If you’re looking for a simple way to make healthy changes to your family's diet while still serving easy weeknight dinners then try adding grains to your menu.  You can substitute them for highly processed foods like dry pasta and white rice, which contain bleached and enriched carbohydrates.  These processed foods have a negative effect on the body, causing inflammation and spikes in blood sugar.  A diet with high amounts of these processed foods can lead to over eating, weight gain and risk of diabetes.  

There are several grains to choose from that are healthy alternatives.  Most are high in protein, high in fiber and nutrient dense such as barley or farro, but you may find that quinoa is your best choice.

Credit: By Christian Guthier (originally posted to Flickr as Quinoa flowering) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

What is Quinoa?

Quinoa is sometimes referred to as a pseudo-cereal.  It resembles a cereal grain but isn’t derived from a true grass.  Instead, it comes from a plant similar to spinach or beets.  What we eat are actually seeds the plant produces.  

When cooked, quinoa looks and feels similar to couscous, but is more nutritionally dense.  A serving (one cup cooked) is about 160 calories, with 6 grams of protein and 29 grams of carbohydrate.  One major advantage that quinoa has over its rival grains is that it’s gluten free, making it a great choice for those with Celiac disease or gluten sensitivities.  It has also become quite popular, so it’s widely available at most grocery stores.  Quinoa costs between $4 and $5 per pound.  You can probably find the best deal in your grocers bulk food section.  It also only takes about 20 minutes to cook, so it can be prepared as quickly and as easily as parboiled rice.

Quinoa Fork
Credit: By Christian Guthier (originally posted to Flickr as Quinoa flowering) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

How to Cook Quinoa

Quinoa is a great substitute for rice, and you can pretty much use it as an alternative to rice in any dish. It cooks very similarly too.

Step 1, Rinse:

You should rinse the grains before cooking them.  The seeds have a natural protective coating called saponin that has a bitter or soapy taste.  Chances are most of this coating has been removed by suppliers before it reaches your grocery store, but it’s always best to give them an extra wash.  This can be a little tricky as the seeds are small and will clump up when they’re wet.  It’s best to use a fine strainer or colander and run them under water.  Once they’re rinsed off you can scoop them out with a rubber spoon or spatula.     

Step 2, Boil:

Add your quinoa to to a sauce pan with water.  If you’d like to add more flavor you can try using chicken or vegetable stock.  You’ll want about 2 cups of liquid per 1 cup of uncooked grains.  This mix will yield about 3 cups of cooked quinoa.  Bring the quinoa and liquid to a boil, then reduce the heat to low, cover the pan and let simmer for 15 minutes. 

Step 3, Fluff:

Once your quinoa is finished cooking remove it from heat and uncover the pot.  The seeds will likely be packed in a mass at the bottom of the pan.  It’s important to break them up at this point before they cool.  Gently break them up and stir them with a fork.  If you’re cooking rice or other grains you can get away with skipping this step, but quinoa is more delicate and isn’t as forgiving.  If you don’t break it up you’ll end up with a congealed patty similar to polenta.  Also, you may notice that not all of your liquid is absorbed by the grains at this point.  Let them stand for a few minutes and they should absorb the rest of your liquid.

Step 4, Serve:

Quinoa is delicious as a stand-alone side dish, especially if you’ve cooked it with culinary stock.  You can also incorporate it into any recipe as you would rice.  It’s versatile, but works extremely well in Spanish, Latin American or Middle Eastern dishes.