My favorite seed: Quinoa

My favorite seed: Quinoa

By Tarynne Mingione, RD
Registered Dietitian

It’s NOT a grain.

Not related to wheat at all, this nutrition superstar is related to Swiss chard and spinach. Does it really matter to argue about it? No – because typically it can substitute for any grain in a recipe.

This “new” (have you been living under a cheeseburger?) food comes from the Andes Mountains of South America. It is thought to have served as a source of sustained energy for the Incas, and one of the few staple crops that was grown at these altitudes.

It’s pronounced keen-wah

Nutritional highlights

  • Complete protein – meaning that it contains the nine essential amino acids. Amino acids are those nitrogen containing building blocks that form proteins. Over 20 exist, however there are 9 that must be obtained from the diet (your body cannot make them, hence they are “essential”).

    So what is so exciting about this complete protein thing? Typically you need to seek various food groups throughout the day* in order to obtain all nine essential amino acids so your body can form complete proteins. However quinoa delivers all nine within a single bite! Not only is quinoa a complete protein, quinoa is relatively high in protein. One cup cooked provides approximately 8g of protein!

    *Side note - the notion that you must select complementary foods (beans and grains for example) within a single meal is inaccurate; rather you need to seek various complementary foods within a single day.
  • Hypoallergenic – It doesn’t contain gluten, so it serves as a wonderful alternative for people sensitive to gluten or are gluten-intolerant. For a girl like me with a gluten-intolerant gut, this is great news!
  • Headache and cardiovascular benefits - Quinoa is high in magnesium, which acts as a vasodilator. Therefore it is thought to provide relief from headaches (migraines), as well as serve up some cardiovascular benefits (via reduction in blood pressure).
  • Full of fiber - One cup cooked provides approximately 3g of dietary fiber. Fiber takes longer to digest, therefore keeps you satiated for an extended period of time, resulting perhaps in decreased caloric intake (equating to weight loss). Beyond that perk, fiber helps to normalize blood sugar levels, lower cholesterol, and improve colon health.

    Are you clueless as to whether you should be impressed with this 3g per cup number? Our friend white rice has less than 1g per cooked cup. For reference, men (age 50 and younger) should be consuming approximately 38g, and women about 25g of dietary fiber daily. If you are incorporating quinoa into a diet packed with fruits, vegetables and legumes, this is definitely achievable. Please up your fluid (water) intake if you decide to overemphasize fibrous foods in your diet starting now.

Culinary highlights

This little guy is just too easy to get along with, you can’t not let him park in your cupboard permanently!

  • Convenient – Unlike most grains which take nearly an hour to prepare, quinoa takes about one-quarter of the time!

    Basic Quinoa Cooking Instructions: Rinse thoroughly in a fine mesh strainer (there is a protective coating called saponin on the outside that would leave a bitter taste if left un-rinsed). Next place in a saucepan, fill with 2:1 ratio of liquid:quinoa. Bring to a boil, reduce to simmer, place lid and leave in peace for 15 minutes. Once all liquid is absorbed, let sit for 5-10 minutes. Remove lid and fluff with fork and serve as desired.
  • Versatile - Quinoa leaves a lot of room for creativity, thanks to its versatility. It’s light and nutty, and will pick up any flavor you add. You can enjoy quinoa in any meal – breakfast, lunch, dinner, or even dessert. What other food can do that? (And no - chocolate doesn’t count.)
    • Breakfast. Add blueberries, strawberries, honey and cinnamon to cooked quinoa for an energizing breakfast . (Try this recipe!

    • Lunch. Add quinoa to a bed of greens for extra protein and fiber. Or serve as a side: my favorite way to cook is to cook in vegetable broth, add a variety of spices (coriander, cumin, cayenne) salt, and light acid (red wine vinegar, balsamic, lemon or lime juice). Try this recipe as a side for lunch. 

    • Dinner. Serve meat entrée over quinoa, or create a mixed dish full of veggies for a one-dish meal. Try this one-dish meal.

    • Dessert. Layer chilled quinoa, yogurt, fresh raspberries, hint of mint and honey for a dessert parfait. Or use quinoa flakes or flour for any baked goods.

    • Also, check out my recipe for quinoa muffins here.

Baked quinoa banana bread? Yes please!

Versatile, healthy, and unbelievably easy – quinoa is a favorite of mine and I encourage you to give it a try! Find it at your grocery store in packages near grains (it’s a seed, remember?).

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