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Quinoa: Incan Gold, Diabetic’s Delight
by Marjorie Dorfman

The Incas referred to this grain-like crop with its edible seeds as the "mother grain" and it was considered a sacred crop. It was so deeply entrenched in Incan tradition that each season the emperor would sow the first seeds using a golden shovel. Read all about this ancient food staple; its hidden culinary treasures and unique health benefits for diabetics and those who suffer from gluten allergies and other medical conditions.

Experts argue about the pronunciation of the name of this ancient crop, which may be keenwah, quinoa, kinwa, kinoua, tweedledee or tweedledum. Whatever you call it, there is no argument about the health benefits of this special grain, whose edible seeds represent an entire protein. Quinoa is not a true cereal or a grass and is more closely related to the family of beets, spinach and tumbleweeds. Its leaves are also eaten as a leafy vegetable.

Origins and early use of quinoa
Chisaya mama (mother of all grains) was what the Incas called it, but quinoa predates even that civilization, having a noble history as a food staple that stretches as far back as 6,000 years. Originating in the Andean region of South America, the crop is altitude-hardy and easy to grow and it can be cultivated up to 4,000 meters (3/4 mile). During the Spanish conquest of South America in the 16th century, quinoa was scorned as a "food for Indians" and the conquistadores destroyed fields of quinoa, actively suppressing its "non-Christian" production. The Incas under the yoke of Spanish oppression were forbidden to grow it on pain of death and were forced to grow corn instead.

In pre-Columbian Andean cultures, quinoa was of great nutritional value, second only to the potato and followed by maize. It sustained Incan armies of soldiers who would march for many days on end. They ate primarily "war balls," which is a mixture of quinoa and fat. Beginning in the 16th century with the Spanish conquest, quinoa production declined over the course of the next 400 years. It is still grown by Incan descendants, the Quechua and Aymara peoples, in remote areas, but only for local consumption.

What is the composition of quinoa?
Technically quinoa is not a true grain, but is the seed of the Goosefoot plant. Its cooking characteristics permit its utilization as a grain. The name derives from the Greek, chen (a goose) and pous (a foot) and refers to the fact that the toothed, triangular leaves of the plant resemble the webbed foot of a goose. Quinoa grows from 4 to 6 feet high and when in seed looks much like millet, with large clusters of seeds at the end of a stalk. The plant will grow in a variety of conditions but favors a cool, arid climate and higher elevations. Quinoa is related to beets, spinach, Swiss chard, and lamb's quarters.

Quinoa today
Quinoa’s high protein content (12-18%) makes it extremely healthy for vegetarians and vegans. It differs from rice and wheat because it contains a balanced set of essential amino acids, making it a complete protein source. Also high in magnesium and iron, it is a good source of dietary fiber and is gluten-free. Due to all these characteristics, quinoa is being considered a possible crop in NASA's Controlled Ecological Life Support System for long-duration manned spaceflights.

Quinoa is a versatile food source, which maintains a light fluffy texture when cooked. Its mild, slightly nutty flavor makes it a viable alternative to white rice or couscous (which is off base for most diabetics). Used to make flour, soup, cereal and alcohol, most quinoa sold in the United States is cooked in the fashion of rice or in combination dishes like a pilaf. It also works well as a starch extender when combined with wheat flour or corn meal for biscuits, bread and other processed food.

In its natural state, quinoa has a coating of saponins that make it bitter and unpalatable. This is nature’s protection against insects and birds devouring the seed before it can be harvested for consumption. In North America, quinoa that is sold commercially has been processed to remove this coating. It is not known for sure but it is speculated that this coating is the reason Europeans who readily accepted other indigenous American foods such as maize and potatoes rejected quinoa as a food source.

Through selective breeding, there have been attempts to lower the saponin content in the hopes of producing sweeter, better-tasting varieties. Results were a disaster as native growers rejected the new varieties and after one season because there was no protective coating on the seeds, birds had consumed the entire crop.

How is quinoa prepared?
The first step in quinoa preparation is the removal of the saponins, which is usually accomplished by rinsing the grain under running water. Most boxed quinoa has already been pre-rinsed. One tried and true method of preparation is to consider the quinoa like rice and to cook it the same way; namely, two cups of water to boil with one cup of grain. The pot should be covered and kept at a low simmer for about 14-18 minutes or until the germ separates from the seed. When the quinoa is cooked, the germ will resemble a tiny curl and should have a slight bite to it somewhat like al dente pasta. A rice cooker can also be employed to achieve the same results.

