Sunday, June 1, 2008

New World Quinoa Pilaf

Native to Chile and referred to as the "Mother Grain" by the ancient Incas, Quinoa has been nourishing and sustaining civilizations for thousands of years. Quinoa is not a true grain in biological terms. It is the seed to a bushy plant that is a distant relative of spinach. Quinoa is used however just like most grains, and is a perfect stand in for rice and wheat. It is a small, round, flat seed that varies in colors from beige, to red, to black. It is a whole food, retaining both its germ and bran. When cooked, the germ creates a whitish ring around the quinoa with a little curly tail coming from the grain. I have been passionately in love with quinoa since the day I met it six years ago in a restaurant I worked in. I have been seeing it pop up more and more in cook books and food magazines, which is terrific as it deserves a high place in any whole foods kitchen.

Don't let the modesty of this tiny, mighty seed fool you; it is a powerhouse of nutrition. Quinoa is one of the few grains (amaranth and teff are the others), that is a complete protein, meaning it contains all 9 of the essential amino acids. Most grains are low in the amino acid lysine making their protein profile incomplete, but not quinoa. Quinoa is high in fiber which helps to protect our bowels and heart; it is packed full of minerals such as magnesium, zinc, phosphorus, iron, copper, and manganese; it is high in B vitamins which are essential for energy production, and it is also high vitamin E, a wonderful antioxidant and cell protector. Quinoa also contains no gluten, making it perfect for gluten sensitive people. It has a rather mild flavor that is quite pleasing, which I think would make it kid friendly. Quinoa goes well with most foods, but especially South American and Mexican flavors. It has an affinity for chilies, cumin, cilantro, lime, potatoes, sweet potatoes, avocado, tomatoes, and squash. Use quinoa in place of rice for a more nutritious meal. Quinoa can also be found in flour form and can be used in place of 25% of wheat flour in most recipes. Quinoa may first be rinsed before using to remove its natural coating of saponin, which is natures bug repellent. The saponin can be bitter and soaping tasting, but I have found that it just depends on the quinoa. I always cook a small bit just to see if this is even necessary, and I usually find that it is not. Saponins are not bad for you, so it is not a big deal, it all depends on your tastes. Quinoa can be found in any health food store or Trader Joes.

New World Quinoa Pilaf
This is not a completely traditional pilaf cooking method. Normally when cooking in the pilaf style, all of the ingredients are cooked together. However, I don't like overcooked summer squash with raw potato if you get my drift, so I tweak the method a little. The quinoa itself is cooked like a pilaf, then the rest of the ingredients are sauteed on the side and folded in.

-1 cup quinoa, rinsed
-1 3/4 cups water
-1 1/2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
-1/2 cup small diced purple onion
-1 teaspoon fresh ground cumin
-2 small Peruvian purple potatoes, diced small
-1 cup green beans cut into 1/2 inch lengths
-2 cloves garlic, minced
-1 Gold Bar summer squash, diced
-2 tablespoon chopped fresh cilantro
-salt and fresh ground pepper
-lime wedges to garnish

In a medium sized pot heat 1/2 tablespoon of the extra virgin olive oil over medium heat. When hot, add in the diced purple onion and sweat until translucent and beginning to soften, about 3-4 minutes. Add in the fresh ground cumin and cook about 30 seconds to 1 more minute. Add in the rinsed quinoa and stir to coat with the onions and oil. Let the quinoa slightly toast, about 2-3 minutes. Add in the water, a pinch of salt, and bring to a boil. The second it boils, turn down to a low simmer and cover. Cook the quinoa until all liquid has been absorbed and the germ of the quinoa begins to curl, about 15-20 minutes. Let rest, covered for at least 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, Heat the rest of the extra virgin olive oil in a large saute pan over medium heat. When hot, add in the diced potatoes. Stir often to prevent the potatoes from sticking, purple potatoes can be rather starchy sometimes and will stick easily. Cook until the potatoes begin to slightly brown and soften on the edges. Add in the cut green beans and a pinch of salt. Cook about2 more minutes. Add about 3-4 tablespoons (1/4 cup) water or stock to the pot and cover. Let steam about 3-4 minutes, or until the potatoes are almost completely soft. Remove the l;id and add in the squash and garlic. Continue cooking until the squash is just tender, as well as the green beans. Season with salt and pepper.

Stir the sauteed vegetables and chopped cilantro into the quinoa. Taste and adjust seasoning as necessary. Serve with lime wedges.

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