You don’t have to be a registered dietitian to know quinoa is good for you. This much-blogged-about “superfood” is packed with iron and fiber, it’s a great source of protein and, for what it’s worth, it’s also gluten-free.
But to get all these benefits, you have to eat it. And why would you? It’s usually bland, dense and waterlogged. Thankfully, there’s another way. Here are some guidelines that will help you give quinoa another chance.
• Toss out that recipe. For a long time, I didn’t touch quinoa, either. But the problem isn’t the grain itself; it’s the recipes that are all wrong. Now I know the best reason to eat quinoa isn’t for its health bona fides, but because it can be so delicious.
The very first thing most recipes for quinoa will instruct you to do is rinse it. This step harks back to prehistoric times (i.e., the 1990s), when quinoa was found only in the dust-filmed bulk bins of your hippie neighborhood food co-op. Back then, producers didn’t remove the outermost layer of the grain, which is coated in a naturally bitter substance (saponin) that deters bugs.
To be safe, I always taste one speck of raw quinoa before I cook it, and never have I detected this bitter coating. That’s a good thing, because rinsing introduces extra water, preventing your quinoa from browning and making it more difficult to use the right amount of water during cooking.
• Don’t drown your dinner. Most quinoa recipes, including the cooking instructions printed on packages, call for 2 cups of water for every 1 cup quinoa. That’s how you get a clumpy, wet mess. Reducing the water to 1 1/2 cups for every cup of quinoa gives you a drier and fluffier result. Fluffy quinoa, with discrete grains instead of an amorphous mass, makes you want to add it to salads, stir-fries, wraps and even eat it in place of white rice.
The reason recipe writers call for so much water is that we want to play it safe. We’re afraid you won’t really adjust your heat to low when we ask you to, or that you’ll check the quinoa one too many times, removing the lid and allowing all the steam to escape. Either could result in a scorched pot with burned quinoa stuck to the bottom. But I have more faith in you.
In truth, the perfect amount of water you’ll need to cook any grain depends a great deal on your stove and how you use it. On an induction burner, which is capable of truly low heat, you’ll need a bit less. Those who have wild and untamable gas ranges will perhaps need a splash more.
• Toast it. Exposing uncooked quinoa to high heat – in the oven or in a skillet, with oil or dry – adds a robust, nutty flavor to your dish. Courage is essential, because you’ll need to overcome your fear of burning the quinoa and take it close to the edge for the best results. I like doing this in a skillet because the quinoa talks to you, snapping, crackling and popping to let you know it’s ready.
• Try a qui-laf. I’ve been a fool for rice pilaf since my earliest days in the kitchen, making Rice-A-Roni after school, sizzling the boxed rice and pasta in too much butter until it turned golden and smelled roasty.
Quinoa responds well to the pilaf treatment, cooking the tiny grains in olive oil until you hear them exploding like Lilliputian popcorn. Instead of a spice packet, I turn to my pantry, shading the dish one way or another with different spices depending on my mood and what kind of mix-ins I’ll fold into the dish at the end. I make this variation-friendly dish so often, my husband gave it a nickname. He called it qui-laf (say it: key-lahf), and now I call it that, too.
• Adapt to the season. This recipe works well with an August farmers market haul of tomatoes, corn, bell peppers and herbs. In the winter, I often char frozen artichokes to make it feel special when seasonal veggie options are few. Beans of all kinds, fried cubes of tofu, tender pieces of pulled chicken and shrimp all make worthy embellishments for qui-laf, though none is necessary for it to be a hearty meal. I always like to top it off with crunch, usually toasted nuts or pumpkin seeds.
Leftover qui-laf makes an excellent addition to a wrap, a bowl of greens, salad or soup. I like to spread it out on a baking sheet to reheat at a high temperature (say 400 degrees) or even under the broiler. This yields some crispy bits and amplifies the toasty flavor.
• Press the easy button. If qui-laf still strikes you as more cooking than you want to do, there is another foolproof method: Treat your quinoa precisely like pasta. (Optional, but good: Toast it first.) Bring a pot of water to a rolling boil, add salt and dump in your quinoa. It takes only about 10 minutes to become tender. You know it’s done when the little white threads (the germ) unspools from the seeds, looking like tiny tails. Water being the enemy of fluffy quinoa, you’ll want to drain it very well and return it to the pot (now empty but still hot) to drive off any water clinging to the grains.
This basic preparation leaves you with a versatile ingredient that can be mixed with milk and maple syrup and heated, porridge-style. Treat it right, and quinoa can be there for you breakfast, lunch and dinner. And you’ll actually be happy to eat it.
Summer Quinoa Pilaf
If you have been underwhelmed by quinoa recipes, try this one: It employs a few easy techniques, such as toasting the grains and cooking them as you would a pilaf.
Make ahead: This pilaf is at its best when freshly made, but you can reheat leftovers by spreading them on a rimmed baking sheet and placing them under the broiler just until heated through.
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 cup minced onion
2 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
1/2 teaspoon Spanish smoked paprika (pimenton)
1 pinch crushed red pepper flakes
1 1/2 cups dried quinoa
2 cups water
1 large red bell pepper, cut into thin, 1-inch-long strips (ribs and seeds removed; about 2 cups total)
1 1/2 cups fresh or frozen/defrosted corn kernels
1 cup cherry tomatoes, quartered
1/4 cup pumpkin seeds, toasted (see Note)
1/4 cup chopped cilantro leaves and tender stems
2 ounces goat cheese (1/2 cup crumbled)
Heat 2 tablespoons of the oil in a medium pot over medium-high heat. Once the oil shimmers, add the onion, garlic, smoked paprika and crushed red pepper flakes. Cook for 5 to 8 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables begin to brown at the edges. Add the quinoa; stir for 3 to 5 minutes, until the grains darken and start to pop.
Add the water and 1/2 teaspoon of salt; once the mixture comes to bring a boil, reduce the heat to low, cover and cook for 17 to 20 minutes, until the water is absorbed and the quinoa is tender. (If quinoa is still wet, uncover, increase the heat a bit and cook, stirring, for another 1 to 3 minutes.) Remove from the heat.
Meanwhile, position an oven rack about 6 inches from the broiler element; preheat the broiler. Toss together the red bell pepper strips and corn on a rimmed baking sheet with the remaining tablespoon of oil and season with a pinch of salt. Spread the mixture in a single layer; broil for 10 to 12 minutes until charred in spots, stirring once or twice to prevent burning.
Fold the charred vegetables, the cherry tomatoes, pumpkin seeds and cilantro into the cooked quinoa (off the heat). Top with the crumbled goat cheese, and serve right away
Note: Toast the pumpkin seeds in a small, dry skillet over medium-low heat, until fragrant and lightly browned, shaking the pan occasionally to avoid scorching. Cool completely before using.
• Nutrition: calories: 290; total fat: 14 g; saturated fat: 3 g; cholesterol: 0 mg; sodium: 260 mg; carbohydrates: 35 g; dietary fiber: 5 g; sugars: 4 g; protein: 10 g