Quinoa is truly an amazing pseudo-grain whose seeds are considered a complete protein. Its high protein content is a very fortunate anomaly in the plant world.
Though it is a broad leaf plant and does not belong to the same horticultural family as grasses that are grown for grains (such as wheat, oats and barley), it is nonetheless considered a grain. It differs from the more traditional grains in that it blooms with lovely red or purple flowers before it goes to seed. The seeds are used like typical grains to make flour, soups, cereals, and alcohol.
Quinoa began to be cultivated in the South American Andes as a staple food prior to 3,000 B.C.. The ancient Incas revered it as sacred, and called it la chisiya mama, the mother grain. Every year at planting time, the Inca emperor would traditionally use a solid gold taquiza (planting stick) to plant the first seed. In celebration of the harvest, the Incas drank a fermented quinoa beer, chicha, and made sacrifices of animals, cloth, food, and even children. Quinoa was a source of sustenance for Incan armies, which would march for days on end eating "war balls," a mixture of fat and quinoa.
In 1532, Spanish explorer Francisco Pizarro reached the Andes. Within a year, Pizarro's men had destroyed most of the quinoa fields, and the Incas were forbidden to practice their ancient ceremonial rituals that centered on quinoa. Quinoa declined to a minor grain know only to isolated mountain villages that continued to cultivate it in secret.
Following centuries of obscurity, interest in Quinoa began to revive in the 1970s when it was imported to the U.S. by a pair of Americans who had been introduced to quinoa while studying spirituality in Bolivia. However, though quinoa is grown all over the world, most of the quinoa that is on the market today is grown in its native Andean mountain region. In Peru, Chile and Bolivia, quinoa is now widely cultivated for its nutritious seeds, which are referred to as "little rice."
Because of its high protein content, quinoa has become highly valued to vegans and vegetarians as a wonderful vegetative protein source. The popularity of quinoa has benefited the Andean farmers who grow it. However, while the growers benefit from the higher pricing afforded by the increased demand, price increases have made quinoa less affordable to the local Andean people who rely on it. The subject of intense debate, questions about the sustainability of the quinoa market have given pause to many socially-minded consumers who are weighing the health benefits of eating quinoa with the unintended consequences to others.
As a gardener, the answer seems clear to me...grow your own! Here is how to plant quinoa, as well as how to grow, harvest, cook and preserve this deliciously healthy grain.
Photo credit: RahelSharon @ Flickr.com
Days to germination: 4 to 5 days
Days to harvest: 90 to 120 days
Light requirements: Full sun. Short days lengths are optimal.
Water requirements: To germinate seeds and support seedlings, water on a regular schedule, keeping the evenly moist. Once plants are established, water occasionally during dry spells, allowing the first few inches of soil to dry between watering. During seed head development and harvesting, dry conditions are optimal.
Soil: Well-drained and fertile, with compost amendment. Mulch the top of the soil when seedlings are several inches tall to inhibit weeds, retain moisture and regulate soil temperature.
Temperature: Optimal growing conditions are in cool climates with temperatures ranging from 25Â°F during the night, to 95Â°F during the day. Quinoa withstands light frosts, except during flowering, which can cause sterilization of the pollen.
Container: The size of the quinoa plant makes it not suitable for container growing.
When the last frost has passed in the spring, sow quinoa seeds directly in the ground. Quinoa sprouts best in a soil temperature of 60 degrees Fahrenheit. Be certain to plant early enough in the season so that the harvest is complete before ambient temperatures rise above 90 degrees Fahrenheit, as higher temperatures impede quinoa growth and seed development. In warmer climates, seeds can be sown in late summer or early fall for a winter bloom.
Loosen the soil and add a layer of compost. Prepare rows, spacing them a foot apart. Along each row, plant 2-3 quinoa seeds every 10-12 inches. Cover the seeds with a thin layer of soil, no more than 1/4 inch deep. When the seedlings appear, thin to one plant every 10-12 inches. Replant seeds within one week in areas that have not sprouted.
For precise information about optimal planting dates in your area, do an internet search for your local university extension offices, which generally have planting schedules available for the public and often post them online.
