Against The Grain
Wed, 03/17/2010
Special to the Jewish Week
Quinoa: 'wonder grain' of the Andes?
Quinoa: 'wonder grain' of the Andes?

 If you live with a vegetarian on Passover and you also happen to be allergic to nuts, the week’s meals quickly become oppressively similar. And so, when I learned that several respected kosher authorities have declared quinoa to be not only the ancient “wonder grain” of the Andes, but also fit for consumption on the holiday of Passover, I thought it time to celebrate.

The only problem: the quinoa. These tiny grains, just specks the size of sesame seeds before cooked, taste awful — at least to my palate. For me, even the odor conjures up a grassy earthiness that is as enticing as a heap of rotten onions. I’m not alone in this opinion.

“Eewh,” shrieks my daughter Talia, who is almost 8 and known for her discerning olfactory sense. She is about to dig into a dish of quinoa I’ve prepared with bits of chopped-up dried fruit, as I often do for couscous, but halts after a sniff.

Diane Shaw, the author of “The Essential Vegetarian Cookbook,” offers this assessment: “Quinoa is being promoted as the ‘ancient food of the Incas,’ as if its role in the diet of a tragically annihilated civilization exempts it from the first rules governing what we chose to eat — that it taste good and have a decent texture.”

But there are many other fine epicureans who tout the protein-rich content, swear by the nutty consistency, and rave about quinoa’s ability to absorb other flavors.

My friend Tamara Holt, a longtime food journalist and cookbook author, who also happens to be a consultant for the quinoa company, TruRoots, says she sometimes craves quinoa the way one yearns for protein. She suggests a recipe posted on the company Web site that includes orange juice, olive oil, cranberries, pecans and sautéed mushrooms.

And there are also many home cooks, my own sister among them, who actually prepare quinoa when it’s not Passover. My new friend Maren Waxenberg, whose kitchen counters always brim with unusual aromatic and appetizing dishes, smiles widely, cops a villainous voice, and says: “I will make you quinoa that will make you cry.” My mouth waters as she describes how her crunchy quinoa soaks up the sweetness of caramelized onions.

As I soon learn, Mother Nature bestowed the protein-rich quinoa (pronounced keen-wa) with a bitter coating of the chemical saponin to scare away birds and insects. But it needn’t frighten away human diners. The trick is to eliminate the saponin, or at least diminish its power. Many swear that rinsing the grains before cooking will help. Others suggest toasting the quinoa in a light coating of oil. Some commercial brands in the United States, like TruRoots, have already been cleaned, which helps wash away the bitter flavor.

Laura Frankel, executive chef of Wolfgang Puck’s kosher restaurant in the Spertus Museum in Chicago, and the author of “Jewish Slow Cooker,” says that she scrubs the grains together in cold water as if washing her hands, and then strains the cleansed quinoa in a cheesecloth-covered colander. She also always prepares it with vegetable stock since “water doesn’t bring anything to the party.” In Frankel’s home, the family heralds the arrival of Passover with “boxes of quinoa marching down the counter.”’

In my home, I attempt to serve up a week’s worth of quinoa, dressing it in many flavors and fashions. A few days into the project, my husband Jeremy remarks, “Quinoa is like life. It may be a little bitter, but you try your best to make something of it. Sometimes you still want to spit it out.”

And yet, a few dishes stand out. The quinoa-tabouli, after resting overnight in my refrigerator, almost exceeded the traditional bulgur dish, offering a zestier flavor and a crunchier texture. I also liked quinoa as a hot breakfast cereal, mixed with cinnamon, honey, milk, raisins and fresh blackberries. And certainly my heart, liberated for a morning from egg-laden matzah brei, will enjoy the break too.

Quinoa-bouli

(A lemony alternative to traditional tabouli with feta cheese)

Ingredients:

1 cup quinoa
1 w cups vegetable stock 
Juice of 2 lemons (or more to taste)
1 tablespoon olive oil (or more to taste)
2 cup chopped parsley 
2 cup chopped mint
1 bunch chopped scallions
4 cup toasted pine nuts (optional)
2 to q cup halved grape tomatoes
2 to q cup crumbled feta (optional)
1 dash of salt

1) Rinse quinoa in bowl of cold water, and scrub between hands to scrape off saponin.

2) Strain with cheesecloth if available, or in a fine-mesh colander.

3) Repeat twice more if you’re not using prewashed quinoa.

4) Pour quinoa into pot with vegetable stock.

5) Now cook like rice. Turn heat to medium-high. When stock boils, adjust heat to lowest temperature and cover pot. Simmer for about 15 minutes, until quinoa absorbs the stock and little spirals appear. Quinoa should be slightly crunchy.

6) Let stand for five or 10 minutes.

7) Mix in lemon juice, olive oil and herbs.

8) Refrigerate for at least 24 hours. Add scallions,