The People, They Eat With Their Eyes: Quinoa

     I have been avoiding quinoa. First of all, its crazy pronunciation (keen-wah), feels awkward. I know, I know. It’s healthy. You’d think I’d be a totally earthy-crunchy girl and would welcome quinoa with open arms. After all, I wrote a vegetarian cookbook, and it was full of, well, grains and vegetables. I should note that it was also loaded with butter, eggs, cheese and cream and all the stuff that makes life worth living. It may have been a vegetarian cookbook, but by God, it was not health food!
    Now that I’m older and wiser, I eat less of  “the good stuff” and more and more vegetables and healthy grains. But my family will not brook all vegetables all the time, so I’ve become an equal opportunity cook. I do insist on serving up plates of whole-wheat pasta with a mess o’ veggies from time to time, but there’s quite a lot of roast chicken on my table along with the tofu. But quinoa? No.
     The other day I ordered a quinoa salad at a restaurant, and the reasons for my resistance immediately jolted my memory. The quinoa had the misfortune of being presented on a plain white plate in a neat little cylinder. Like an annoying car alarm, it screamed ‘Empty tuna can! Empty tuna can!’. I tried to make it stop, but I couldn’t. The quinoa was embellished with a micro amount of (wilted) micro greens and a murky streak of something dark brown, presumably the champagne vinaigrette. That didn’t help. We were getting off to a bad start, quinoa and I. But I was very, very hungry, so I took a bite. It was, to my surprise, quite tasty. But I simply could not get past the beige. Beige does not get the juices flowing. I sat there, recalling my dear old friend Bernard’s admonition when he took our restaurant by storm: “The people, they eat with their eyes.” Indeed.
     I resolved to do better. At my local Whole Foods, I determined to resist the offending beige in favor of red quinoa since both were available. One method I find my way to a new dish is to think of its context. Where did it come from? I’m on familiar ground with French or Italian, but South America? I’d been to Ecuador once, but nothing jumped out at me. Well, squash maybe. Nuts, the salad had candied nuts. Pecans and squash seemed like a good fit. What else? Kidney beans, for additional protein? Goat cheese? It added a nice salty contrast to the salad I ate in the restaurant.  Something green?

Back home I experimented with cooking the quinoa. Quinoa, it turns out, is a seed, not a grain. The seeds are covered with saponin, a soapy, bitter substance that must be rinsed away before cooking. I tried a few different methods before I landed on a formula of 1 part quinoa to 2 parts water or stock. After cooking for 20 minutes, I took the pan off the heat and covered the pot to let it steam for about 15 minutes to dry out the quinoa for fluffing purposes. Success.
Meanwhile I roasted some squash in the oven and toasted some pecans. Well, I burned the pecans, the only ones I could find in my cupboard. So I reached for pumpkin seeds. If you toast them in a pan you cannot burn them as easily, unless you don’t take them out of the pan in time—in other words, nothing is totally idiot-proof. They add a happy crunch to this dish, and in a way, fit the Latin American theme even better than pecans. As I thought through the recipe, I streamlined it a bit. I made it again.  I added the squash to the cooking pot instead of cooking it separately to save time and washing up, and I used the offending beige-colored quinoa. The chili powder turned it golden and it showed off the squash and spinach and cranberries. Now it’s a feast for the eyes, too.
How do you feel about quinoa? Like it? Love it? Hate it? Never heard of it? Can't find it? Tell all--inquiring minds want to know!

Quinoa with Butternut Squash and Pumpkin Seeds

An overnight trip to New York City turned into a couple of days last week because of snow. The snow was a mess, but New Yorkers are not nearly as impressionable as news people, so it was, practically speaking, almost business as usual. No complaints—I had more time to do what I love to do in New York: eat, shop and spend time with family. Still, I was happy to come home and make something as comforting and simple as this quinoa.
            If you prefer, you can roast the squash in the oven separately and add it to the quinoa after it has rested. Toss it with about 2 tablespoons of olive oil, some salt and pepper and spread it on a baking sheet. Bake for about 20 minutes, until tender, in a 450°F oven.

