- wah', not 'kwin- o- ah' (although I'll be the first to put my hand up and say I was guilty of the latter for the better part of 3 years).

Good. Now we can move onto the more important stuff - like why quinoa rightfully deserves its 'superfood' status.

Quinoa is an ancient seed that originates from South America. It is available in a range of colours, but the white, red and black varieties are the most common. The different coloured seeds vary slightly in taste and texture - red and black quinoa is a little firmer and stronger in flavour than white quinoa - but they all possess an equally impressive nutritional profile.

It is often mistaken as a grain - probably because its versatility allows it to feature in all the sorts of foods you would expect to see grains used (porridge, salads, pasta, soups, stews, cookies and breads - to name but a few). It can also be used very basically as a direct alternative to rice or couscous. But in actual fact, quinoa is a seed. Its plant is a distant relative to vegetables such as beetroot and spinach. As a result, quinoa is a completely vegan, grain- free source of goodness.

It is also free of gluten and wheat, which means that is it very easily digested. Its ease of digestion, coupled with its nutrient value, make it an increasingly popular ingredient in baby food!

Like chia seeds, quinoa is a complete source of protein - it contains all eight of the 'essential' amino acids. (For my explanation on amino acids and what it means to be 'essential', see my last blog post, 'cheers to chia!') It has what is considered to be a 'balanced' amino acid profile - the type and amount of amino acids that it contains is comparable to that of casein (dairy milk), but unlike casein, it is completely vegan.

Because it is high in both protein and complex carbohydrates, quinoa is considered a top muscle- building food. The amino acids (from the protein) help stimulate muscle growth and repair, whilst the carbohydrates supply muscles with a sustained release of energy and endurance.

The complex carbohydrate content of quinoa also contributes to its low glycaemic index. If you'd like an in- depth look at why low GI foods are important, have a read of my earlier blog post, 'why i choose low g i - and the 411 on diabetes', but in short, low GI foods help to make you feel full sooner and for longer (which can help to reduce overall caloric intake), can aid in weight loss, reduce the likelihood of energy being stored as fat, provide you with a sustained source of energy (instead of fluctuating between energy 'highs' and 'lows'), and can decrease the risk of many medical conditions including diabetes, obesity and cardiovascular disease.

Quinoa also contains these impressive nutrients -

  • dietary fibre - which helps to stimulate the sensation of fullness as well as maintain healthy bowels
  • manganese, copper and vitamin E - which all act as potent antioxidants to help detoxify the body, reduce the risk of cancer and slow the ageing process
  • magnesium - which helps to relax blood vessel walls (which helps to reduce overall blood pressure) as well as relax muscle tension (which may help to reduce the likelihood of headaches and migraine)
  • calcium - which is critical for bone strength and healthy nerve and muscle function
  • phosphorus - which has many important roles in the body, including the strengthening of bones, the synthesis of hormones and protein, and the proper utilisation of energy
  • folic acid - which is essential for normal brain function and the development of healthy red blood cells
  • linoleic acid and linolenic acid - to help strengthen the immune response
But wait, there's more!

Quinoa plants contain their very own, naturally- occurring pesticide called saponin. It has a very bitter taste that acts as a deterrent from insects and birds, so very little (if any) chemical pesticides are necessary in the cultivation process. This means that most quinoa is organically grown.

Even though most of the saponin is removed prior to packaging, its residue on quinoa seeds can still result in a slightly bitter taste. To get rid of this problem - and ideally, to remove the last of the saponin anyway (saponin lathers up with water so it is sometimes used as an ingredient in soap) - simply put the quinoa seeds in a fine sieve and rinse with cold running water for at least thirty seconds prior to use.

Cooking quinoa is easy, too.
  • In a saucepan over medium heat, combine 1 cup of quinoa seeds with 2 cups of cooking liquid (water will do, but I prefer the taste of quinoa when it is cooked with stock).
  • Make sure you use an adequately- sized saucepan - quinoa will absorb the cooking liquid and fluff up to almost three times its original size!
  • Bring it to the boil, then cover the saucepan with a lid and reduce the heat to low for 12-15 minutes, until the liquid is absorbed. You may find that red and black quinoa will require a few minutes of extra cooking time.
  • Then, turn off the heat and leave the saucepan on the heating element for a further 4-7 minutes (the residual heat will continue to cook the quinoa) before transferring it elsewhere or using it in a recipe.

The wonderful thing about cooked quinoa is that, refrigerated, it will last up to a week. It is quite flavourless (when cooked with water), so it can be used in both sweet and savoury dishes and can be eaten with any meal or snack.

As a side note, my personal preference is to dry- toast the quinoa seeds for a few minutes before adding the cooking liquid. I find that the end result is more aromatic and has a firmer texture, which I prefer.

In addition to quinoa seeds, quinoa flakes and quinoa flour is also available, and are also easy to prepare. Quinoa flakes make a quick and simple porridge, and also work well as a crumb mixture (in the place of breadcrumbs). Quinoa flour can be used as a substitute for any flour - but bear in mind that the absence of gluten can result in a 'heavier' and denser baked product. It also has a distinct nutty flavour that can taste a bit strong, depending on the recipe. It is for these reasons that quinoa flour is usually combined with other flours - think brown rice, potato or tapioca flour - instead of being used on its own.

I've covered a decent amount of information today - pronunciation, nutritional value and cooking methods.. I do have a (very) tasty quinoa recipe to share with you, but I think I'll give your eyes a break for now.

Hang on, before you go - let me ask you one last question.

Are you completely keen for quinoa yet?

Because I am! :)

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