January 18, 2016 Jennifer

You Ask: What is Quinoa?

Forq explores this wholesome seed by exploring who’s growing it, who’s selling it, and who’s making it into 5 Star Meals

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At Forq, we’re foodies, which really means we are Giant Food Nerds. When we get into a recipe, or even a core ingredient, we like to understand it thoroughly. That’s why we launched our social food sharing app with an actual Test Kitchen section on our website, where we’re working with five basic ingredients and developing original recipes that get to know these core ingredients inside and out. We are all-in on this: we want Forq to be the most useful tool you’ve encountered to learn about new food, enliven your cooking, and share your experiences across your network — and ours!

The universe of food is big. Huge. Like space. What’s the opener to The Hitchhiker’s’ Guide to the Galaxy? “Space is big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist’s, but that’s just peanuts to space.” And so it is with the world of food – we could talk at the level of galaxies or of neutrinos and find the topic inexhaustible. I told you we were nerds.

Lately, I am obsessed with quinoa and more posts on it will be coming. Why? I think it’s because Quinoa, as an ingredient, is fairly new to the global food scene and so it is enjoying that wonderful moment where people’s basic ideas about how their food plates should be structured are being turned upside down. Pasta, potatoes, rice — sure. It’s been done, it’s been done well, and it’s also been done to death. We all are ready to be thinking more broadly and to expand our repertoires. And given quinoa is actually a seed, and not a grain, well — now I’m hooked. I want to know more.

Quinoa can be incredibly humble and utilitarian. Quinoa bowls? Some veg, some quinoa, maybe some shrimp or a bit of shredded chicken. Done. But Orange Quinoa Breakfast Pilaf with Cardamom and Cinnamon? We have much exploring to do…

What is Quinoa? It is a huge topic right now with lots of good background information. Yes, quinoa is a seed. Yes, it’s grown in Peru, Bolivia, and other places. Yes, it’s surprisingly good for you in comparison with the simple carbs our dinner plates have been loaded up with for generations. We’ll go through all that. But what I want to understand when I’m looking at “what is quinoa” isn’t so much the academic background — every other article covers that. I want to know exactly how much ‘oomf’ quinoa has as an ingredient. I want to know what it can do. Food is exciting, and first and foremost, I want to understand if quinoa has a role in exciting food.

Funny enough, Lima of London became the first Peruvian restaurant to win a Michelin star, which was awarded in 2013. Quinoa is featured on their menu. Quinoa has arrived on the scene. Here are 9 standouts from around the web:

What is Quinoa: On the Menu

These Celebrated Chefs are making some fancy food-work with the quinoa seed. Quotes below, from their websites:

Orange Quinoa Breakfast Pilaf with Cardamom and Vanilla

“Celebrity chef Amy Chaplin is known for being a guru of delicious, healthy food. The former executive chef of famed East Village vegetarian spot Angelica Kitchen, she now cooks for celebrity clients (we hear Natalie Portman loves this recipe) and is working on a new cookbook.”

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Grey’s Passion Cocktail

“Yes, quinoa can have a place at happy hour! This cocktail, created by Candle Cafe West’s mixologist and bar manager, Gabriela Martinez Benecke, uses fair trade quinoa-infused vodka.”

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Quinoa Arancini

“Matteo Silverman is best known as the founder of the now-closed 4-Course Vegan supper club and for his contributions to the Cooler Cleanse menu. He has been featured on CNN, Time Out New York, and Vegetarian Times, and is committed to bringing people together around fresh, vegetarian food.”

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Beef Pachamanca from Lima (London) – Michelin starred

“The textural mixture of the crunchy black quinoa with the smooth as silk potato purée is a delight to the senses, and an unusual accompaniment to some deliciously marinated beef.”

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Pearl & Black Quinoa Asparagus Salad (Lima)

“Eduardo, one of the chefs at Lima of London, very kindly invited me into his kitchen to show me some of the amazing Quinoa dishes he prepares for his clients… Absolutely delicious, and the TopTip you can take away is that by cooking the different grains for longer or shorter than you would for an al dente result, you can really play around with the textures.”

