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Colorado Quinoa--Transplanted from the Andes

When Ernie New and John McCamant started planting quinoa at their White Mountain Farm in Mosca, Colorado in 1987, they thought they could duplicate the finicky growing conditions similar to its native Andean micro-climate. Quinoa, a pseudo grain rapidly gaining popularity in the United States, requires cool nights and warm days below 90 degrees to set seed. The high San Luis Valley of Colorado is one of the few areas in North America that can support quinoa, but the end result was far different from the original seed that was introduced.

Several years after planting began, New and McCamant noticed deep-purple seed heads on stalks up to two feet taller than their predecessors. The traditional seed had crossed with its native North American ancestor, lamb’s-quarter, to hybridize into a heartier form. Black quinoa was born, and Colorado became home to one the most unique and nutritive foods of the 20th century.

AN ANCIENT FOOD

Native to Peru, quinoa (pronounced keen wah) was the mother grain of the Incas for centuries. But with the Spanish invasion, quinoa became relegated to the staple of peasants, where it would have remained if not for the demanding palates of American diners--ever hungry for diverse and eclectic foods.

Although most people refer to it as a grain, quinoa is actually a broadleaf plant that bears a dense seed head. Small, flattened, bead-like kernels resemble the head of a pin. Clustered at the top of a tall stalk, the seeds ripen in a rainbow of colors, most vividly orange on Peruvian plants. While the plant is cultivated for use as a grain alternative, spouts, leaves and immature seed heads also are eaten.

A comparison between black and white quinoa is similar to wild and domestic rice. Black quinoa is darker in color, crunchier in texture and has a stronger grain-like flavor. White quinoa is considerably less earthy in all respects. Both varieties exhibit the characteristic crunch unique to quinoa, referred to by my teenage daughter, Jessica, as vegetable caviar. Cooked quickly, quinoa yields its famous texture. Simmered longer with more water, white quinoa softens to a texture more reminiscent of cooked breakfast cereal. Quinoa is often served at breakfast where its bland flavor provides the perfect backdrop to fruit, yogurt and other toppings.

Generally known as a side dish, quinoa’s earthy flavor complements a wide variety of foods from breakfast through dinner, appetizers through deserts. Stirred into soups and stews, stuffed into bell peppers or topped with sauce, quinoa often is used as a substitute in recipes calling for other grains. The nondescript flavor welcomes the addition of a range of ingredients from sweet to savory, including most herbs, flavorful broths, and simply prepared raw or cooked vegetables. In the kitchen, quinoa can be used much like our ubiquitous rice, but it is not as susceptible to overcooking and offers more possibilities than other grains. It is actually fairly indestructible.

HIGH NUTRITION TOUTED

While quinoa’s unique texture and endless versatility have tantalized high-end, innovative chefs, its outstanding nutritional profile is the characteristic that sets it apart from grains. Quinoa garnered a reputation as a high endurance food from Andean natives. Believed to oxygenate the blood, quinoa provides possibly more essential nutrients than any other single food. With superior protein and amino acid balance, quinoa is also high in calcium, phosphorus, iron, most B vitamins, zinc and lysine.

Welcomed by health food aficionados, quinoa is often mixed, tucked, topped and somehow combined with other foods to enhance nutrient density. Try it rolled into cabbage leaves, stuffed into mushrooms or layered with sweet potatoes or traditional lasagna ingredients. Quinoa flour has been extruded into pasta and formed into numerous gluten-free baked goods, which offer strong nutritional benefits but without the coveted crunch. To get the unique bite into baked goods without using the flour, try stirring cooked grain into cookie, muffin and pancake batter made with any flour of your choice.

KEYS TO COOKING

No matter how you cook the grain, rinsing is the key to success. Quinoa seeds are coated with bitter saphonins, which must be removed before cooking. Prepackaged quinoa has usually been polished or pre-rinsed, but relying on preprocessing is risky. Saphonin dust often remains in polished grain and any residue will quickly dampen your enthusiasm.

To remove the saphonins, put the quinoa into a fine strainer and run water through it, or stir it in a bowl of cold water and pour it through a clean kitchen towel. Repeat the process until the water runs clear and is no longer sudsy. The amount of rinsing necessary may vary greatly.

