A healthy idea: Mexican style quinoa

Consider it the Latino super food of the moment, an inheritance from our Inca ancestors. Quinoa, a small, ancient seed that behaves like a grain but packs the protein punch of meat (minus the cholesterol and fat) was recently re-discovered by nutritionists and now tops the list of healthiest foods. Mild and fluffy, with a slight crunch, quinoa has been cultivated for more than 5,000 years in South America, where for centuries it was a staple food for natives; to the powerful Incas it was sacred food and a source of stamina for their warriors. It contains all nine amino acids (which you can usually only find in animal protein) so it’s a great option for vegetarians or people who need to lower their cholesterol.

Easy to cook and versatile, quinoa can take the place of white rice in just about any recipe. Today’s dish is perfect proof: I started with a recipe for arroz a la mexicana, that classic tomatoey side dish that too often looks like the blanket on which our dinners rest. I swapped out the rice for the quinoa seeds, used fresh tomatoes instead of canned to keep things free of high sodium and sugar levels, and cooked the quinoa in chicken stock instead of water to amp up the flavor. (You can use vegetable stock if you want to keep it vegetarian.) For sure, you can get really creative with quinoa: you can bake them into coconut cookies like Vianney the Tejana behind the Sweetlifebake blog did; or toss them with sweet peppers and figs like Chef Lorena Garcia does; or go for something heartier like this Sopa de Verdura y Quinoa at HispanicKitchen.com. But our recipe today is simple and straight-forward, an easy idea to try even if you’re a first-timer.

Mexican style quinoa

1 large ripe tomato, cored
1/2 medium onion, chopped
2 garlic cloves, smashed
3 sprigs fresh cilantro
1/4 cup olive oil
1 cup quinoa
1 cup low sodium chicken or vegetable stock
1 bay leaf
1 cup frozen peas, thawed
Pinch of white pepper
Salt, to taste

1. Roast the tomatoes under your oven’s broiler until the skins blister, turning every few minutes to ensure cooking all around. Remove from oven and allow to cool. Once cool enough to handle, remove the skin. Give the tomato a rough chop, and place in a blender. Add the onion, one of the garlic cloves, and cilantro to the blender. Puree until smooth. Set aside.
2. Clean the quinoa. This is an important step because quinoa grains are naturally coated with a bitter substance, called sapopins, that protects them against birds and other predators. Place the quinoa in a strainer and run fresh water over it to wash away the coating. Do this a few times.
3. In a medium sized sauce pan with a tight fitting lid, heat oil over medium heat. Add the remaining garlic clove and sauté for a 2 minutes. Add the quinoa and stir to coat grains with the oil for about 2 minutes. Add the chicken stock, pureed tomato mixture, peas and bay leaf. Add pepper and salt to taste and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low and cover tightly. Cook for 15 to 20 minutes, or until liquid is fully absorbed. You’ll know it’s done when the grains display a curly white thread on their outside. Fluff with a fork and serve. Makes 4 cups.

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