x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

The mighty quinoa: secrets of the new superfood

It comes from the Andes, it is nutrient-rich but gluten-free and it is taking the world by storm. That's quinoa, the pseudograin.

Above, quinoa porridge with berries.
Above, quinoa porridge with berries.

People still struggle to pronounce it correctly. For the record, keh-NO-ah and KEEN-wah seem to be the most widely accepted, but quinoa is undoubtedly one of the health foods of the moment.

Despite being a relatively recent addition to the modern store shelf, quinoa was first cultivated more than 5,000 years ago in the Andes region of what is now Peru, Bolivia and Chile. The ancient Incas considered la chisaya mama (the mother grain) a gift from the gods and regarded it as sacred. It seems that they had good reason to do so. Because of its high nutritional content, the United Nations views quinoa as a supercrop and Nasa included it on its list of recommended foods for space missions. Quite simply, quinoa is wholly deserving of that superfood status.

Laura Holland, a nutritional therapist working in the UK and UAE, is a keen advocate, saying: "It is a complex carbohydrate, a complete protein source and is gluten-free. It is also loaded with minerals and vitamins such as manganese, magnesium, iron and B vitamins. This combination balances blood sugar and hormones, helps digestion, provides vital energy and feeds your body on all levels."

She adds that "it is also an excellent food for diabetics".

"It is heart healthy, can help with people who suffer from migraines, and is alkali forming, which is a major bonus as today the majority of people have a very acidic diet, which is the underlying cause of many health complaints."

According to Livestrong.com, a cup of cooked quinoa (approximately 184g) contains 222 calories. "Carbohydrates provide 157 calories, protein accounts for 33 calories and fat makes up the remaining 32 calories," the website says. "This provides 11.1 per cent of the daily value for calories, assuming a diet of 2,000 calories per day."

The site goes on to state that quinoa contains 39g of carbohydrate per 184g serving (approximately 13 per cent of the daily value for carbohydrates), 5g of fibre (20 per cent of daily value), 8g of protein (16 per cent of daily value), 2g of sugar and 3.6g of fat (4.6 per cent of daily value) with 0.4g of this being saturated fat. It also notes that quinoa does not contain any cholesterol.

Although often thought of as a grain, quinoa is not in fact a grass, as are true grains like wheat and rice, but a member of the same family as spinach. However, rather than the leaf, we prefer the seed, which has a nutty flavour and a slightly chewy texture. It is very easy to cook, endlessly versatile and filling without being heavy. In fact, it's surprising that quinoa has taken so long to come to mainstream attention.

Two people who pioneered the quinoa craze are Carolyn Hemming and Patricia Green, sisters from Saskatchewan and authors of Quinoa 365: The Everyday Superfood. First published in the spring of 2010, it became a national bestseller within two months and was soon one of Amazon.ca's most-bought cookery books, boasting sales in line with those of titles from Jamie Oliver and Gwyneth Paltrow.

Hemming tells me that her sister introduced her to quinoa some years ago: "After I tried quinoa, we both began incorporating it into anything we could, replacing other, nutritionally inferior foods with vitamin- and mineral-packed quinoa wherever possible."

Producing Quinoa 365 was a natural progression: "We started to have a large collection of recipes and we knew many of the answers to questions we saw in the online community, so we decided to write a comprehensive book."

When cooking regular quinoa seeds, Hemming and Green recommend a technique that they call the "steam and set method".

"Using a 1:2 ratio; cook one cup of quinoa and two cups of water [or broth]. Bring the quinoa and water to a boil in a saucepan, then reduce to a simmer and cover for 10 minutes. Then turn the heat off and let the quinoa set, covered, for an additional five to 10 minutes. This will ensure any remaining moisture is soaked up and your cooked quinoa will be light and fluffy."

The sheer variety of recipes in the book - from cakes and stews to quiches and pizza crusts- is testament to just how versatile quinoa is. Holland suggests serving it with curries, stir fries or casseroles instead of rice, or simply adding vegetables, spices, chickpeas and dried fruit to cooked quinoa. You can substitute quinoa for couscous or bulghur wheat in salads and use it to bulk up soups or stews; you can make quinoa scrambles for breakfast and quinoa biscuits for dessert. Quinoa flour can replace regular flour when baking - the list goes on and the three recipes here are merely a starting point.

Quinoa salad with pomegranate and feta

Serves 4

200g (1 cup) quinoa

pomegranate, seeds only

100g frozen peas, blanched

4 radishes, thinly sliced

1 lemon, juice and zest

150g feta, crumbled into pieces

1 bunch mint, leaves picked and chopped

2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil

salt and black pepper

Cook the quinoa using the steam and set method described above, then leave to cool to room temperature. Tip into a large bowl, add the pomegranate seeds, cooked peas, radishes, lemon zest, feta and mint. Whisk the lemon juice and olive oil together, season with salt and black pepper and pour over the salad. Stir together gently until well combined.

Quinoa porridge

Serves 2

100g ( cup) quinoa

250ml milk

125ml water

vanilla pod (optional)

To serve

mixed berries

natural yogurt

Add the quinoa to a saucepan along with half the milk, the water, the seeds from the vanilla pod and the pod itself. Stir well, place over a medium high heat and bring to the boil. Reduce the heat to a simmer, cover with a lid and cook for 15 minutes or until tender. A couple of minutes before you are ready to serve, add the remaining milk and stir well. Discard the vanilla pod and divide the quinoa between two bowls. Top with the yogurt and mixed berries.

Quinoa pancakes with pineapple

Serves 4

For the syrup

175ml pineapple juice

75g soft brown sugar

For the pancakes

175g quinoa flour

2 tsp baking powder

tsp cinnamon

1 egg, beaten

225ml milk

2 tbsp vegetable oil

To serve

fresh pineapple, chopped

To make the syrup, pour the pineapple juice and sugar into a small saucepan and place over a medium high heat. Boil for 6 to 8 minutes, until the liquid has reduced by half and has a syrupy consistency. Remove from the heat and set aside.

Mix together the quinoa flour, baking powder and cinnamon in a large bowl. Make a well in the centre, add the egg and milk and whisk together to form a smooth batter.

Place a frying pan over a medium heat and lightly brush with vegetable oil. Drop three or four heaped tablespoons of batter into the pan, ensuring that they do not touch each other. Cook for 90 seconds, then carefully flip the pancakes over and cook for another 1 1/2 to 2 minutes, until golden. Keep the pancakes warm in the oven while you cook the rest.

To serve, drizzle the syrup over the pancakes and top with the chopped pineapple.

Regular (cream) quinoa is widely available in Abu Dhabi and Dubai; it is stocked at Carrefour, Spinneys, Waitrose and Park and Shop. Quinoa flour can be bought from the Organic Foods and Cafe in Dubai Mall.