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Red Mullet and Golden Quinoa Risotto by Pascal Aussignac

“This recipe from Michelin-starred Gascon chef, Pascal Aussignac, is one of three taken from his book, Cuisinier Gascon… I have also added mussels and baby squid to my risotto, so this is a truly great fishy treat of a dish.”

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Parsley, beetroot and black quinoa salad

Yotam Ottolenghi
“This take on tabbouleh is gorgeous just as it is, but some crumbled goat’s cheese dotted all over the top makes a lovely addition, as does roughly flaked smoked mackerel or trout. Black quinoa looks beautiful, but by all means use white or red, if that’s all you have (though bear in mind that they need a bit less cooking: white quinoa is done after nine minutes in simmering water, red after about 12). Serves six.”

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Quinoa Fritters with Ají Amarillo Aioli

“Serve fritters warm with ají amarillo aioli alongside for dipping.”

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Pisco & Quinoa Cocktail

And finally, this list would not be complete without the winning cocktail entry in Peru’s “Become a Shaman” content, held in 2013 in honor of The Year of Quinoa.

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I am honestly excited about what Quinoa is capable of, and I mean to keep expanding this list of really exciting recipes. I’m not just looking for your average Quinoa Salad — those recipes are everywhere (and they can be amazing!). I’m looking for ‘push the envelope’ recipes, so if you have any suggestions, please don’t hesitate to reach out and I’ll keep this list updated!

What is Quinoa: The ‘meat’ of it

Quinoa has a somewhat bitter flavour. Depending how long you cook it (meaning, don’t overcook it), it typically has a firm texture, too. The Incas cultivated it for thousands of years, referring to it as the ‘mother grain’ high up in the Andes. Quinoa is a relative of Swiss chard, spinach and beets; it comes in three varieties (whole grain white, red and black) and is a nutritional powerhouse. Just one cup provides 8g of protein, 5g of fiber, 15% DV iron, 30% DV magnesium, 19% DV folate and heart-healthy omega 3 fatty acids. Unlike wheat or rice, quinoa is a complete protein – meaning it contains all eight essential amino acids. Amino acids build strong muscles, maintain our immune systems and support our overall health and vitality. It turns out that wheat, rice and most other grains are missing one or more essential amino acids, but quinoa is a one-stop shop, containing all 8.

Quinoa is recognised by the United Nations as a supercrop for its health benefits: packed with dietary fiber, phosphorus, magnesium and iron. Quinoa is used as a staple food diet in many South American countries and can be ground down into a flour form — though it does not contain any gluten so it is easy to digest (Quinoa is Gluten Free!).

Quinoa seeds (remember, Quinoa is a seed even though it behaves on our plates more or less like a grain) have a bitter coating which deters birds; this coating must be soaked off before preparing your quinoa. Packaged quinoa has likely been pre-soaked, but you’ll need to check before you cook with it.

To prepare your quinoa:
Soak 1 cup quinoa in 2 cups water for 5-10 minutes (this will dissolve any bitter coating).
Drain and rinse.
Pour into a pot and add 1 1/2 cups of water and a half teaspoon of salt.
Boil, then cover with a tight-fitting lid.
Simmer for 15 minutes.
Remove from heat and let sit for 5 minutes, covered.
Fluff with a fork and serve.

It really doesn’t need a long article to sell it. Quinoa is incredibly nutritious and incredibly easy to prepare.

What is Quinoa: Meet the Quinoa Farmers

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Peter Fairs
(Courtesy of Hodmedod, take a look at their website to learn more. Photo republished with permission.)
Peter Fairs is Britain’s first quinoa grower, farming the product in 1985 in Essex before it exploded as a hipster food. Dare I say Fairs is an original hipster? I do. He is also a quinoa-enthusiast who wouldn’t give up. After discovering most quinoa in South America was being put aside for export instead of being eaten by the local farmers, Fairs set off to find an ethical alternative to quinoa imports: locally-grown quinoa!
Growing quinoa in the UK is no easy feat. Unlike in South America, where the seeds are dried in the sun, the wet UK climate isn’t ideal for processing quinoa. But hard work and perseverance paid off and, many seeds later, Fairs cracked it (quinoa pun!). He bred a bitter-free, deliciously nutty quinoa.

