What the heck is quinoa? You’ve probably heard about quinoa at some point by now—in a magazine, by a chef on a show. But is it really up to the hype? In a word: Yes.
What it Looks Like: Quinoa kernels look like little flat, ivory beads (red quinoa is a lovely burgundy hue). When cooked, the germ detaches from the grain like a little tail, making the quinoa look like a bowl of tiny commas.
What it Tastes Like: Quinoa is flavorful enough to be interesting, but mild enough to be versatile. It has a nutty note and slight “pop” when you bite into it.
How to Cook it: Unless you buy a box that's labeled “pre-rinsed,” be sure to rinse the grains well to wash off the bitter saponin coating (a naturally-occurring insect repellent). Just swish them around in a fine-mesh strainer until the water runs clear and there are no suds. To cook, bring 2 cups water or liquid to a boil. Stir in 1 cup quinoa, cover, reduce heat and simmer gently for 15 minutes.
How to Use it: Quinoa makes gorgeous salads, but it also works as a pilaf, a morning porridge or even in crispy quinoa cakes (see ours below).
Additional Notes: Quinoa is unique in that it’s a “complete protein.” What that means, exactly, is that it contains all seven essential amino acids in correct proportion for our bodies to use effectively, just like it does the proteins in meat or eggs. It is native to South America and was the major source of protein for the ancient Incans.
(For more information on whole grains, see Gotta Get Your Grains.)