Getting to Know Quinoa

. . . and other healthful, wonderful (but sometimes strange) new foods

“I was so proud of myself.  I wanted to begin eating some healthier foods so I tried quinoa.  But it wasn’t that good–it just didn’t taste like much.”

While I’m doing quick and healthy cooking demos, it’s not uncommon for people to share their healthy eating stories.  Recently, I was demonstrating at the Longmont Farmer’s Market and one of the shoppers shared this story of her disappointing experiment with quinoa.

It’s a fact that new foods aren’t always immediate hits.  While this is not at all unusual, we can’t let it become a barrier on the journey to healthful eating.  After all,  “no change in foods = no change in weight or health!”  So what’s the best way to deal with taste buds that balk at the sight of new foods on the dinner plate?  I come at this problem from a couple angles: cooking tips and tricks plus a little common sense psychology.

Cooking Tips and Tricks

When it comes to trying new foods, the general rule of thumb is to go easy on yourself.  For goodness’ sake, don’t force down a whole plate of plain quinoa (or bok choy, tofu, aduki beans or whatever other new food you are trying.)  Instead, as you the transition to a new food, make it manageable and enjoyable.  Instead of a plain mound of that new food, think about  pumping up the flavor, adding tasty mix-ins, topping with interesting stuff, or combining into other familiar dishes.  In other words, ease rather than force your taste buds into a new food friendship.

Pump Up the Flavor   The easiest way to add flavor to any new grain or vegetable is by cooking it in something other than plain water.  Try chicken broth, vegetable broth, a little wine, maybe even part juice for a sweeter taste.  The flavor of grains can also be punched up by toasting them before cooking, either in a dry skillet or in a little (i.e., 1 to 3 tsp.) olive oil or butter.

Add Tasty Mix-Ins   Once cooked, all sorts of tasty mix-ins can be added to enhance the appeal of a new food.  For instance, cooked grains can be turned into delightful pilafs by the simple addition of one or more of:  sautéed onions, nuts (chop and toast for best results), dried or fresh fruits (cut them small), and small bits of vegetables cooked with a little crunch, like asparagus, celery and snap peas.  Do the same thing with chilled grains and you end up with a refreshing salad for summer weather.

Beans are another natural mix-in for grains.  Think black beans with brown rice (topped by salsa), lentils with quinoa, red beans with millet–or whatever suits your fancy.  Generally it’s best to cook the legumes and grains separately, then combine.

Pump Up the Flavor Even More  Fresh citrus juice works wonders to perk up the blander flavors of whole grains.  And don’t forget about herbs and spices, savory or sweet depending on the cooking liquid and mix-ins.  As pilafs originated in the Middle East, Mediterranean spices are always a good bet.  If you’re short on ideas, check with our friends at Savory Spice for some spice combos or pre-mixed blends.

Top with Interesting Stuff  I love having cooked whole grains on hand as a base for the many fast skillet dishes I make on busy nights.  Whether it’s a stir-fry, tomato-y vegetable mixture, a Thai peanut dish or some kind of curry, whole grains both complete the meal and complement the dish nicely.

Combine Into Other Dishes  Grains are deliciously nutritious fillers and thickeners.  Chili a little too thin?  Add some quinoa.  Need a heartier soup for hungry teenagers?  Add some barley or rice.  Want to stretch your grass fed hamburger?  Add uncooked oatmeal or cooked quinoa or brown rice (not too much, though) to meat loafs, meat balls and burgers.

Butter or Olive Oil, Salt and Pepper  Should all the above be more than you can manage on a given night, don’t forget the simplest flavor enhancers of all.  We may question the nutritional soundness of topping our grains with butter or oil, but a teaspoon won’t ruin your healthy eating efforts and in fact, will improve it greatly if you can then truly enjoy a new grain or vegetable.  Enjoyment is how new foods become a staple of our diets.

One More Thing on the Subject of Quinoa:  Rinse Before Cooking  Grains don’t generally need to be rinsed before cooking, but quinoa’s seedcoat contains naturally occurring saponin, a slightly bitter substance that is easily removed by rinsing.  According to a number of sites, most quinoa sold in this country has already been cleansed of its saponin.  However, I still notice a significant taste improvement when I rinse, perhaps because a powdery residue can remain even after commercial cleaning.  (See WholeHealthMD.com)

Some Commonsense Taste Bud Psychology

After offering a couple of these cooking tips to our Farmers Market quinoa experimenter, I noticed that she still seemed disappointed in herself for not immediately becoming best friends with quinoa.  Hence the need for a little taste bud psychology.  The fact is that her lukewarm reaction is not hard to understand.  In a nutshell, we like foods we’re familiar with.  Introduce something unfamiliar and of course there’s a good chance it won’t be an immediate favorite.

The chances of liking new healthier foods are even less in the context of the modern American diet, which has so stunted and warped our taste buds that it’s difficult for them to accept, much less get excited by, anything that doesn’t contain a lot of sugar, fat, salt and natural flavors.  This leaves us in an unfortunate predicament that I explained in an earlier post, “Building Your `Tasting Muscles’–and Putting Them to Good Use:”

[M]ost of us would love to replace those havoc-wreaking foods [i.e., the homogenized-tasting and fat- sugar- and salt-laden packaged foods of the modern American diet] with vegetable-rich meals filled with whole grains, nuts, beans and lean proteins.  That can’t happen, however, as long as we’re slaves to our flabby tasting muscles.  Having been stunted and malformed by a homogenized diet, those muscles won’t allow us to venture forth and relish and be happy with the taste of real, wholesome, healthful foods.

Understanding this commonsense psychology is an important part of the shift to new, healthier foods.  If your taste buds don’t sing with delight, it’s not a cause for worry, disappointment or dismay.  Through a lack of exposure, they’ve just been allowed to close in on themselves.   But they are actually capable of handling–and enjoying–a huge variety of flavors, and just as surely as they will close in on themselves without intervention, just as surely they will blossom with conscious attention.

The important thing to remember as we  join together on the road to more wholesome eating, is that it’s not impossible to change our tastes.  Believe that, keep on tasting with diligence tempered by patience, and use the cooking tricks outlined earlier.  You’ll be surprised at how good quinoa tastes after just a few weeks, or less.

Next Post:  A couple quick ideas for jazzing up quinoa, from the days when I was first experimenting with this grain 20 years ago!

Ready to learn more about new flavors and foods–and how to enjoy them?  Join our Whole Kitchen meal making classes where we make and taste all sorts of new things!  Next class begins Tuesday, April 24, 2012 at the Erie Community Center.  Parents, child care is available for this lunch ‘m learn class. 

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