For diabetics who cannot eat rice, recent studies indicate that quinoa provides a wonderful substitute that aids in the regulation of glucose levels as well. Quinoa’s most interesting feature is that it is so very versatile. It can be added to create a myriad of different types of dishes. For more intense flavor, cook with chicken or vegetable broth instead of water and add to pilafs. It can also serve as high protein breakfast fare and is delicious mixed with honey, almonds or berries.

For those with gluten allergies, here comes quinoa to the rescue! Quinoa can be combined with tapioca, sorghum flour and potato starch to create a nutritious and gluten-free baking mixture. If you go this route, consider three parts sorghum flour, two parts potato starch and one part tapioca starch for the best results. Quinoa can also be used as a filling for chocolate!

Types of quinoa and unusual characteristics
Quinoa has only been grown in America since the 1980s when two Americans who learned about it from a Bolivian began to grow it in their home state of Colorado. Quinoa can be found in most natural food stores in the U.S. and many regular supermarkets are beginning to carry it as well. Its color can range from ivory to pink, to brown to red and even black, depending on the variety. Although there are more than one hundred different species, only three main varieties are cultivated: white or sweet, dark red and black quinoa.

Quinoa seeds are similar in size to millet but are flat and oval. Uniquely, as it cooks, the outer germ around each grain of quinoa twists outward and forms a little, white, spiral tail which is attached to the kernel. Quinoa has a crunchy, slightly nutty flavor which can be bland all by itself, but whose very nature invites creative cooks to "spice it up a notch" as chef Emeril Lagasse always says. The leaves of the plant are also edible and taste somewhat like spinach. It should also be noted that a salad made of quinoa leaves is far more nutritious than most green salads.

Rinse the seeds before cooking to remove the coating of saponin. Quinoa is usually rinsed before it is packaged and sold, but it is best to rinse again at home before use to remove any of the powdery residue that may remain on the seeds. The presence of saponin is easy to spot by the production of soapy looking "suds" which appear when the seeds are rinsed in water. Placing quinoa in a strainer and rinsing thoroughly with water is the easiest way to remove the saponin. In South America, this bitter coating from the quinoa is used as detergent for washing clothes and as an antiseptic to promote healing of skin injuries.

Quinoa is excellent in casseroles, soups, stews, stir-fries or even cold in salads. It is quick to prepare, requiring only about 15 minutes and uncooked seeds can be added to stews and such just as rice might be. Dry roasting quinoa in a pan or in the oven, before cooking will give a toasted flavor, and it can be cooked in fruit juice to add character to the flavor for use as a breakfast cereal or in desserts. Quinoa flour is used in making pasta and a variety of baked goods such as pancakes, bread, muffins, and crackers. The seeds can be sprouted and eaten as raw, live food for snacks or in salads and sandwiches.

Quinoa has a very short germination period and the seeds will sprout after soaking about 1/3 cup in a jar for 2 to 4 hours. Drain and rinse twice a day for 2 to 4 days. When the sprouts are about 1-inch long, place them near a window for chlorophyll to develop, which will give them a vibrant green color. Another fascinating way of using quinoa is to "pop" the seeds in a dry skillet and eat them as a dry cereal.

Is quinoa for you? There’s only one way to find out. Try this recipe below or find many others online.
(Thanks to Karen Railey at Chet Day’s Health & Beyond)

Happy, healthy quinoa!

Toasted Quinoa Salad

3/4 cup uncooked quinoa
1 cup diced carrots
1/2 cup chopped red bell pepper
1/4 cup minced parsley or cilantro
2 sliced green onions
Juice of 1 lemon and 1 lime (or 1 – 2 tablespoons of each)
1-1/2 tablespoons tamari soy sauce
2 cloves minced or pressed garlic
1 teaspoon chili sauce (Tabasco) (or use a pinch of cayenne, a few red pepper flakes, etc.)

Rinse quinoa and drain. Put in a pot and dry toast until a few grains begin to pop. Add 1-1/2 cups of water, bring to a boil, cover and simmer for about 15 minutes, or until the water is absorbed. Remove from heat and let stand for 10 minutes. Fluff with a fork and let cool.

Mix carrot, red pepper, parsley and green onion in large bowl. Add cold quinoa and toss to combine, Whisk together lemon and lime juices, tamari, garlic and chili sauce. Pour over salad and combine well. Chill until serving time.

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