Let’s just get all the negative stuff out of the way. It’s too small. I can’t sink my teeth into it. Instead, the first time I tried eating quinoa as a couscous-style base for a stir-fry, it seemed to slip away in my mouth, only to work itself into the spaces between my teeth. Even after I learned to rinse away some of its bitter coating (which the plant produces to ward off insects, warding off some of us humans in the process), the most generous adjective I could muster to describe it was “fine.”
My favorite grains, on the other hand, are substantive. A little chewy, a little nutty. I would never accuse barley of disappearing when I bite into it, which is just what I love about it.
The thing is, quinoa (KEEN-wah) does have a lot going for it. Besides being quick and easy to cook, its tendency to vanish in a dish, the very quality I complain most vehemently about, is also what makes it versatile. Perhaps most important, now that I’m eating a close-to-vegetarian diet, the fact that it’s a complete protein — a single source of all the amino acids a body needs — makes it worth reconsidering.
I needed some inspiration, and some help, preferably from someone who has unlocked quinoa’s secrets. It was pretty easy to land on Wendy Polisi, the homeschooling mom behind CookingQuinoa.net and author of “The Quintessential Quinoa Cookbook” (Skyhorse Publishing, 2011). I had barely downloaded a copy of the latter to my iPad and started swiping through the pages when it became clear to me that, well, I didn’t know from quinoa. Polisi suggested cooking times and methods different from what I’ve seen on any package.
When I called her at home in Colorado, I was relieved to discover she’s not a zealot. When I admitted that I haven’t been quinoa’s biggest fan, she didn’t miss a beat.
“It’s a texture thing, isn’t it?”
Yep, I replied.
“My mother feels the same way.”
And she was quick to acknowledge quinoa’s other drawbacks. “Quinoa by itself is terrible,” she said. “You cook quinoa, and you smell it, and you’re like, well, that doesn’t smell good. It’s no more exciting than plain rice, and probably even less so.”
That smell is from the saponin, the coating I mentioned earlier, but if you do as Polisi and other quinoa experts suggest and soak the quinoa rather than merely rinse it, you’ve solved that problem. But what about my bigger issue?
“Well, since texture is a big part of your problem with quinoa, you will probably never like a quinoa salad,” she replied, which was true enough. “Instead, think about a dish that you really like and see if there’s a way to adapt it to include quinoa.”
As it happens, I was already moving in that direction. After seeing the cooking method she advocates in her cookbook, I decided the first step was to make plain quinoa her way. I bought white quinoa and red quinoa from the bulk section of a natural foods store, soaked them separately, rinsed, then cooked each for about 30 minutes — twice as long as I’d been cooking quinoa when following package directions. (Some manufacturers scrub and rinse the quinoa to remove the saponin, so in those cases soaking isn’t as crucial, but I soak and rinse if I’m not sure.)