Rock star quinoa goes Middle Eastern

Saturday , June 28, 2014 - 8:33 AM

By VALERIE PHILLIPS
Chat and Chew

Quinoa is an ancient crop that has become a modern-day rock star in the food world. Ten or 15 years ago, most Americans couldn't tell you what it was, much less how to pronounce it (It's KEEN-wah, in case you were wondering.)

It looks and cooks like a grain; but food experts say that technically, it's a seed.

It's being used by chefs and home cooks in everything from breakfast cereal to casseroles, to quinoa-crusted chicken, quinoa meatloaf and quinoa-stuffed peppers.

What brought on this surge of popularity?

- Quinoa has been hailed by some nutritionists as a "superfood."

- It's higher in protein than most grains, making it an option for those on a low-carb, high-protein diet.

- It's high in fiber.

- It's also a source of iron and calcium — nutrients that vegans and vegetarians often miss out on because they are more commonly found in animal products.

- It's a gluten-free alternative to wheat for people with celiac disease and gluten intolerance.

- Vintage is cool nowadays. And when something is more than 3,000 years old, that's about as vintage as you can get.

Quinoa originated in the Andean region of Ecuador, Bolivia, Colombia and Peru.

As it cooks — which usually takes about 15 minutes — you'll see little white spirals form on the seeds, and the white seeds become almost translucent. The tiny little seeds become a little chewy, rather than soft and starchy as rice or cous cous does.

It's important before cooking quinoa to rinse off the saponin coating, a bitter compound that protects the plant from birds and other animals while it's growing. Most commercial quinoa is pre-washed, but a quick rinse at home will get rid of any excess.

The first time I made quinoa, I didn't know about rinsing, and the hint of bitterness was a turn-off.But I gave it another try, this time in one of my favorite salads — tabbouleh.

I learned to make this Middle Eastern dish when I lived in Saudi Arabia. Traditionally, this parsley salad uses bulgur — parboiled, cracked wheat. Like many Utahns, I have buckets of wheat in my food storage and this is a great way put some of it to use. But, quinoa turned out to be a good substitution.

This salad is already pretty healthy. Parsley has been praised for its high amount of vitamins C and A. Usually, it's relegated to a dinner-plate garnish, so you don't get enough of it to do you much good. Here, it plays a starring role. There are other healthy ingredients like tomatoes, olive oil, mint, lemon juice and cinnamon.

I first tried tabbouleh when a Lebanese friend brought it to a potluck dinner at our home. I asked Amina for a copy of the recipe, but she'd been making it since childhood, and didn't have anything written down. She had done it so many times she never measured any of the ingredients; she just knew when enough was enough.

Instead, she invited me to come over for a hands-on cooking session, where we made tabbouleh and hummus. I brought a notebook and measuring cups and spoons. Together we chopped the parsley, mint, onions and tomatoes, and before anything was mixed in to the salad, I measured it and wrote it down. I've kept that hand-written recipe for almost 30 years, and it's given me a lot of good memories.

Just like American potato salad or cole slaw, there are a lot of variations on tabbouleh. I've stayed true to Amina's version, with the exception of the quinoa.

If you've got a few tomatoes ripening in the garden, this is a good way to use them. I found both red and white quinoa at the grocery store. For a little color, I chose to use red quinoa, which turned a red-brown when cooked.

QUINOA TABBOULEH

2/3 cup bulgur, cracked wheat, or 2/3 cup quinoa

4 scallions (green onions) or 1 small white onion, chopped very fine

A pinch of salt

A dash of pepper

A dash of cinnamon

1/2 cup olive oil

1/4 cup lemon juice

1 1/2 cup ripe tomatoes, cubed

1 tablespoon chopped fresh mint leaves

3 cups finely chopped parsley

If using bulgur, rinse it in cold water and allow to soak for at least 1 hour to soften. Drain.

If using quinoa, rinse, and place the quinoa in a pot with 1 1/3 cups water. Bring the quinoa to a boil; turn down the heat and allow it to simmer 15 minutes or until tender but chewy. (Or, cook according to package directions.) Allow the quinoa to cool for about an hour before using.

If using cracked wheat, bring 1 1/3 cups water to boil and add the cracked wheat. Let the wheat simmer for 15 minutes, or until soft. Allow the wheat to cool for about an hour before using.

In a large bowl, mix the scallions, salt, pepper and cinnamon. Mix oil and lemon juice and add to the scallions. Add all the other ingredients and mix well. Let the salad sit for at least 15 minutes before serving.

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