The first time I heard of quinoa was more than 14 years ago. I was at a bustling little restaurant called Le Loup Blanc in Paris. The menu was plug-and-play — pick a meat, then fill out your plate with a selection of sides. Think upscale table-service cafeteria with crammed-quarters, French bistro charm and wine carafes clinking above a smoky din.
Quinoa was one of those side choices. And like many of us, I pronounced it incorrectly. But however I said it, I was glad I tried it. I was immediately hooked on those nutty little grains, and I ordered quinoa every time I ate there. Sometimes I made it the star of a meatless meal. Sometimes it nestled up to whatever meat I opted for.
Eventually, I moved home to the United States, but quinoa came with me. I loved it because it was so versatile, so easy to cook and so good for me.
One cooked cup of this “pseudo-cereal” (it’s actually the seed of a plant in the same family as spinach) offers 5 grams of fiber and 8 grams of protein, along with plenty of iron (a big plus for nonmeat eaters) and B vitamins, but no saturated fat or cholesterol.
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The exciting protein news on quinoa isn’t necessarily the quantity (though that’s good, too), but the quality. Quinoa offers all nine essential amino acids in the quantities required to make it a complete protein (unusual for vegetable-based protein sources). Another bonus: It’s gluten-free, which makes it a great option for hosting gluten-free guests or for families (like mine) that have gluten-free members.
I like to cook up a batch of quinoa on the weekends, then use it during the week much as I would cooked rice — in cold salads, in hot side dishes like a stir-fry, or with stews and sauces. Sometimes I’ll drizzle warm quinoa with maple syrup and top it with berries and almonds for a hearty breakfast.
My recipe for winter quinoa dressing is a perfect dish for both newbies and quinoa pros. It complements the gorgeous roasts of winter as a side dish, or can be served as a main event for a simple supper.
Food Network star Melissa d’Arabian is an expert on healthy eating on a budget. She is the author of the upcoming cookbook, “Supermarket Healthy.”