Quinoa – The Queen of Seeds

I was first introduced to quinoa when I commenced my nutritional studies at the Melbourne College of Natural Medicine (now Endeavour College) in 1999. It was terribly hard to source then and even harder to pronounce! I was fascinated by its health claims and spent many a month experimenting with it. Much to my delight I discovered back then that it lends itself well as a salad ingredient, a warm accompaniment and is delicious as a warm pudding in winter with quince or citrus.

The popularity of an ingredient may be steeped in a plethora of origins – economical, agricultural, seasonal – often it’s a social or health trend that is dictated by chefs, the media and consumer demand. Quinoa, an ancient native seed originally from South America is a case of all of the above.

A decade ago this alkalising cereal was just beginning to show her face on less than a handful of Australian menus and would only be found in the dustiest of health food shops. More recently she has been welcomed into the stable of grains and other carbohydrates and billed as the superfood with a royal title. “Queen-o-a” rolls of the tongue of the uninitiated, however the seed is pronounced ‘keen-wah’ and its culinary highlight of recent years was to be the cover girl for the 2010 September edition of Australian Gourmet Traveller with a variation of a recipe I had been teaching for years.

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Get the recipe at www.bittersweetsour.com

In 2000 I was a part of the management team that launched Australia’s first organic restaurant in Melbourne. Nestled in an old warehouse in Flinders Lane, Zukini was way ahead of its time. A cavernous, rowdy and ultra chic joint that had all of Melbourne talking. Set over two levels compromising of a more formal dining room in the basement and a casual cafeteria-style platform at street level. The restaurant offered two menus that were cleverly devised by chef Simon Beeton – an interesting looking chap who sported a shaved head of sorts and a white goatie beard. Zukini was a great example of how you could ‘green’ a restaurant and where possible most of the trappings were sustainable.

Naturally quinoa featured in the menu – as did so many other ingredients that we now call superfoods. It was served as an accompaniment to a poached porterhouse. A dish that caused so much disdain that when you mention Zukini in Melbourne, people continue to automatically cringe. A standout memory for me is the day that food critics John Lethlean and Stephen Downes happened to join us for lunch – at very separate tables of course! John had previously dined the week before and was returning to double check his review. Stephen was there to review it for the first time and was dining with the proprietor’s lawyer whom we would always give the best table in the house.

Botanically, quinoa (Chenopodium quinoa) is derived from the Chenopodium or goosefoot family – as is spinach, chard and beets.  It is native to the Andean region of South America where it is the principal food of the area. Its leaves are similar to those of both the spinach and amaranth plants and like amaranth is known as a pseudo-cereal because it is technically not a grain.

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Once referred to as the ‘Mother Grain’ the seeds are cultivated for their highly nutritious protein and calcium components with protein reaching 20% and calcium being higher per milligrams than milk. In Chinese dietetics, quinoa’s healing properties and energetics are considered to be ‘warming’ which is to say it will help to stoke the digestive fire or ‘chi’ and as it is a seed, it has an alkalising effect whereas most grains have an acid forming effect on the digestion. It is often confused for a grain due to its remarkable mimicking abilities to masquerade very effectively as cous cous and other wheat derivatives such as bulgur – hence its popularity in the marketplace as it makes a great tabouleh.

Nutritionally, quinoa provides a good source of iron content for a carbohydrate – 1.4 milligrams of iron per 100 grams and is also rich in non-dairy calcium, which often comes as a surprise to those who assume calcium only comes from cows! It is important to note that the quinoa should be washed well before cooking so as to remove the bitter saponin – the outer layer coating which I have noticed is much more prevalent for the new Australian quinoa that is now available. There are over 120 species of quinoa and colours include red, white and black varieties, which are readily available as tri-colour quinoa in health food stores worldwide.

The rise of quinoa’s popularity is two-fold: it contains all of the eight essential amino acids making it a complete protein, which are usually only found in animal proteins. Secondly, it is a gluten free alternative that behaves like a grain and can be gentle on the digestion – providing that it has been well rinsed to remove the phytic acid a by-product that can inhibit the absorption of iron in the body. Some people prefer to soak their quinoa overnight, however I fund that it makes the cooked seed very soggy and loses its integrity.

So the convenience of quinoa, its healing properties and nutritional merit are what lead me to deliver one of my favourite recipes that I continue to enjoy at home, prepare professionally and thoroughly enjoy to teach. It is my twist on that traditional Sicilian pairing of sardines and currants. As quinoa has a bitter sweet flavour, the currants lend their sweetness beautifully to the dish, complemented by the sweet crunch of pine nuts, and the energising effects of lemon and mint to really lift the flavour. The vitamin C in the lemon juice will help to activate the iron content of the quinoa and sardines making this dish a perfectly healthy option for lunch or dinner.

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