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Quinoa to the rescue



Queen of the quickies, sovereign of the super foods - that's my friend, quinoa, in a nutshell.

Quick and easy to prep, super versatile, and nutritious like you wouldn't believe, quinoa (pronounced KEEN-wah) is one of those foods that, once discovered, you wonder how on earth you got along without it - especially in these back-to-school, back-to-work times when everybody's stressed out, pressed for time, alternately grumpy or depressed because the lazy, hazy, crazy, idealized days of summer are drawing to an end, and wondering what the heck we're going to have for dinner or lunch is about the last thing anyone wants to think about.

At the same time we're all longing for something to eat that's tasty and makes us feel good and, dare I say it, comforted, as if to compensate for the end of summer fun and the slow but irrevocable drift back to grey-tinged work-a-day reality.

So grab a bag of quinoa, and let's get rolling.

Quinoa, also called "Peruvian wheat" in the Andes, where it originated, is still a staple food there. A member of the goosefoot family - here in Canada, we know our local goosefoots (goosefeet?) as lamb's-quarters or pigweed - quinoa is technically an edible seed.

Something of a sacred food to the Inca - even bordering on that to its fans here in North America, who've been "discovering" it everywhere from the bulk bins of the smallest organic stores to the shelves of Costco - quinoa was cultivated in the high valleys of Chile and Peru for thousands of years. There, writes Thelma Barer-Stein in her wonderful book You Eat What You Are , aboriginal peoples still survive on the staples of potatoes, quinoa flour and dried llama meat, as did their ancestors.

While dried llama meat hasn't caught on here yet - and why not with all those llamas now being raised in the Fraser Valley for their lovely fur and faces and mild dispositions? - it's possible that quinoa didn't catch on right away with the gun-toting, sword-swinging Spanish conquistadores because of its coating of saponins, which taste bitter and create a soapy foam in water.

Saponins bode well for the crop in the field. Their bitter taste naturally drives away pests. But for humans they mean an extra step before cooking, namely repeatedly rinsing the quinoa until the soapy (and bitter-tasting) bubbles disappear.

Most quinoa you buy today has been processed to remove the saponins, or at least most of them. Still, some recipes call for you to rinse the quinoa first before cooking it, and I have to agree. It helps get rid of any residual bitterness, however slight, whether the recipe directs you to rinse it or not.

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