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What's the Deal with Quinoa? Part 2

Yesterday we discussed the health benefits of quinoa - some highlights of the nutritional profile of the awesome grain. Today, we're wrapping up the topic with some myth-busting, and serving suggestions.

Myth-Busting

You may have noticed that I mentioned quinoa has been touted to improve sleep. I thought that was a little suspect, but decided to dig a little more into it. Turns out, it's right up there with the "turkey causes drowsiness" myth. I find it funny that the same nutrient (i.e. tryptophan) can be used to "cause drowsiness" when we want an excuse for being tired after binging shamelessly on Thanksgiving, but "improves sleep" when we're talking about a potential superfood.

This just reminds me to read between the lines, dig deeper, and not take sweeping statements at face value. In case you're not familiar with the tryptophan affect, here's the quick version. Tryptophan is an amino acid (building block of protein) that the body uses to make niacin (one of the B vitamins) and serotonin. Serotonin, as you may know, is a chemical in the brain that plays a role in mood improvement - well-being and relaxation, specifically. In addition, serotonin is used to make melatonin, a hormone that helps control sleep and awake cycles.

So.... additional tryptophan in the diet might improve your sleep cycles over time. But this isn't your quick fix for insomnia, or something to blame for feeling sluggish after lunch. That said, a small carbohydrate-based snack before bed can improve your sleep. So if you are choosing one serving of quinoa (1/4 cup dry) around 9pm, it might make for a better night's sleep. But eating 2 cups of air-popped popcorn would do the same thing.

Different Types

If you find quinoa at the grocery store, you might notice that there are a few different kinds - over 120 varieties out there, but only a few that are at all mainstream. The Whole Grain Council has a quick description of white/ivory/regular quinoa, red quinoa, and black quinoa. I've also seen rainbow quinoa, which has all three varieties mixed together. 

The nutrition profile is fundamentally the same for these three varieties. The "white" doesn't mean the same thing as white rice or white pasta. It doesn't mean that it's processed. It's just a different color.

From a culinary perspective, the difference lies in (1) the optimum cooking time (regular: 10-15 minutes, red: ~15 minutes, black: 15-20 minutes), (2) the chewiness and nutty flavor, and (3) the aesthetics. Red quinoa is striking on a green salad. Black quinoa can play a starring role in a homemade meatless burger. Regular quinoa makes a lovely risotto.

Enjoying Quinoa

Quinoa is naturally a very earthy, nutty grain. But you can amp up that flavor by toasting it before you cook it. Simply put the grain in a dry skillet or saucepan, and cook over medium heat until you start to smell the nuttiness. Shake or stir every once in awhile to avoid burning. Then add your water and cook as directed.

Normally you'll see that quinoa recipes call for it to be rinsed before cooking. This feels like a high maintenance step, I know. I'm all about asking, "do I really need to do that?", but it turns out this is worth it. Quinoa has a natural coating of saponins, which has a bitter almost soap-like taste (hence the name). Rinsing your quinoa will dissolve the saponins and remove that flavor. Some people are more sensitive than others, but why risk it?

Rinsing isn't actually complicated, as long as you have a fine-mesh sieve, like this one form OXO:

Just let the water run over the quinoa, maybe give it a quick shake to make sure all the pieces get water. Then dump everything from the sieve into your skillet or saucepan, and you're good to go.

In addition to my new-found favorite Greek Quinoa Tabbouleh recipe, here are a few resources for quinoa dishes:

What about you? How have you enjoyed quinoa?