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Quinoa: Modern Menus Incorporate Ancient Grain
By Karen Hursh Graber, writing from Mexico
As the United Nations declares 2013 the International Year of Quinoa, this Latin American super food is getting global recognition and appearing in dishes of all kinds, including Mexican. After centuries as an Andean dietary staple that the Incas held sacred, quinoa has become a versatile, healthy and welcome addition to modern Mexican menus.
In the same family as epazote and amaranth, two favorites in Mexican regional cooking, quinoa has small, edible seeds that cook like grains. Called the “mother of all grains” by the pre-Hispanic people who subsisted on it, quinoa is considered a pseudo grain. It is not a member of the grass family, and therefore contains no gluten.
What quinoa does contain adds up to a nutritional bonanza, with significant
amounts of fiber and essential minerals. It is a complete, high-quality protein, which makes it ideal for inclusion in vegetarian specialties. Its mild flavor makes quinoa compatible with several different ingredients, especially the herbs, spices and chiles that characterize Mexican cuisine.
This culinary harmony with Mexico’s signature seasonings accounts for the fact that, while it was difficult to find just a few years ago, quinoa is now sold throughout the country in over 20 different cities, as well as dozens of venues in Mexico City alone. Mexican cooks have found ways to incorporate quinoa into both traditional and innovative dishes.
Quinoa is prepared just like white rice is, and can be used to make a sopa seca in the style of Mexican red rice, using the same proportions of liquid and tomato base. Combined with beans, it is a superior source of nutrients and the basis of several hot and cold offerings.
Quinoa salads, such as the popular black bean quinoa salad made with corn and flavored with jalapeños and cilantro, can be served as appetizers, sides, or lunch main dishes. Another salad combines quinoa with typical Latin tropical fruits including mango and papaya, making it a refreshing addition to spring menus, especially for brunch.
This adaptable food is also perfect for inclusion in vegetable or meat-based soups. A vegetarian version of sopa Azteca uses quinoa, giving the soup substance and protein without adding the usual chicharrones or chicken. Quinoa replaces lentils in a Queretero-style soup with nopales and in a version of lentil soup with chorizo from Central Mexico.
The pseudo grain can also be used in entrees, with or without meat. As a stuffing for chiles rellenos, quinoa imparts a pleasant, nutty flavor that allows the taste of more highly spiced foods such as chorizo come through, and can also be used in a vegetarian version with beans and cheese. An offering of quinoa tortitas, topped with cheese and salsa, is another vegetarian option.
In the dessert category, quinoa makes an appearance in puddings and can be used instead of rice in the style of arroz con leche. Quinoa can also successfully take the place of amaranth in the traditional rice and amaranth pudding of Zimatlan, Oaxaca, especially since it has become more easily available than popped amaranth. And using coconut milk along with whole milk makes a distinctive quinoa coconut pudding.
Quinoa takes on the flavor of its cooking liquid, and can be made with fruit or vegetable juices as well as meat, chicken or vegetable broth or stock in place of water. For a quinoa fruit salad with a Mexican flair, try using half water and half tropical fruit juice as the cooking liquid.
Buying quinoa in bulk is more economical than purchasing small bags or boxes, and can save several dollars per pound. It comes in white, red and black varieties, all having the same food values, with red and black having slightly stronger flavor and chewier texture. One cup of uncooked quinoa yields three cups when cooked.
Although much of the quinoa sold today is labeled “rinsed,” when in doubt, rinse it. This will remove the saponin, a natural pest repellant that eliminates the need for chemical insecticides in its cultivation, another aspect of quinoa that appeals to health-conscious diners. Rinse raw quinoa in a fine mesh strainer under running water. Cooked quinoa keeps in the refrigerator for several days and freezes well.
With its multiple gastronomic uses and nutritional benefits, quinoa is a good choice for new menu items. Today’s customers are savvy and well informed when it comes to healthy dining options and gluten-free choices, and quinoa is drawing significant interest among consumers. Its appearance on menus is sure to attract customers looking for healthy Mexican food.
See Graber’s recipes for Sopa de Quinoa con Verduras: Quinoa Vegetable Soup; Ensalada de Quinoa con Frijoles Negros: Black Bean and Quinoa Salad; Ensalada de Quinoa con Frutas Tropicales: Quinoa Tropical Fruit Salad; Chiles Rellenos con Quinoa: Quinoa Stuffed Poblanos; Tortitas de Quinoa: Quinoa Cakes; and Budin de Quinoa y Coco: Quinoa Coconut Pudding.