The good qualities of quinoa

...And many rabbis consider it kosher for Pessah – even for Ashkenazim.

April 2, 2010 16:00

quinoa 311. (photo credit: .)

Quinoa is becoming increasingly common in the kitchens of health conscious cooks. My friend Dana Jacobi, author of The Essential Best Foods Cookbook, wrote that its light texture, mild flavor and short cooking time make it “a perfect introduction to whole grains.” In Jewish cooking quinoa has come into focus for an additional reason – many rabbis have certified it as kosher for Pessah, even for Ashkenazim. Rabbi Tzvi Rosen of Star-K Kashrus wrote that quinoa is not related to the “five types of grain products,” nor to millet or rice, but is a member of the beet family. Star-K tested quinoa, and it would not rise. In addition, quinoa does not grow in the vicinity of hametz. Therefore, he declared, “quinoa is 100 percent” kosher for Pessah.

Not all rabbis agree; Rabbi Binyamin Bamberger, writing in the Hebrew section of the Web site, says that quinoa is kosher for Pessah only for Sephardim who eat kitniyot and rice. Another rabbi advises Ashkenazim to ask their community’s rabbi whether he considers quinoa to be kitniyot.

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“Quinoa is really taking off for us,” Bob Allison of Seeds of Change told me at the Natural Products Expo West in Anaheim, California a few weeks ago, as I savored the quinoa and vegetables being served at his booth. Allison finds that quinoa is best used like wild rice, in combination with other grains, to soften its unfamiliar flavor and because its price is higher than that of other grains. His company, known for its heirloom seeds and organic foods, markets a blend of quinoa with brown rice, dried vegetables, herbs and spices.

At the Expo there was plenty of evidence of quinoa’s popularity. The grain was presented not just in whole form, but in less noticeable ways – in crackers, snacks, cereals, cookies and breads. French Meadow Bakery, which specializes in highly nutritious breads, features quinoa flour in eight different products, including multigrain bread, hemp tortillas and sprouted 16-grain bagels.

Quinoa is not a new food. Until a few decades ago, it simply was not known outside its area of origin, the Andes in South America, where it was cultivated by the Incas, who called it the mother grain. In the 1980s quinoa started to become available in the US.

The growing interest in quinoa stems from people’s realization of its superb nutritional qualities. According to Didi Emmons, author of Vegetarian Planet, quinoa is higher in protein than any other grain, contains the most amino acids and the most complete protein. Those who are sensitive to gluten are pleased that this nutritious grain is gluten free.

Besides, quinoa tastes good. Some describe its taste as smoky or resembling sesame; others find its flavor nutty and its texture fluffy. It is easy to use, as this whole grain cooks in about the same time it takes to cook white rice and can be used in similar recipes. Carol Spier, author of Food Essentials: Grains and Pasta, advises against serving quinoa with heavily seasoned sauces, as they would overwhelm its subtle flavor. She prefers quinoa with scallions, dill, citrus or vinaigrette. Emmons, however, considers it “a splendid foil for curries.” She seasons quinoa pilaf with lemongrass, fresh ginger, garlic and Sichuan pepper, then turns it into a main course by adding sauteed tofu and steamed broccoli florets.

Creative Israeli chefs have helped to popularize quinoa in this country, using it in innovative recipes like Ayelet Or’s latkes with quinoa, carrots and sesame seeds and in tabbouleh-like appetizers. You can use it in all sorts of grain recipes, from pilaf to porridge, from salads to soups to desserts.

Quinoa seeds have a natural coating of bitter-tasting saponins, which protect them from birds. To remove the coating, rinse the quinoa thoroughly before cooking it.


Tabbouleh is such a tasty, versatile recipe that it’s natural to make it with other grains besides the traditional bulgur wheat. French chefs recognized this and for years have been making their tabbouleh with couscous. For this tabbouleh I use quinoa, which you can purchase at natural-food stores.

Because quinoa is high in protein, you can serve this salad as a light main course. Corn kernels add an appealing color and texture, and a pleasant contrasting sweetness to the lemony dressing. In summertime I like to add the corn kernels raw. During Pessah, you can omit the corn; if you do, use 1 cup quinoa and 2 cups vegetable broth.

3⁄4 cup quinoa

11⁄2 cups vegetable broth or water

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

3 to 5 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil

3⁄4 cup corn kernels, fresh, frozen or canned and drained

6 small tomatoes

2 small thin-skinned cucumbers

1 fresh hot pepper, minced, or cayenne pepper to taste

4 green onions, white and green parts, sliced thin

3⁄4 cup finely chopped parsley

1⁄4 cup chopped cilantro (fresh coriander)

1⁄3 cup finely chopped mint
3 Tbsp. strained fresh lemon juice, or more to taste

Put quinoa in a strainer and rinse several times with warm water. Drain well. Bring broth, or water with a pinch of salt, to a simmer in a medium saucepan. Add quinoa and bring to a boil. Cover and simmer over low heat for 15 to 20 minutes or until liquid is absorbed. Fluff quinoa and transfer to a bowl. Add 1 tablespoon olive oil and let cool.

Cook fresh or frozen corn kernels for 2 to 3 minutes in boiling water to barely cover. Drain; reserve cooking liquid to add to vegetable broth or soups.

Dice tomatoes and cucumbers very small. Mix diced vegetables with hot pepper, onions, parsley, cilantro, mint and corn. Add to cooled quinoa. Add salt, pepper, oil and lemon juice to taste; salad should be fairly tart. Serve cold or at cool room temperature.

Makes 6 to 8 appetizer or 3 entree servings.


Nutty-tasting, high-protein quinoa makes a pleasant change from the usual rice or potatoes. You can prepare it as pilaf, just like rice. If you like, add 3⁄4 to 1 cup of a quick-cooking vegetable, such as peas, diced zucchini or carrot or sliced mushrooms, along with the broth. Serve this light dish as an accompaniment for fish or chicken.

1 cup quinoa

2 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil

1 small onion, minced

1⁄2 red or yellow pepper, diced (optional)

2 cups chicken or vegetable broth or water

Salt and freshly ground pepper

Cayenne pepper to taste (optional)

Put quinoa in a strainer and rinse several times with warm water. Drain well.

Heat oil in a wide saucepan. Add onion and pepper and sauté over medium heat, stirring often, for 5 minutes or until softened. Add quinoa and cook, stirring, for 1 minute or until the grains are coated with onion mixture. Add broth, salt and pepper. Stir once and bring to a boil. Cover and cook over low heat, without stirring, for 12 to 15 minutes. Taste quinoa; if it is not yet tender, simmer 2 more minutes. Cover and let stand for 5 minutes or until ready to serve. Taste and adjust seasoning, adding cayenne. Serve hot or at room temperature.

Makes 4 servings.

Faye Levy is the author of Healthy Cooking for the Jewish Home.

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