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MF Super Food: Quinoa

Just what is this weird grain with too many vowels and why should you be eating it?

The Incans considered it a sacred "mother grain" while the UN calls it a "super crop" because it's so healthy. But just what is this weird grain with too many vowels (say it: KEEN-wah)?

Cooked, it keeps a slightly crunchy consistency and has a slightly nutty flavor. "I call it the caviar of the grain world because if it's soft gooey crunch," says Steven Raichlen, author of Planet Barbecue! and host of Primal Grill on PBS.

Although it acts like a grain, quinoa is actually a seed, small and often light yellow. Cultivated in the Andes for more than 5,000 years, quinoa boasts a stellar nutritional profile: "Quinoa is a great food that more and more people are discovering," says Ruth Frechman, RD, a Burbank-based spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association. "It's a whole grain that's also has enough essential amino acids to make it a complete protein." It's also packed with minerals, higher than most grains in calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, and potassium as well as containing copper, zinc, and iron.

For you, that means it's heart-healthy versatile dish. Add it to your diet if you're working out because it's a "high-energy, relatively low-calorie food," adds Frechman. "It's also a great recovery food because it contains both carbs and protein."

You'll find quinoa with the pasta and rice in health food stores and most supermarkets. With any recipe, be sure to rinse quinoa before cooking with it to remove any of the seeds' bitter coating. Boil it like rice, with two cups of water or stock for every cup of uncooked quinoa.

Try these simple ideas to get cooking with quinoa:

Better Than Rice
Use it pretty much any place you'd use rice, like in soups or as a side dish. You'll get more bang for your nutritional buck, too, since one cup contains five grams of fiber and eight grams of protein, compared with three and a half grams of fiber and five grams of protein for brown rice.

Oatmeal Alternative
Mix cooked quinoa with honey, dried fruit, and nuts. You can also add some agave nectar and almond milk.

Quinoa Pilaf
Raichlen's recipe: Fry a small onion, a couple of tablespoons of nuts (such as pine nuts or chopped walnuts), and a couple of tablespoons of currants or raisins in olive oil until golden brown. Add one cup of quinoa and fry until golden brown. Then, add two cups of water or chicken stock, cover, and cook for about 20 minutes, until the quinoa is tender and all the liquid is absorbed.

Quinoa Burgers
Turn that pilaf into quinoa burgers: Mix four cups of cooked quinoa pilaf, two beaten eggs and one cup of grated smoked cheese (using smoked cheese gives it a "smoky, meaty flavor," says Raichen). Form the mixture into patties and bake until firm. Then, chill or freeze them for later or cook on the grill or in a skillet like a veggie burger.

Peruvian Delight
Sample a recipe offered by one of Frechman's Peruvian clients. Blend one-quarter to one-half cup of jarred roasted red pepper, one clove garlic, salt and pepper. Fry the sauce in a little bit of oil and then mix with cooked quinoa. Top with cheese such as queso fresco, if you'd like.

And, For Dessert
Make it into a dessert by adding cinnamon and sugar for a rice pudding-type dish, suggests Frechman.

Check out Quinoa.net for other recipes.

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