Quinoa: a 21st-century food from the Andes

Article by Douglas Larsen

Agriculture – September 2004 – Colorado Central Magazine

BACK IN BOSTON in the mid-seventies, I was a young Turk cutting my teeth in the culinary world, and we served seasonal, mostly local and organic food. We offered New England cuisine with a Japanese touch. (This was before “regional” and “fusion” became culinary buzzwords.)

Some contemporary chefs think they’ve discovered a new thing by using local ingredients. But it never occurred to us, or to any traditional cultures in the world, to do otherwise.

I’ve carried that sensibility into Colorado’s San Luis Valley, where I’ve worked with a local product, quinoa (keen-wah). Actually, I’ve worked with quinoa in many locations since the late 80’s, but it is particularly suited to this high mountain locale, which matches some of the conditions where it was originally cultivated.

Quinoa (Chenopodium quinua wild) is a plant seed, and is distantly related to spinach. Peruvian and Bolivian researchers have concluded that it originated thousands of years ago in the highland valleys around Lake Titicaca where the largest number of wild Chenopodium species exist. However, some insist that it comes from southern Chile, where another type of quinoa has a different character from the Peruvian strains. It is speculated that the two types separated hundreds of years ago, or perhaps they had different beginnings.

A close relative, Chenopodium berlandieri, was one of the first crops grown in what is now the U.S., and archeological sites indicate that grain size increased with cultivation. The chenopod declined when corn cultivation began.

A black quinoa variety, which has been planted in the fields of White Mountain Farm in Mosca, Colorado, is thought to be a cross between Chenopodium berlandieri and Chenopodium quinua.

More on Quinoa

From ancient times to the present, quinoa, which natives refer to as “the mother grain,” has been a cereal staple in the South American highlands. It is used in soups and stews, ground into flour, consumed as a cereal dish, and is often accompanied with potatoes.

A so-called super food, quinoa is protein rich and contains high levels of potassium, riboflavin and other B vitamins such as B6, niacin and thiamine in addition to the amino acid lysine (which helps digest protein), as well as the minerals magnesium, zinc, copper and manganese.

[Field of quinoa]

Although quinoa costs about twice as much as rice ($2 a pound as opposed to $1) it is economical as well as versatile and is quick and easy to make. It can be used in a variety of ways. It takes minutes to prepare; and once cooked it expands to three times its dry volume.

Quinoa can be purchased packaged or in bulk from natural food stores and even some supermarkets. Or it may be ordered directly from White Mountain Farm.

Since the late eighties when quinoa first came on the North American culinary scene, cooks have experimented with it to produce everything from breakfast food to appetizers, entrees and desserts. Its rich nutty flavor lends itself to diverse dishes from savory to sweet.

Local History

Professor John McCamant helped pioneer local quinoa production in the early eighties. He teaches at the Graduate School of International Studies, University of Denver, and is a specialist in Latin America, and in political repression, who describes himself as a campesino by inclination.

McCamant fell into his role as a quinoa developer by chance while serving on the Sierra Blanca Associates Board with David Cusack and Duane Johnson, a new crops agronomist from CSU.

Sierra Blanca Associates was a non-profit organization founded by David Cusack and several acquaintances. Each associate had different projects. David, who was professor McCamant’s first PhD student, became interested in the economic development of the San Luis Valley. In 1982 he imported the first quinoa seed strains to this country. (Many of them were later lost to mice in his Boulder garage.)

In April, 1984, McCamant joined the Sierra Blanca board and three months later David Cusack was murdered in Bolivia. (McCamant is quite sure that the CIA killed him for his knowledge of what happened in Chile to bring Pinochet to power.)

After Cusack’s death, the Board met, and it was clear that the quinoa project would end if McCamant didn’t take over. Unable to raise funds through Sierra Blanca to continue the work, he organized the for-profit White Mountain Farm in partnership with Ernie New. (They planted their first crop in 1987.)

In the summer of 1984, 160 acres were planted in various San Luis Valley locations, a project that McCamant terms “a large scale failure.” They used a seed strain that was too heat sensitive. Half of the fifty seed samples brought from South America in 1982 failed to produce seeds. It is thought that high temperatures kill the pollen.

Quinoa does best when the day-time shade temperature does not rise above 85 degrees. However, White Mountain Farm has been developing a more temperature tolerant seed, and it did okay last year even though there was a stretch of 90 degree heat.

Last year, White Mountain Farm, the only United States quinoa producer, harvested around 7,500 pounds on 60 acres; it was a poor yield because very few heads had seeds. (They would like to plant 130 acres, but heat and drought have made it difficult.) Three thousand pounds per acre would be a very good harvest, although the farm has never produced more than 1,000 pounds per acre.

