The Key to Quinoa

This seed is becoming mainstream, due to its versatility, health benefits and subtle, nutty flavour.

Every year a new “superfood” is declared – one so healthy and nutritious that we tell ourselves eating it will wipe our food-sin slates clean. While the “superfood” tag may be a bit of an exaggeration, there are certain foods that undeniably pack nutritional punches – and add healthy and delicious twists to our usual diets. While quinoa has quietly gained traction over the years, it is now popping up everywhere, in one form or another.

It is traditionally grown in high, dry elevations, especially on the slopes of the Andes – Peru is the largest supplier and consumer of quinoa in the world. But, the National Agrarian University in Peru recently found two species of quinoa that will adapt to growing in a coastal climate, due to their shorter-than-usual growing cycles. But, for now, quinoa’s finicky nature means that supply currently remains lower than demand, keeping it a hot – and expensive -commodity.

Quinoa is often mistaken for a grain, but is actually considered a seed, one that grows in tightly packed clusters on tall stems. Chefs and foodies generally use it as a meat supplement or substitute in dishes because it is a complete protein, meaning it has all nine amino acids humans need to survive. 

Rylan Krause, chef at Noorish, uses quinoa in his Whirling Dervish salad, a colourful, Moroccan-inspired dish that combines red, golden and black quinoa with dried fruit, onion and a basil mint dressing. “Because quinoa is a complete protein, it’s a really healthy, full food source option for us to have. Plus we like the way it tastes,” says Krause. 

He uses quinoa as a base in the Laughing Buddha’s Bowl, a green curry dish. “It operates basically in the same way as rice.” Krause also grinds quinoa down to make a flour and uses it instead of bread crumbs to form the crust on the Pacha Mama’s mac n’ cheese. “It’s seasoned with paprika, so it is a smoky, earthy crust and it’s a little bit herby,” he says.

This little pseudo-cereal – it belongs to plant species goosefoot, not the grass family – is showing up in salads on other menus all over town. Sabzy Persian Grill mixes quinoa in with its tabouli salad, while Upper Crust Cafe sells a quinoa salad with pecans, cranberries, parsley, celery and a vinaigrette. The staff says, while they don’t have it every day, quinoa is quite popular when it is available. 

At Naan-o-licious, the quinoa twist is a hit, says manager Jabed Hossain. “People really like quinoa in their salads, so we sell that more than the curry.” The restaurant uses red quinoa, mixed with tomatoes and lemon, and it sits overnight to let the flavour really develop. The restaurant is currently working on a new menu and is considering adding more items with quinoa, says Hossain, including more salads and appetizers. 

But this nutty-tasting super seed can be used for more than just salads. Jeff Jackson, executive chef at Sorrentino’s downtown location, places a Portobello mushroom on a bed of red quinoa, sauted spinach, basil jam, balsamic reduction and ricotta salad. “The quinoa is really earthy so it matches with the mushroom and spinach,” Jackson explains. “It’s also celiac friendly and we get a lot of guests that come in with that specific allergy. And lots of vegetarians like quinoa.”

He also appreciates quinoa for its health benefits – it’s full of dietary fibre, iron, potassium, magnesium and calcium, among other nutrients. While white and golden quinoa are generally seen as the most common kinds of quinoa, Jackson prefers the nutty, sweet taste of red quinoa.

What about people who are wary of trying this tiny seed that can be boiled or prepared in a rice cooker? Krause advises just taking the plunge. “It’s one of those extremely popular foods right now, but we do have some customers who come in and are unfamiliar with it,” he says. “They usually end up liking it.”

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