by Chef Molly Beverly
Remember those pesky weeds coming up in your garden last summer? Pigweed is the most aggressive. If you don't get them out early they grow into tough, invading plants that send up sticker-covered, skin-irritating stalks.
Two years ago, when I was in a native village in the Ecuadorian Andes, I noticed pigweed planted in gardens. What? No, it was quinoa! Pigweed and quinoa are cousins, both members of the chenopodium (goosefoot) family.
Envision the Andean altiplano, the cold, 12,000-foot-high plains around Lake Titicaca, on the border between Peru and Bolivia. It’s home to the highest concentration of natural chenopodium variants, and the birthplace of quinoa. Thousands of years ago the Quecha people selected, domesticated, and cultivated these weeds, creating quinoa in hundreds of specialty cultivars, including chullpi for soups, coytos for flour, reales for grains, and dozens more.
The nutritional value of quinoa is astounding. The leaves are edible and delicious, like spinach (also in the chenopodium family). But quinoa is mainly grown for seed. Quinoa seed is the only natural vegetable source of all nine essential amino acids (the building blocks of protein) necessary to support human nutrition. Quinoa is an excellent substitute for meat or dairy products and a rich source of minerals (calcium, iron, and potassium), vitamins, antioxidants and fiber. It is low in fats and naturally gluten-free. For more information check out "Quinoa 101, Nutrition Facts and Health Benefits" at healthline.com.
In all their variants these tall plants with colorful, six-foot-high plumes were the sacred Mother Grain, the chisaya mama, of the great Andean civilizations. Before the European conquest, quinoa and potatoes were the nutritional base of the powerful Andean and Incan civilizations. After the wave of plagues and conquests brought by the Europeans in the 16th century, European crops pushed out quinoa. The Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro destroyed quinoa fields as a tactic to crush indigenous power.
The Quecha protected the sacred quinoa by growing it in small plots. Five hundred years later quinoa has made a comeback. In the 1990s the UN Food and Agriculture Organization surveyed neglected crops of the Americas and identified quinoa as a potential food for development.
The United Nations General Assembly designated 2013 as the International Year of Quinoa, “… in recognition of ancestral practices of the Andean people, who have managed to preserve quinoa in its natural state as food for present and future generations, through ancestral practices of living in harmony with nature,” and encouraged worldwide dispersal and development.
Now quinoa is growing in Europe, Asia, Africa and North America. You can buy it practically everywhere — Costco, Whole Foods, Safeway, Target. The internet is afloat with a gazillion recipes in publications ranging from Good Housekeeping and Martha Stewart to The New York Times and Vegan Heaven.
Quinoa is exceptionally easy to use. It comes in a variety of colors — white, red, black, mixed. The darker colors are a bit firmer and nuttier, but they all work the same. Quinoa cooks up in 15 minutes and holds well refrigerated or frozen.
In its simplest incarnation quinoa is embarrassingly easy to prepare. Basically rinse (see the note on saponin below), simmer, then steam like rice. Use two parts water to one part quinoa; yields three cups cooked for every one cup dry.
Quinoa is universally adaptable and neutral-flavored, a seamless substitute for rice or other grains, easy to add to stuffed mushrooms, work into soups, salads, breakfast cereal or cookies. It can be toasted, ground into flour or flaked. New quinoa products are steadily coming on the market — cereals, chocolate and energy bars, chips,
pasta, even whiskeys!
In this recipe I added it to my tested-and-true chili recipe for a warming, healthy, delicious and fun winter dinner.
Quinoa Chili Fries
1/2 cup dry quinoa (of any color)
3 cups cooked or canned whole beans, undrained
2 large onions, chopped
5 cloves garlic, minced
4 tablespoons oil
1 teaspoon cumin, ground
2 tablespoons medium or mild chili powder (substitute paprika or smoked paprika for all or some)
1 teaspoon oregano
1 cup tomato sauce
1 cup chopped tomato, fresh or canned
1/4 cup soy sauce
6 medium potatoes
1 more tablespoon oil
Paprika, chili powder, garlic powder, onion powder, salt, pepper — all or some of these for sprinkling the fries
Optional garnishes: cilantro, green onions, grated cheddar cheese (or cheese substitute)
Rinse quinoa under running water. Bring 1 cup water to a boil, add quinoa. Cover and simmer 15 minutes, until tender.
In a large pan heat 4 tablespoons olive oil and sauté onion and garlic until golden. Stir in spices and sauté a few more minutes. Add tomato sauce, tomatoes and soy sauce. Simmer 5 minutes. Add to beans with cooking liquid and quinoa. Add enough water to make a saucy consistency. Simmer 1/2 hour, stirring occasionally. Taste and adjust seasoning.
To make the oven fries, heat the oven to 475 degrees. Cut the potatoes into fries. In a bowl toss them with remaining 1 tablespoon of oil and a sprinkle of spices. Arrange potatoes in a single layer on a cookie sheet. Bake 10 minutes, turn them over and bake another 10 minutes. They should be tender through with a crispy exterior.
To serve, arrange oven fries around the edge of the plate. Ladle chili into the center of the plate and sprinkle with garnishes of choice — chopped cilantro, green onions, and/or grated cheese. You can eat this with your fingers!
United Nations Year of Quinoa: www.fao.org/quinoa-2013/en/
Sources: You can find quinoa at almost any grocery store and online. This small farm is the original source of American grown quinoa: whitemountainfarm.com.
Chef Molly Beverly is Prescott's leading creative food activist and teacher. Photos by Gary Beverly.