Long neglected in the West, Quinoa has been grown in the Andes of South America for thousands of years. It was a staple food of the ancient Incas, so important to them that they called it the “Mother Grain.” Quinoa (pronounced kee-noo-ah) is an annual herb that is very hardy and drought resistant. The clusters of seeds on top of the plant are what we usually eat; these seeds can range in color from white, orange, red, purple, to black, depending on the variety. The ancestral seed color of Quinoa is black and the other colors have been obtained from mutations and breeding. About the size of a millet, the Quinoa seed resembles the grain of some cereal grasses (although it is not a grass).
It is said that each year at planting time, the Inca leader was to plant the first Quinoa seed using a gold shovel. Quinoa was also mixed with fat into something called “war balls” — used to sustain Incan armies during marches that could last for days. Beginning with the Spanish conquest in the 1500s, there was a decline in the production of Quinoa. It was treated with contempt in many areas because it was associated with non-Christian religious rituals and became a minor crop grown only by peasants in remote areas for local consumption.
The story of how Quinoa was “rediscovered” and brought to the U.S. from Bolivia and Chile is one of political unrest, idealism, determination and, perhaps, a curse (read this piece by David Thier for more on that). An early devotee of macrobiotics named Stephen Gorad discovered Quinoa on a trip to Bolivia in the 70s. Along with a friend, Don McKinley, he brought this strange new grain to health food stores in America and got an overwhelmingly positive response. The only problem was how to, amidst serious political unrest in the Qunioa-growing countries, get it to the U.S.
It wasn’t until years later that the pair met David Cusack, the son of a potato farmer and an idealistic history Professor from the University of Denver. Cusack headed a growing organization called Sierra Blanca in Colorado’s San Luis Valley and believed that this Andean crop could grow well in the high altitudes of the Rockies. In 1983, the three formed the Quinoa Corporation. In 1984, Cusack was murdered in Bolivia and the other two were ready to call their wonder grain-mission quits. They may have done so had it not been for the dedicated support of American health food stores and advocates.
In 1987, two men named John McCamant and Ernie New took up where Cusack left off and started growing Quinoa at White Mountain Farm, located at an elevation of about 7600 feet in an ancient lake bed called the San Luis Valley, between the San Juan and Sangre de Cristo Mountains of the Southern Colorado Rocky Mountains. This became the first large-scale Quinoa-growing operation in the United States and has been Certified Organic from the start. When buying Quinoa grown in the U.S. we can avoid contributing to the stress our newly increased demand has put on the Bolivian market, where local consumers have essentially been priced out by our new-found taste for their Mother Grain.
Quinoa is an incredibly nutritious food — I like to refer to it as a Superfood — rich in protein and high in fiber. It’s one of the few plant foods that is a complete source of protein and is particularly high in essential amino acids such as lysine, methionine, and cystine, which are difficult to obtain from other vegetable sources. It is also gluten-free, easy to digest and high in calcium, phosphorous, iron and vitamins B and E.
Quinoa is not a true grain, but is the seed of the Chenopodium or Goosefoot plant (beets, spinach, Swiss chard, and lamb’s quarters are all relatives of quinoa). Although we usually eat the seeds, the young green leaves are also edible (and very nutritious!) and can be also be used in salads or cooked like spinach. The commercial availability of Quinoa greens are, however, quite limited. For you raw foodies out there, the seed can be sprouted, like alfalfa (but much faster!). It can also be used as a hot cereal and in place of almost any other grain in recipes. There really is no limit to what you can do with this little seed and a bit of imagination.
The Quinoa seeds are coated with saponin, which has a bitter taste that is removed by washing in water or by a dry polishing process. It’s important to wash your Quinoa before cooking it to remove any saponin dust that may remain on the seeds. Quinoa is quick and easy to prepare and expands about three times when cooked.
Basic Quinoa Recipe (from White Mountain Farm)
2 cups water
1 cup Quinoa
Rinse Quinoa thoroughly, either by using a strainer or by running fresh water over the Quinoa in a pot. Drain excess water. Place Quinoa and water in a 1 ½ quart sauce pan and bring to a boil. Reduce to a simmer, cover and cook until all of the water is absorbed (about 15 minutes). You will know that the Quinoa is done when all the grains have turned from white to transparent, and the spiral-like germ has separated. Makes 3 cups.