Superfood is such an overworked word that I hesitate to use it, but quinoa, the South American seed that doubles as a grain, is such a star that it's getting a year all of its own - 2013 is the official Year of Quinoa. The Food and Agriculture Organisation is focusing attention on this food 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 your body needs. Quinoa also packs iron, calcium, potassium, some B vitamins and vitamin E as well as antioxidants and is both high in fibre and low GI. The fact that it's gluten free makes it a boon for anyone who's wheat intolerant or who has coeliac disease because unlike some gluten free carbs, quinoa is high in fibre and low GI.
But having a shining reputation as a healthy food isn't always enough to get people cooking with quinoa.
"It's still an unfamiliar ingredient for many people – you can pick up any cook book and it will tell you what to do with pasta, cous cous or rice but we haven't been exposed to a lot of recipes using quinoa," says cooking writer Rena Patten. "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'".
It was comments like this, along with quinoa's increasing appeal to people who need to avoid gluten, that prompted her to develop the recipes for her new book Quinoa for Families.
But although it's great for vegetarians and making gluten free dishes, Patten's aim is to show that quinoa is a food that works for everyone, making it a welcome ingredient for any home cook who's trying to create meals for different dietary requirements.
"If you have a problem with gluten you should still be able to eat like anyone else," says Patten and the book reflects this with a repertoire of recipes that goes beyond more typical quinoa-based pilafs and salads to include seafood dishes and sweet things like 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? Because it's coated with saponins, a bitter tasting substance that repels pests and although this is removed before quinoa is sold, an extra rinse ensures there's no residue to affect the flavour. That done, it's dead 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're making. White quinoa takes about ten minutes to cook, but the darker coloured grains take longer. Patten suggests allowing about 15 minutes for red quinoa and a little longer for black quinoa. Once it's cooked, let it rest with the lid on for five or ten minutes and fluff with a fork.
Quinoa is a good way to add some variety to your carb intake. Foods like pasta, couscous and bulgur might live in different containers in your cupboard but they're 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.
What are you cooking with quinoa?
Quinoa for Families is published by New Holland, RRP $29.95.