THIS SUPER FOOD DOESN’T HAVE TO BE BITTER AND MUSHY
In the span of a decade, quinoa has gone from obscurity to mass consumption in the United States. This seed with humble South American roots is even showing up at fast-food restaurants. Most of the hype has focused on the nutritional benefits—quinoa is a nearly complete protein that is rich in fiber.
But no one wants to eat something just because it’s healthy. It has to taste good, too. And while quinoa fans talk up its crunchy texture and appealing nutty flavor, it’s just as often a mushy mess with washed-out flavor and an underlying bitterness. In the rush to make quinoa an overnight sensation, misinformation from so-called experts has caused consumer confusion, which we intend to straighten out—right now.
First off: Quinoa is covered with a naturally occurring bitter-tasting compound called saponin. If you don’t rinse quinoa before cooking, it will taste awful. You can buy prewashed quinoa, and we recommend doing so. If in doubt about the quinoa in your pantry, rinse it well.
Second, many recipe writers and package instructions direct you to boil quinoa. Don’t do it—these tiny seeds are very delicate and will blow out if cooked this way. Gentle steaming via the absorption method is your best bet.
Finally, quinoa needs a lot less water than most recipes suggest. Unless you want soggy grains don’t use 2 cups of water for every cup of quinoa. Our recipe calls for nearly equal amounts of water and quinoa. As long as you keep the lid on and the heat low, that’s plenty of water. When prepared the right way (that is, our way), quinoa merits the hype, especially because it is so easy and quick—and best of all, great tasting.
WHY THIS RECIPE WORKS
Cooking quinoa like rice pilaf—sautéing onion in butter, and then adding the quinoa to the pan so that it’s coated with the fat before pouring in water—might be better than boiling, but not by much. The problem has to do with sautéing the quinoa in fat. While the majority of quinoa on the market has been prewashed, the bitter-tasting compound (called saponins) remains on the exterior—and the fat exacerbates this bitterness. Instead, toast the grains in a dry pan to bring out nutty flavors but keep bitterness at bay.
Build Flavor with Aromatics
Once the quinoa is toasted, remove it from the pan and sauté onion in butter until it’s softened. Scallions can be swapped for onions and, for adding more layers of flavor, sautéing spices in the fat is a terrific option.
When cooking long-grain rice, it’s important to avoid stirring the rice during cooking because it will turn into a starchy mess. Not so with quinoa, which should be stirred once halfway through cooking to encourage even cooking of the tiny seeds. Quinoa is starchy too, but it also contains twice as much protein as white rice. That protein is key, as it essentially traps the starch in place so you can stir it without causing it to turn gummy.
Steam Off the Heat
Finish cooking the quinoa gently, off the heat. This allows the grains to firm up, so that you’re rewarded with light, fluffy grains. Skipping this step could result in clumpy quinoa, so avoid taking shortcuts. Once the quinoa has rested off heat, fluff it with a fork and finish with fresh herbs and a squeeze of lemon.
To eliminate bitterness, rinse the quinoa (unless prewashed) and then toast in a dry saucepan.
Quinoa Pilaf with Herbs and Lemon
SERVES 4 TO 6
- 5 minutes to toast quinoa
- 5 minutes to cook onion
- 20 minutes to cook quinoa (stir just once)
- 10 minutes to let quinoa steam off heat
- Saucepan with tight-fitting lid (A heavy-bottom pan with a capacity of roughly 3 quarts is ideal.)
- Fork for fluffing finished quinoa
Substitutions & Variations
- If you buy unwashed quinoa, rinse the grains in a fine-mesh strainer, drain them, and then spread them on a rimmed baking sheet lined with a dish towel and let them dry for 15 minutes before proceeding with the recipe.
Any soft herbs, such as cilantro, parsley, chives, mint, and tarragon, can be used.
- 1½ cups prewashed quinoa
- 2 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into 2 pieces
- 1 small onion, chopped fine
- ¾ teaspoon salt
- 1¾ cups water
- 3 tablespoons chopped fresh herbs
- 1 tablespoon lemon juice
- Toast quinoa in medium saucepan over medium-high heat, stirring frequently, until quinoa is very fragrant and makes continuous popping sound, 5 to 7 minutes. Transfer quinoa to bowl and set aside.
- Return now-empty pan to medium-low heat and melt butter. Add onion and salt; cook, stirring frequently, until onion is softened and light golden, 5 to 7 minutes.
- Increase heat to medium-high, stir in water and quinoa, and bring to simmer. Cover, reduce heat to low, and simmer until grains are just tender and liquid is absorbed, 18 to 20 minutes, stirring once halfway through cooking. Remove pan from heat and let sit, covered, for 10 minutes. Fluff quinoa with fork, stir in herbs and lemon juice, and serve.
QUINOA PILAF WITH APRICOTS, AGED GOUDA, AND PISTACHIOS
Add ½ teaspoon grated lemon zest, ½ teaspoon ground coriander, ¼ teaspoon ground cumin, and ⅛ teaspoon pepper with onion and salt. Stir in ½ cup dried apricots, chopped coarse, before letting quinoa sit for 10 minutes in step 3. Substitute ½ cup shredded aged gouda; ½ cup shelled pistachios, toasted and chopped coarse; and 2 tablespoons chopped fresh mint for herbs.
QUINOA PILAF WITH CHIPOTLE, QUESO FRESCO, AND PEANUTS
Add 1 teaspoon chipotle chile powder and ¼ teaspoon ground cumin with onion and salt. Substitute ½ cup crumbled queso fresco; ½ cup roasted unsalted peanuts, chopped coarse; and 2 thinly sliced scallions for herbs. Substitute 4 teaspoons lime juice for lemon juice.
QUINOA PILAF WITH SHIITAKES, EDAMAME, AND GINGER
Substitute vegetable oil for butter and replace onion with 4 minced scallion whites; 4 ounces shiitake mushrooms, stemmed and sliced thin; and 2 teaspoons grated fresh ginger. Stir in ½ cup cooked shelled edamame before letting quinoa sit for 10 minutes in step 3. Substitute 4 scallion greens, sliced thin on bias; 4 teaspoons rice vinegar; and 1 tablespoon mirin for herbs and lemon
QUINOA PILAF WITH OLIVES, RAISINS, AND CILANTRO
Add ¼ teaspoon ground cumin, ¼ teaspoon dried oregano, and ⅛ teaspoon ground cinnamon with onion. Stir in ¼ cup golden raisins halfway through cooking time in step 3. Substitute ⅓ cup pimento-stuffed green olives, chopped coarse; 3 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro; and 4 teaspoons red wine vinegar for herbs and lemon juice.
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