Francisco Pizarro might have known a thing or two about New World conquest, but he would have made a lousy nutritionist. After toppling the Incan empire in 1532, the Spanish conquistador filled his ships with potatoes and corn—destining them to become major players in the European diet—while leaving a third crop to wither. Turns out, the fields Pizarro neglected to harvest were filled with the world's most nutritious grain: quinoa [pronounced KEEN-wah].
"Quinoa is a true wonder food," says Daniel Fairbanks, Ph.D., a professor of plant and animal science at Brigham Young University. "It has about twice the protein of regular cereal grains, fewer carbohydrates, and even a dose of healthy fats." Plus, it's considered a "complete" protein, which means that, like meat, eggs, and dairy, it packs all of the essential amino acids your body needs to build muscle.
Unfortunately, not much has changed in the almost 500 years since Pizarro pillaged the Incas. More than ever, nutritionally inferior foods, such as corn, potatoes, rice, and wheat—especially the refined versions—fill our plates, while quinoa gathers dust on grocery-store shelves. And that's a shame, because besides being great for you, quinoa is the rare culinary triple threat: delicious, easy to prepare, and ultraver-satile. Ready to harness the full power of this superfood? Here's everything you need to know to make it a staple at breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
The User's Guide to Quinoa
Quinoa has an addictive nutty flavor, cooks up quicker than rice, and can be used to make pilafs, risottos, salads, soups, and even desserts. The downside: Few men know where to find it, let alone how to prepare it. Typically, you can locate quinoa in the rice aisle or the health-food section of your grocery store. You can also stock up at edenfoods.com.
As for preparation, the simplest way is to cook quinoa like pasta: Fill a large pot or saucepan with water, and bring it to a boil. Add just about any amount of quinoa, turn the heat to low, and cook until tender, about 20 minutes. Drain the water and allow the quinoa to cool.
Cook up a big batch and store it in Tupperware in your refrigerator, and you'll have a ready-to-eat side dish—like rice or pasta—that goes with just about any meal. (To warm, microwave it for 60 seconds.) Or you can be far more creative. For instance, quinoa can be used to...
Power up your breakfast: Combine a cup of cooked quinoa with 1/2 cup milk and 1/2 cup frozen blueberries, and microwave for 60 seconds. This makes a great alternative to oatmeal.
Redefine dessert: In a blender, puree two very ripe bananas with 2 cups whole milk. Combine the mix with 2 cups cooked quinoa, 1/2 cup raisins, a tablespoon of sugar, and a teaspoon of cinnamon, and simmer for 10 minutes. If you're celebrating, add a glug of dark rum at the last second. Creamy and sweet, it's a healthier version of rice pudding.
Even better, use the recipes and variations that follow and you can turn this simple grain into more than a dozen dishes.
Quinoa as a Salad
1 cup uncooked quinoa
8 asparagus spears
2 oz crumbled goat cheese or feta
1/4 cup green olives, pitted and coarsely chopped
4 Tbsp chopped sun-dried tomatoes
1/2 Tbsp olive oil + a drizzle for the asparagus
1 Tbsp balsamic or red-wine vinegar
Salt and pepper to taste
1. Preheat the oven to 400°F.
2. Boil the quinoa according to the instructions on the previous page.
3. While the quinoa cooks, prep the asparagus. Remove the woody ends by gently bending each spear until it breaks—it'll naturally snap off at the right place. Lay the spears on a cookie sheet or baking pan and drizzle with the olive oil and a pinch of salt. Place in the oven and roast for 10 minutes.
4. Chop the asparagus into bite-size pieces and add to the quinoa, along with the cheese, olives, sun-dried tomatoes, oil, and vinegar. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
Makes 4 servings; great with grilled pork tenderloin or roast chicken.
Per serving: 238 calories, 9 grams (g) protein, 34 g carbohydrates, 7 g fat (2 g saturated), 4.5 g fiber, 290 mg sodium