Gluten-free, Diary-free, Vegan
Even without modern scientific techniques, which offer a precise breakdown of the various nutritional elements quinoa provides, the people of the Andes have shown an unabated faith in its dietary value throughout history. Quinoa was staple food of both Aztecs and Incas and can be traced back as many as 5,000 years ago. A mixture of quinoa and fat – known as “war balls” – used to sustain Incan armies during their long marches.
Today, quinoa is the sovereign of superfood generation. Revered by vegans, health fanatics, and sustainability experts alike, global production of quinoa has risen three-fold, from 20.3 thousand metric tonnes in 1990 to over 80 thousand metric tonnes in 2013.
Growing between 50cm and 2 meters tall, with lance shaped leaves, and a large, maze-like seed head stacked with hundreds of tiny grains, quinoa is actually a pseudo-cereal. While often mistaken for a member of the true grass family, it is a chenopod – a relative of spinach, Swiss chard and beetroot. Which not only means that quinoa is gluten-free, but also that it is packed with loads of nutrients.
Quinoa is touted for its high protein content and essential amino acids, including lysine and isoleucine. Some varieties of quinoa – and there are over 1,800 types with colour ranging from pale yellow to brown to black – have more than 20% protein. And what is unique about protein in quinoa is that it is a complete protein, containing all eight essential amino acids. Additionally, it provides dietary fibre, phosphorus, is packed with iron, and contains at least 16 types of triterpine saponins, which are known for their anti-inflammatory properties.
A technical paper published by NASA in 1993 highlighted the seed’s exceptional nutritional qualities: ‘While no single food can supply all the essential life sustaining nutrients, quinoa comes as close as any other in the plant or animal kingdom’. The report led NASA to include the seed as part of astronaut’s diet on long space missions.
I find quinoa very comforting and it perfectly fills the craving for starchy food without the heavy feeling one often gets after eating these. The “grain” itself is soft and creamy, but has a tail that provides a satisfying crunch. It also has a mildly nutty flavour, which can be enhanced by quickly dry roasting the seeds in a pan before cooking – a quick and rewarding step. Just a note to make sure to wash quinoa before cooking it – this ensures that you wash away any saponin, plant self-produced pesticide.
This quinoa and pesto salad is one of the favourites in our household – quick and easy to make and addictively delicious.
First step is to make the green “pesto” sauce to go with your quinoa
A large handful of fresh basil
2 tablespoons of hemp seeds
1 tablespoon nutritional yeast (you can also use grated parmesan/pecorino if you want to use dairy products in this recipe)
a small clove of garlic, peeled
pinch of sea salt / pink Himalayan salt
about 50ml of good quality olive oil
optional extra: freeze dried wheatgrass powder
Once your pesto is ready, assemble your quinoa salad:
3 cups quinoa, cooked according to packet instructions (1 cup of dry quinoa results in 3 cups of cooked one)
a few good handfuls of baby spinach, sliced into thin ribbons
roughly 10 sun dried tomatoes, sliced into thin ribbons
half a cup of green pesto (recipe above)
In large bowl toss quinoa with pesto (use more or less depending on consistency you want to achieve) – I prefer to do this while quinoa is still warm as it absorb the flavours of the delicious green sauce better this way. Now add spinach and sundried tomato ribbons and mix well. Serve warm or allow to cool and put in the fridge for future use. Serve with a drizzle of your favourite olive oil on top.
The salad has a beautiful creamy texture and vibrant green colour, with specks of red popping up here and there. It is my favourite side dish to go with prawns or white fish; or can be eaten just with a side of roasted vegetables for a lighter meal. Once you try this, it will become a real staple in your household as well!