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.)
The result was a minor revelation: This quinoa was fluffier and slightly clumpier, which made it seem less flyaway. I ate some topped with leftover vegetables, and it wasn’t half bad.
Then I noticed a few soup recipes, and had a larger discovery. Because I wouldn’t really be chewing the soup, the fact that quinoa is so delicate surely wouldn’t bother me. I soaked and rinsed more quinoa and tossed it into a black bean and spinach soup, letting it swell and cook in the vegetable broth. The mixture thickened into something of a stew, and thanks to a healthy dose of a favorite spice (smoked paprika), it hit the spot. The quinoa wasn’t all that noticeable, and that was fine by me.
Finally, I started to have a sneaking feeling that one of the keys to learning to love — or at least like — quinoa was in defining what it is and what it isn’t: a seed, not a grain. So perhaps I needed to treat it as such. To that end, I followed Polisi’s instructions for toasting the raw quinoa in a little oil, just the way you might toast sesame seeds, which are about the same size. I was left with a half cup or so of nutty-tasting, crunchy seeds, which I kept in a jar on the countertop and started sprinkling onto various things: salads, soups and, possibly best of all, my breakfast of yogurt with granola. This was quinoa I could sink my teeth into, literally.
Polisi suggested I try pureeing quinoa into soups and smoothies, and baking with it, both of which are on my to-do list. In the meantime, she had one more idea for me: Had I tried quinoa patties?
As it turns out, I have. Up until my most recent explorations, this was the only quinoa recipe I could say I liked; my sister regularly makes a version from Heidi Swanson’s “Super Natural Every Day” cookbook (Ten Speed Press, 2011). Polisi and I have adapted that recipe ourselves, with one big difference: I cut the quinoa with an equal amount of barley. You know, to give the cakes a little more substance and to use a grain I’ve always loved rather than merely one I’m still getting to know.
Black Bean, Quinoa and Spinach Stew
Curried Barley and Quinoa Cakes
Yonan, on book leave this year in Maine, is author of “Serve Yourself: Nightly Adventures in Cooking for One” (Ten Speed Press, 2011). He can be reached through his Web site, www.joeyonan.com.