Just What Is Quinoa?

I have been enjoying trying new foods, especially those I prepare from scratch myself. Recently I made homemade granola and several types of bread. Recipes called for ingredients that I wasn't familiar with: quinoa, flax seed, wheat germ, and wheat bran. That, of course, made my plant geek mind want to know more about the plants that produce them. For the next few weeks I'll share what I learned with you in this column.

Quinoa (pronounced keen-wah) is a tiny grain-like seed that is sometimes called a pseudocereal. It is used like a cereal grain, but does not grow on a grassy plant like wheat, rye, oats, and other cereals. Instead, quinoa (Chenopodium quinoa) is in the goosefoot family and related to the weed, common lambsquarters (Chenopodum album), as well as beets and spinach.

Quinoa is native to the Andes Mountains of South America and is a staple food there. The plant grows three to six feet tall and comes in a range of colors including white, yellow, pink, red, purple, and black. Goosefoot shaped leaves grow alternately along a woody stalk.

My guess is that since quinoa prefers a mountain environment it will not grow well in central Illinois. It prefers warm days and cool nights; and, similar to its cousin spinach, it will not develop properly if the nights are too warm. In Colorado it needs 90 to 125 days after planting to fully develop seed (most tomatoes produce ripe fruit in 75 to 85 days).

Quinoa is very expensive. I paid $12 for a 26 ounce bag. Limited production is probably the main reason for the high price. It also has to be washed and milled to remove the bitter seed coat.

Many sources consider quinoa "one of the world's most perfect foods." It is very high in protein, amino acids, and many nutrients. Although it is grown primarily for its seed, the leaves can also be eaten fresh or cooked.

I used quinoa to make dried tomato-basil bread. Other recipes I plan to try include a muffin and a soup. It can also be cooked like rice and served plain. I'll post some recipes on my ILRiverHort blog found at http://web.extension.illinois.edu/fmpt.

Although quinoa is probably difficult to grow here, we can grow a similar crop – amaranth. Amaranth is a warm season crop and even tolerates drought. Because it doesn't have the bitter seed coat, it is easier to harvest and use. Unfortunately, amaranth is related to pigweed and can be quite invasive once established.

I hope you too enjoy learning about new food.