The heirloom seed varieties shown below are from open-pollinated, non-gmo plant stock. They are an excellent option for seed-savers who require seeds that produce a similar crop year after year.
1 gram of seed will sow a 50 foot row. An acre requires approximately a pound of seed. Ten plants will yield roughly 1 pound of grain, depending on your growing conditions.
Plant enthusiasts may have noticed the similarity between Quinoa and Amaranth. Both are broad leaf plants whose seeds are used as grains. However, Amaranth is a warm-season plant, while Quinoa is a cool-season plant. For this reason, Amaranth and Quinoa plantings can be made successively for a spring and fall harvest.
According to information on the seed packets shown below, quinoa is deer resistant. A versatile plant with multiple uses, it makes a striking ornamental flower, as well as a food source. Even the young leaves are edible, to be eaten either raw or cooked.
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Keep planted areas evenly moist, but not water-logged, until seedlings sprout. When growth appears, keep the area as moist as a wrung-out sponge, allowing the soil to dry out somewhat between watering. Seedlings are just as easily killed by too much water as too little, so diligent observation is necessary when the plants are small.
Quinoa is an adaptable, drought-tolerant plant. It thrives in rich, well-drained soil. Once established, it can produce an abundant harvest under dry conditions. During seed head production and harvest, dry conditions are optimal.
Quinoa sprouts very quickly, but then growth slows and is easily impeded if crowded by weeds. For this reason, weeding around seedlings is essential. Use caution, however. Quinoa is closely related to lamb's-quarters, a common garden weed that is much smaller than the quinoa plant. Their seedlings look very similar, to take care when weeding not to mistake the two plants and accidentally pull up your quinoa. Some varieties of quinoa have a distinctive red or purple cast that distinguishes it from other weeds.
Once quinoa reaches a foot in height, growth becomes more vigorous and less susceptible to weed crowding. Continue to remove lamb's-quarters, also known as pigweed, because it can cross-pollinate with its cultivated cousins and reduce the quality and quantity of your quinoa harvest.
Pests: Quinoa has few pest problems. As a defense against predators, seeds are coated with a bitter substance called saponin, which deters most birds and other pests from eating the grain. Aphids, flea beetles, leaf miners and other insects will attack and eat the tender leaves. Keep them away from tender shoots by spraying with a natural, pyrethrin-based insecticide. Mature plants are generally not harmed by a small amount of insect damage.
Caterpillars, such as cabbage loopers, may be attracted to your quinoa leaves. If you see a few of them, simply remove them manually. For larger infestations, sprinkle around the base of the plants with food-grade D.E. (diatomaceous earth) or treat with B.T. (Bacillus Thuringiensis.) Both treatments are organic and not harmful to humans if used according to the directions on the package.
Diseases: Quinoa is susceptible to few diseases. Viruses found on spinach and beets have been may be transmitted to quinoa by aphids or leafhoppers. However, these viruses do not seem to have a significant effect on grain production.
Quinoa can be damaged by mildews and molds if soil is waterlogged or weather conditions are persistently rainy. Prevent these conditions by allowing soil to dry out between watering.
Quinoa is ready for harvest in 90-120 days. While you are waiting, pick some of the young, nutritious leaves to add to your salad, or steam them to use as greens.
When the leaves have fallen and only the dried seed heads remain on the stalks, quinoa is ready to harvest. As long as the weather is dry, the seeds will withstand a few light frosts. Allow the seeds to dry out naturally on the stalk if the weather is dry. If the weather is wet, however, remove the stalks and lay them out to dry in a barn, shed or other area that is sheltered from the rain. Dry the seeds until they are difficult to dent with your fingernail.
The dry quinoa seeds are easy to harvest. Using a gloved hand, seeds can be easily stripped upwards off the stalk.. A hard shake should also free the majority of seeds. There are no hulls to remove. You can "winnow" or blow away small pieces of dirt or debris by pouring the grain from one container onto another in front of a gently blowing fan. Or use a screen to sift the grain.
Instructions for screen winnowing amaranth grain, a close relative of quinoa, is found at The Real Seed Catalogue.