They are trying to increase soil fertility with turkey manure and so called “green manure,” which comes from nitrogen fixing crops such as legumes and oats. They also practice crop rotation. McCamant allows that chemical fertilizers would increase yield, but they’re sticking with the organic approach.

Quinoa is harvested with a regular combine. Its bitter coating, saponin, which is non-toxic, has to be removed; one of the reasons for establishing White Mountain Farm was to develop the processing. White Mountain uses a combination of a dehuller and a rice polisher. Saponin which occurs in many substances can be removed with water, and it is recommended that any residue be rinsed before cooking.

The Future

Quinoa continuously changes. It cross breeds and mutates, which means it has the potential to survive in the San Luis Valley, barring extreme heat and drought. Most quinoa is imported from Bolivia, although there is another strain from Southern Chile that’s entering the marketplace.

Given continued research and experimentation, quinoa has a chance to become a viable crop for other San Luis Valley growers, if they can be persuaded to take a chance and devote some acreage from the more familiar alfalfa, barley and potatoes. Quinoa needs less water than those crops, but fertile soil is essential.

White Mountain Farm continues to develop seed strains compatible to San Luis Valley conditions. Northern New Mexico locations with an altitude of around 9,000 feet would be better suited for successful cultivation, but so far no growers there have been persuaded to experiment.

Here are some simple recipes:

Basic Recipe

1 cup quinoa

1½ cups water

pinch of salt

Yield: 3 cups

(When making larger quantities follow the same quinoa/water ratio: 1 part dry to 1½ parts liquid, e.g., 2 cups quinoa, 3 cups water. Note: black quinoa requires a 2 to 1 ratio.)

Place quinoa in a saucepan and rinse and drain until water comes clear. Add cooking water and salt. Bring to a boil and reduce to a simmer. Cook covered for fifteen minutes and remove from heat. Let sit for five minutes, then fluff with a rice paddle or wooden spoon.

Vegetable or chicken stock may be substituted for water.

Savory Quinoa Vegetable Cakes

Serves 4 to 6

1 basic quinoa recipe (see above)

1½ cups instant pancake mix.

(Arrowhead Mills multi-grain mix works well.)

1 onion, small dice

1 carrot, small dice

1 rib celery, small dice

¼ cup safflower or corn oil

1 or 2 eggs

1 cup water

Mix prepared quinoa, pancake mix and vegetables in a bowl. In a separate bowl, combine wet ingredients and whisk until blended. Stir into dry ingredients. Liquid proportions may be increased or decreased depending on desired batter thickness.

To make pancakes, heat a cast iron skillet on medium heat, add oil to coat pan and ladle or spoon batter into pan. Flip cakes when bubbles form on the topside and cook until browned. Can also be cooked in a waffle iron.

Note: Quinoa cakes can be made without vegetables, or other vegetables such as peas, summer squash and broccoli may be added. Vegetables need to be finely cut, though not necessarily minced. Cooked black beans may also be added. Shredded cheese is another option.

Serving suggestions: Top with fresh salsa and chopped cilantro or scallions. Dollar size pancakes may be served as an appetizer or side dish.

[Quinoa black bean salad]

Quinoa Black Bean Salad

Ingredients:

1 basic quinoa recipe (see above)

1 can organic black beans, drained

1 tomato diced

a few sprigs minced cilantro and parsley

1/3 cup Southwest Balsamic Vinaigrette

To make vinaigrette, in a blender or food processor combine and blend:

1 chopped shallot

2 chopped green onions

1 tsp. chopped garlic

1 small chili pepper, diced (optional)

3 sprigs each, chopped parsley and cilantro

1 tablespoon stoneground mustard

¼ cup balsamic vinegar

after blended, slowly mix in: ½ cup extra virgin olive oil

(This dressing may be used on other salads as well as cooked vegetables).

Combine prepared quinoa, black beans, tomato, cilantro and parsley and add vinaigrette to taste. May be served hot or at room temperature, alone or over salad greens. Cucumber and cooked vegetables such as corn, summer squash, string beans and peas may also be added. (Gosar’s Green Chile and Chive Chicken Sausage, another Valley product, is another option. Cook thoroughly, chop and mix in 1 sausage per person.)

White Mountain Farm is located at:

8890 Lane 4 North, Mosca, Colorado 81146

719-378-2436

Quinoa and other products are available at the “Mosca Pit Stop” on Highway 17 in Mosca. 800-364-3019

Doug Larsen lives in Crestone, where he ooperates Haiku Catering and a personal chef service. He also writes a monthly column for the Crestone Eagle, which has forced him to endure three years of Saguache County Commissioners’ meetings. He can be reached at doug@crestonechef.com, and he thanks Professor John McCamant for assistance with this article.