Stephen Jones
Meet Stephen Jones, quinoa farmer and food scientist. In 2006 Jones and his father started farming quinoa on their farm in Shropshire (UK), and five years later he co-founded The British Quinoa Company.
Jones is the real deal (hello PhD in plant pathology!), and his quinoa reflects that. Using his plant-smarts, Jones found a way to harvest quinoa without the bitterness (saponins) in the husks. He created his own kind of quinoa, known as Atlas quinoa. This means his quinoa has a sweeter, nuttier flavor and *best of all* is easier to cook — no need to remove the husk. This means faster cooking-to-in-my-mouth time.

Rene Chila Mamani
Families in Bolivia have been growing quinoa for centuries; Rene Chila Mamani’s family continues this tradition. Although their quinoa is exported, it is done so justly, through Fair Trade. This means fair-trade farmers get extra money to invest in their community and their land. It also means that Mamani and his family are not only paid for their crops, but they also get to eat the quinoa they grow — a rare luxury for many South American farmers: “It’s a blessing from God that we can survive from quinoa alone.” And if that’s not exciting enough, we get to eat it, too. (More quinoa for everyone!)

From Farm to Table: Bringing quinoa into regular rotation in your kitchen. It can be a regular weeknight go-to!

Yes. I am impressed with what is happening with quinoa on the global stage – and it takes that to get me excited about a food. But working with this seed isn’t just about high end recipes. Quinoa is an incredibly robust ingredient that can be as humble as it can be exalted, and I think that’s what I love most about it. I can look for it in a Michelin restaurant, and I can cook with it on a Tuesday when I’m crashing around to get food on the table for kids in between school and soccer.

Why is it we can have confidence in the ‘little seed that could’? Depending on the grower and brand you use, there can be a considerable amount of integrity in the quinoa production lifecycle.
First for many growers, quinoa seeds are brought from the fields to a processing facility. They’re quality tested to ensure there are no pesticides, stones, or twigs in the product. The seeds are then pre-toasted to enhance the nutty flavor. Next the seeds are pre-cleaned by passing through vibrating screens to eliminate any debris. After this processing, a vacuum-like machine extracts any additional debris that the screens did not catch. For South American quinoa, the seed husks still have saponin (the bitter stuff), and need to be removed. (The UK quinoa seeds are bred without saponin so the husks don’t need to be removed—-which is good, since husks are nutty and provide nutrients!) To remove the saponin coating, the seeds go through a tumbling and aspiration process that crushes the seeds to release the saponin.

The washing and cleaning is over, and now it is time to dry the quinoa. It’s important to dry the quinoa seeds quickly to prevent water from penetrating the seeds. The quinoa seeds are put on drying tables and left to sit for 15 minutes. The next step is making the quinoa as perfect as possible for eating; this means removing small impurities like tiny stones with gravity-based equipment. (OK, now I’m really curious. This is starting to sound like sci-fi.) In order to really make the quinoa perfect, two optical selectors remove all matter that is different in color and shape from the quinoa. Now is when the different colors of quinoa sorted.
In order to qualify for AAA grade quinoa, the quinoa product is additionally purified, but that begins to get a little boring for articles like this.

Now the quinoa is getting pretty close to ready for your grocery-store shelves. It is packaged, put through a final metal detection, and held in a temperature-controlled warehouse. The quinoa is finally ready for export after really extensive cleaning. Before it ships, quinoa samples are analyzed one last time by a control team, a process that includes a lab test for microbial levels. NOW the quinoa is ready for your grocery store!

It’s a big wild world of food invention and innovation out there, and innovating with quinoa is definitely on the agenda from Lima to London. We’ve seen plenty of ‘quinoa bowls’ in our time, which we love for midweek food, but we are always on the hunt for truly outstanding uses of our favorite ingredients! Reach out to us and tell us where you know food professionals are doing special things with quinoa. We want to see it, we want to try it! And more importantly, we want to share it. You can email me anytime if you’ve had a food experience worth special mention: jennifer@getforq.com I’d love to add to this article if you’ve had quinoa dishes worth the mention!