Prepackaged quinoa is currently available in most mainstream grocery stores. Bulk quinoa, which is often considerably less expensive, appears in natural foods stores. As New, McCamant and a handful of others work to refine the process of growing quinoa in North America, virtually all quinoa available commercially in the United States is imported from Bolivia. While quinoa is loaded with nutrition and delicious in any form, Colorado’s black quinoa provides an incomparable taste sensation. Available only on the Internet and at limited farmers markets around the state, black quinoa is truly a unique culinary experience.

RESOURCES:

White Mountain Farm, 8890 Lane 4 North, Mosca, CO 719- 378-2436. www.whitemountainfarm.com.

Sopp and Truscott Bakery, 480 Main St., Silver Plume, Colorado, 80476, 303-589-3395, black and white organic quinoa and quinoa baked goods.

On the internet: Search "quinoa" on the internet for domestic and imported sources. Request seed specifically for growing or sprouts when ordering, if applicable.

Basic quinoa

  • 1 cup black or white quinoa
  • 1 1/2 cups water
  • 1/4 tsp. salt

Put the quinoa into a fine strainer, and run water through it until the water is clear and no longer sudsy. If you don’t have a fine strainer, rinse the quinoa in a bowl filled with water, and then pour it through a clean dishtowel.

In a 2-quart pot, bring the water to a boil. Stir in the wet quinoa and simmer over low medium heat uncovered until done, about 12 minutes for white, or 15 minutes for black. Quinoa is fully cooked when the germ has separated from the grain. It looks like a small white "C" shape surrounding each grain. If any excess liquid remains, pour it off and raise the heat to quickly boil off the rest. Stir in the salt.

Variations: Substitute canned or homemade stock, or fruit juice for the water; or add Marmite, Vegemite or bouillon. Adjust the salt accordingly.

Quinoa-stuffed Bell Peppers

Serves four as a side dish, two as a main course

  • 2 large sweet red bell peppers
  • 1/2 pound mushrooms, cleaned and sliced
  • 6 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 1/2 Tab. olive oil
  • 1 recipe cooked quinoa, black or white
  • 2 Tabs. fresh, snipped chives
  • 1 tsp. fresh squeezed lemon juice
  • salt and freshly ground pepper (optional)

Heat the grill. Cut peppers in half lengthwise. Core and seed, making sure not to pierce the sides. Set the peppers aside. Sauté the mushrooms and garlic in oil over medium heat for ten minutes. Add the quinoa and heat through. Stir in the chives, lemon juice, salt and pepper to taste. Fill the peppers and place on a hot grill. Cook until the peppers are cooked through but still sturdy enough to hold the filling, about 10 minutes. This makes an excellent vegetarian meal with additional grilled vegetables and accompaniments.

Quinoa Salad

Serves four

  • 1 Tab. lemon juice
  • 1 Tab. cold-pressed olive oil
  • 1/4 cup fresh chopped parsley
  • 2 scallions, 1/4-inch dice
  • 1 recipe basic quinoa, cold or room temperature
  • 2 ripe medium tomatoes, diced and lightly salted, juice reserved
  • salt and freshly ground pepper

Whisk together the lemon juice, oil, parsley and scallions in a serving bowl large enough to hold all ingredients. Stir in the quinoa and then the tomatoes. Adjust salt, pepper, lemon juice and oil (which will depend on the temperature and moisture content of the quinoa). Serve chilled or at room temperature.

Quinoa Pancakes

Courtesy White Mountain Farm

30 4-inch pancakes

  • 2 eggs
  • 2 1/2 cup buttermilk or sour milk
  • 4 Tab. shortening
  • 2 1/2 cup flour
  • 2 tsp sugar
  • 2 tsp. baking powder
  • 1 tsp soda
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 cup cooked quinoa

Beat eggs well. Add remaining ingredients and beat. Fry on hot griddle.

Quinoa Shrimp Croquettes

Courtesy White Mountain Farm

  • 2 cups cooked quinoa
  • 1 cup shrimp, chopped
  • 2 eggs, beaten
  • 1/4 cup onion, chopped
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 1/2 tsp. ground ginger

Combine ingredients. Mix well and form into 1-inch balls. Deep fry until golden brown. You may have to add a little flour to keep balls together. Dipping sauce may be made by combining 1/2 C tamari, 2 TB rice vinegar or cider vinegar and 3/4 C water. These croquettes can be served as an appetizer or side dish.


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