Serves 4 as generous main veggie course

1 cup quinoa (brown variety shows off the squash and cranberries)
2 tablespoons olive oil plus a drop for the pumpkin seeds
1/2 red onion, finely diced
3/4 teaspoon chili powder
1 2-pound butternut squash, peeled (or not) and cut into 3/4-inch cubes
1 3/4 cups water or vegetable stock
1 teaspoon salt, or to taste
1/2 cup pumpkin seeds
2 large handfuls baby spinach (about 2.5 ounces)
1/2 cup dried cranberries

1. Put the quinoa in a bowl and cover it with cool water. Rub it between your hands and pour off most of the water. Add fresh water and repeat two or three times, until the water runs clear. Drain thoroughly in a fine-meshed strainer. Set the strainer over a bowl until you are ready to cook the quinoa.

2. Heat the olive oil in a large (4 to 5-quart) pot. Add the onion and cook over medium heat for about 3 minutes, until it begins to soften. Stir in the chili powder and the squash and cook, stirring every so often, for 3 more minutes. Add the drained quinoa, water or stock and salt. Bring the liquid to a boil, adjust the heat to a simmer, and cook, covered, for 20 minutes.

3. Meanwhile, set a small plate next to the stove. Pour a few drops (about 1/2 teaspoon) of olive oil into a small skillet. Heat the oil over medium heat and add the pumpkin seeds. Stir and shake the pan until the pumpkin seeds turn from green to olive to slightly golden brown. Sprinkle with a pinch of salt and immediately scrape them onto the awaiting plate.

4. Remove the pot from the heat and add the spinach and cranberries. Cover the pot and let rest in a warm place for 10 minutes. Mix and fluff up the grains with a fork. Serve sprinkled with toasted pumpkin seeds.


  1. This looks delicious! I love quinoa and am always on the lookout for good recipes. I like one published in the Globe a couple of years ago with shrimp and asparagus. Here's the link: http://www.boston.com/bostonglobe/magazine/articles/2008/05/18/runaway_grain/
    I also like to make a recipe based on one in "Charlie Trotter Cooks at Home." It's a chicken salad with a sauce made of dried apricots, curry and rice wine vinegar. I add broccoli and red peppers for color. I'll try to get it together to post it over at the Talking Cupcakes. So glad you like our blog. We are certainly enjoying yours!

  2. Thanks Peaches, and thanks for the shout out on your blog for chocolate cupcakes!!

  3. Your photos of snowy New York gave me an appreciation of what we think is cold weather down here in Florida! Will try the quinoa dish this week to warm us!

    Recently we returned from New Zealand with jars of Barker's Red Pepper Chilli Jelli and Peach and Mango Chutney. We became hooked on the combination of creamy blue cheese with these spicy sweet toppings on a thin cracker served with a glass of white wine. Do you have any recipes for the toppings?

  4. What does quinoa taste like and how would you describe the consistency? I am imagining it sort of like rice. Like the idea of trying some new foods and the recipes look very doable! I checked out Cupcake Chronicles and like that blog very much too! Thanks for the link.

  5. Lydia, I'll have to get back to you on that. My friend Bonnie (Bonnie's Jams) made a very nice fish dish with her hot pepper jam--I'll post it one of these days.

    Resa, Quinoa is a seed. It was/is grown by the Incas in the Andes, has a mild, nutty taste, texture a bit like cous-cous or rice. Seeds are very small. It has great nutritional value=high in protein, and essential amino acids, so it's good for vegetarians. Can be cooked as a breakfast cereal,good with honey and almonds, too.

  6. Dear Joanna from Atlanta,
    Thank you for your letter. You did not write a return address, so I hope you will see this message at some point. I am so happy you and your family enjoyed this salad (and that you are on the road to healthy eating!). It is always so gratifying to hear how someone has tried a recipe, and that it worked, and that they liked it. Your thoughtful note was met with a great deal of appreciation from me.
    Thank you and all the best,