Go with the grain

Superfood is such an overworked word, I hesitate to use it, but quinoa, the South American seed that doubles as a grain, is such a star it merits a year all of its own, and 2013 is the official Year of Quinoa. The United Nations's Food and Agriculture Organisation is focusing attention on quinoa next year partly because of its health benefits.

What makes it so special? Its high-protein content heads the list. Although there are plenty of plant sources of protein, only soy and quinoa qualify as complete proteins, meaning that, like animal sources of protein, they contain enough of all the essential amino acids our bodies need.

Quinoa also packs iron, calcium, potassium, some B vitamins and vitamin E, as well as antioxidants, and is high in fibre and has a low glycaemic index (GI). The fact it is gluten-free makes it a boon for anyone who is wheat-intolerant or who has coeliac disease.

But having a shining reputation as a healthy food is not always enough to get people cooking with quinoa.

''It's still an unfamiliar ingredient for many people - you can pick up any cookbook and it will tell you what to do with pasta, couscous or rice, but we haven't been exposed to a lot of recipes using quinoa,'' cooking writer Rena Patten says.

''I often find when I mention quinoa, people say, 'I've had a pack of that in the pantry cupboard for months but I just don't know what to do with it.'''

Comments like this, along with quinoa's increasing appeal to people who need to avoid gluten, prompted Patten to develop the recipes for her new book Quinoa for Families.

Although quinoa is great for vegetarians and gluten-free dishes, Patten's aim is to show it is a food that works for everyone, making it a welcome ingredient for any home cook faced with creating meals to suit different dietary requirements.

''If you have a problem with gluten, you should still be able to eat like anyone else,'' she says.

Her book reflects this with recipes that go beyond more typical quinoa-based pilafs and salads to include seafood dishes and sweet things such as sticky date pudding, brownies and crumbles made with quinoa flour.

The most important equipment for cooking with quinoa is a fine sieve for rinsing the grains under cold running water before cooking - colanders don't work because the tiny grains slip through the holes. Why rinse quinoa? It is coated with saponins, a bitter-tasting substance that repels pests, and although this is removed before quinoa is sold, an extra rinse makes sure there is no residue.

That done, it is easy to cook: just cover and simmer one part quinoa to two parts of liquid - either stock, water, juice or milk, depending on what you are making. White quinoa takes about 10 minutes to cook but the darker grains take longer. Patten suggests allowing about 15 minutes for red quinoa and a little longer for black quinoa. Once cooked, let it rest with the lid on for five or 10 minutes and fluff with a fork.

Quinoa is a good way to add variety to your carb intake. Foods such as pasta, couscous and bulgur might reside in different containers in your cupboard but they are all based on the same grain - wheat. Varying grains gives you a broader range of nutrients.

Don't let quinoa's price tag put you off. It may cost more than rice or couscous but once cooked, it swells to four times its size, so one cup of raw quinoa will feed four people.

Quinoa for Families is published by New Holland.

Paula Goodyer blogs at smh.com.au/chewonthis.

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