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Native Cooking

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Everything old is new again. Quinoa is one of these things. It is appearing more and more frequently in recipes as a “new” source of protein, yet it is an ancient grain indigenous to Bolivia and Peru. In fact, the Inca called it “mother grain.” Of course, maize, which grows at lower elevations, was called “our life” by the same people. Both grains are treasures of the earth’s staple food crops.

Because of quinoa’s new popularity, it is now grown in the Rocky Mountains for a commercial market. It contains all nine of the amino acids that humans must get in their diets and this is more than most grains. That makes it a great choice for people who are limiting meat in their diets. Quinoa contains not only protein; it also has iron. Iron helps the bloodstream carry oxygen to keep red blood cells plump and strong. If they shrink, and they can, the lungs and heart have to work harder causing one to be fatigued. Another benefit is magnesium, which helps electrolytes function properly and improves blood pressure.

Quinoa is a bit like wild rice as it also expands to four times its size when cooked. It has a very delicate texture and mild flavor for a complete protein. It also has fewer calories (about 130 per 1/2 cup cooked) than other
protein-rich foods like meat and dairy. It cooks rather quickly, too, but gets mushy if overcooked. It must also be rinsed well before cooking, as it has a coating of saponin, a natural detergent. It rinses right off, but can make the grain taste bitter if left on.

To cook the grain properly it is recommended that you bring two cups of water to a boil and add one cup of quinoa, reduce heat, cover and cook for 10 – 15 minutes. You can eat it plain, with a little butter, or add it to other dishes like soups, stews, stuffings, or with vegetables. You can bake with it as well. It is a food that begs to be experimented with. It even comes in colors. I only know of red and white, but there may be more. Store it closed tightly in the fridge or a cool, dark place.

Quinoa-Stuffed Peppers

6 bell peppers, any color

1 cup quinoa, rinsed

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 cup onion, chopped

1 small green summer squash

2 tablespoons parsley, chopped

1 clove garlic, minced

1 teaspoon cumin, ground

1 tablespoon oregano, dried

1/4 cup pine nuts, roasted

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1/4 teaspoon coarse sea salt

1 cup feta cheese, crumbled

Cut the peppers straight across the tops. Remove the stem and chop what is left of the top; set aside. Remove the seeds and pith from the peppers carefully. Boil enough water to submerge all the peppers for 5 minutes. This precooks them a bit. Remove peppers carefully and place upside down on a towel to drain.

Rinse quinoa well to remove saponin. Bring water to a boil in a medium saucepan, add quinoa, cover and simmer for 12 – 15 minutes. Drain; set aside.

Put olive oil in a large saute pan over medium heat. Add the onion, garlic and reserved pepper. Stir for a few minutes, then add pine nuts, cumin, green summer squash, parsley, oregano and salt. Stir for 3 – 5 minutes. Add to the cooked quinoa and half of the feta cheese.

Heat oven to 425 degrees. Fill the peppers with the quinoa mixture and place in a greased baking dish. Sprinkle with the remainder of the cheese and bake for 20 – 25 minutes.

Quinoa Side

1 cup quinoa, rinsed, drained

3 – 4 cups chicken or vegetable broth

1 onion, chopped

2 cloves garlic, minced

1 tablespoon parsley, finely chopped

1 tablespoon butter

Salt and pepper to taste

Saute the onion and garlic in the butter over medium heat. Add the parsley, salt and pepper, and quinoa and stir all to blend flavor. Add broth and bring all to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer for about 10 minutes, or until quinoa is done. Drain the liquid and serve. You can serve it plain, or add cooked wild or brown rice to enhance the textures or stretch servings.

Quinoa can be used in much the same way you would use most rices and even some small pastas, like orzo. I have come across recipes for quinoa salads where the cooked quinoa is used with chopped tomatoes, corn, cilantro, garlic, lime or lemon juice and even garbanzo and other beans. It is also used in flour form for bread. I think this “new” ancient grain will be gaining even more popularity as we develop and incorporate it into our contemporary Native diet. If you find a good way to use it, please let me know and I’ll get your recipe out to all Indian country.