Dear Mr. Gold:
What's the big deal with quinoa? I couldn't even pronounce it right when I first saw it on the menu at Hugo's in Studio City. Then I saw it at Trader Joe's and then I saw it everywhere. It has probably been around forever, but has only recently made it to our shelves and the menus of our fave restaurants. Where did it come from and why is it so popular now? And, is it necessarily better for you than grains, rice or pasta?
Quinoa -- kee-nwha -- is an ancient Andean grain (or a grainlike object, if you'd prefer; it isn't a true grain) that grows in configurations that resemble giant flowers, and resembles a slightly mushier rice when it's cooked. My favorite part of preparing the stuff is popping it in a dry skillet like popcorn -- it can spray all over the room -- although apparently you don't have to do this. It has what is always described as a nutty flavor, although not like any nut I've ever tasted, and, if well executed, has a pleasant if mild bounce, like a miniature version of barley.
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As with all things in culinary history -- chestnuts, olive oil, farro, lobster, salt cod, caviar -- this traditional peasant food is becoming trendy because demand is outstripping supply, and Whole Foods customers apparently have an easier time affording it these days than the Bolivian peasants for whom it is a mainstay.
Is it healthy? Undoubtedly. The people who tend to trumpet Nature's Superfoods are certainly quinoa-happy these days, and NASA, as The New York Times recently pointed out, has long touted the cocktail of amino acids it contains as ideal for extended space travel. If you see Mars in your future, you are bound to eat some quinoa along the way.
Quinoa may not be universally popular. I once visited a center in the Lima barrio San Salvador that was devoted to teaching emigrants from the Andes how to cook indigenous foods like kaniwa, amaranth and bumpy mountain potatoes, and you did not need to understand much Quechua to understand the mutters of distaste when the quinoa was produced. They did not walk across three mountain ranges to clean, cook and eat freaking quinoa, one was given to understand.
Anyway, there are some good quinoa dishes in local restaurants, including the quinoa bowl with soy-grilled tofu, a rare nod to Akasha Richmond's vegan past, at Akasha in Culver City; Ray Garcia's quinoa with squash and apples at Fig in Santa Monica; the herbed quinoa with the occasional special of pancetta-wrapped porchetta at Cube, which basically calls for quinoa to temper its end-times recklessness; the side dish of spinach with quinoa at Rivera; and the crunchy, tasty quinoa fritters at the downtown Border Grill. Still, my favorite quinoa in town is probably the least orthodox: the quinotto at Ricardo Zarate's Mo-Chica at La Paloma south of downtown. What is a quinotto? Glad you asked. It's basically a puffed-quinoa risotto fortified with crème fraiche and shiitake mushrooms. It's an Italian dish with Bolivian ingredients made by a Peruvian chef best known for his Japanese cooking. What more could any of us want?