Thoroughly dry the quinoa grains before storing by spreading them out in the hot sun or in near an indirect heat source. Dried quinoa grains should be stored in air-tight containers in a cool, dark location. Quinoa will store in this way for up to six months.
Before cooking and eating quinoa, it must be washed. The bitter saponin seed coating that keeps pests away can also be very unpleasant to humans. So, don't skimp on the washing.
Almost any washing technique will work, as long as the quinoa is rinsed until the water no longer shows any evidence of foaming (saponin is very soapy). One method is to whirl the grain in a blender with cool water on the lowest speed, changing the water until it is no longer frothy. It make take five or six water changes to achieve the desired result. Another technique is to put a loose-weave muslin bag of quinoa in the washing machine and run a cool-water rinse cycle. Substitute a pillowcase or a stocking if you do not have a muslin bag.
After rinsing, quinoa is ready to be cooked. Bring equal volumes of water and quinoa to a boil. Reduce the heat to a simmer, and cook with the lid on until all the water is absorbed, approximately 12-15 minutes. For a more porridge-like consistency, use a little bit of extra water.
In its raw form, quinoa can also be germinated to activate its natural enzymes and boost vitamin content. A short germination period of 2-4 hours resting in a glass of clean water is enough time for quinoa to sprout and release gases. Besides enhancing nutrition, this process also softens the seeds, making them suitable to be added to salads and other foods in their raw form.
A fascinating article on the Eating Chilean website discusses quinoa and spotlights two delicious recipes, Salmon Ceviche on a quinoa bed and a traditional Quinoa Pudding. Visit Chilean Quinoa to learn more.
Keep reading for a delicious Quinoa Chicken Salad recipe, posted below.
Quinoa is a nutrient-dense food. The grain is lower in sodium and is higher in calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, potassium, iron, copper, manganese, and zinc than the more common grains, including corn, barley, and barley. Rinsing away the saponin seed coating does not reduce the mineral content. In addition, the protein content and quality in the quinoa grain is superior to most other grains. Other parts of the plant are edible, as well. The leaves are highly nutritious, similar in texture and nutritional value to spinach.
Due to its high nutritional value and low glycemic index, quinoa is a rising star in the in the culinary world. However, while quinoa is gaining in popularity, it is still a lesser-known grain. Though common on vegetarian and health-conscious menus, mainstream restaurants do not generally offer quinoa amongst their entree options. Furthermore, if quinoa is not prepared properly, it may have a bitter taste that can be unpleasant to the pallet.
While potato and pasta salads are perennial favorites, they are seriously lacking in protein and are generally held together by oily mayonnaise or dressings. Not so with quinoa salad! High in protein, tossed with a light vinaigrette with a nutty,fruity flavor, this salad makes a nice lunch or dinner side dish. Take it to your next potluck!
Feel free to adjust the amount or the kinds of dried fruits and nuts in this salad, according to your preferences.
- Prep time: 25 min
- Cook time: 15 min
- Ready in: 40 min
- Yields: Serves 6
- 1.5 cup dry quinoa
- 2 tbsp honey or agave syrup
- The juice of two medium-sized lemons
- 2 tsp Dijon mustard
- 1/4 cup of olive oil
- 2/3 cup of chopped peanuts or almonds
- 1 diced Granny Smith apple
- 1/4 cup sultanas or golden raisins
- 1/4 cup dried cranberries or dried cherries
- 1/4 cup chopped dried apricots
- 1 small red onion (diced)
- 1/2 cup chopped Italian parsley
- 2 chicken breasts (cooked and chopped)
- Salt and pepper to taste
- Cook quinoa according to package instructions or the instructions described above. Remove from the stove and allow it to cool.
- In a small bowl, stir together honey, lemon juice, and Dijon mustard. Add olive oil, whisking briskly until blended.
- Using a large bowl, toss together all of the ingredients. Add salt and pepper to taste. Serve at room temperature or chilled. Flavors tend to improve overnight when stored in the refrigerator in a covered container.
- Quinoa Chicken Salad can be stored in the freezer. Thaw completely in the refrigerator before serving.