There are a lot of quinoa haters out there. At least that's what The Wall Street Journal would have us believe. The front page of the Sept. 14-15 weekend print edition carried the headline: "Foodies' Ingrained Loyalty to Quinoa Sprouts a Backlash."
While we liked the headline writer's clever play on words, we're skeptical about a supposed schism between those who do and don't crave quinoa. According to the WSJ, the battle lines were launched last year when Canadian food blogger Jessica Hardy, "a trailblazer in the budding anti-quinoa movement," penned an article (under the byline Jessica Brunt) for the Vancouver Observer called "Five Reasons to Hate Quinoa." Among her gripes with the "newly trendy superfood" are the hard-to-pronounce name, the "fanatical fan base," the appearance and taste, and the fact that it's "so good for me."
The WSJ reported other people coming forward, calling quinoa a "Dickensian gruel" that's bland, with a texture like gravel, leaving bits that get stuck in your teeth. The article also cited a funny Bud Light ad that pokes fun at quinoa.
In a Canadian radio show about her quinoa conniptions, Brunt said that it "tastes like the silicon packets that preserve your leather goods." (We hope she hasn't actually sampled those.) In a serious sound bite, Brunt also voiced concern about the economic and health effects of quinoa exports on farmers in Bolivia (which is a complicated and important topic, covered in depth in The New York Times and The Guardian).
In her book, Ancient Grains for Modern Meals, Maria Speck explains that quinoa has been cultivated at last 5,000 years and is a "so-called pseudograin. While it has a similar nutritional profile and is eaten like a grain, botanically it is part of the goosefoot family" that includes spinach and chard. Speck writes that quinoa is gluten-free and "has an appealing, faintly grassy sweetness. The seeds contain all the essential amino acids, which makes them an excellent source of protein. They come in a rainbow of colors: black, purple, red, ivory, orange, and yellow."
Now, deep into the United Nation's International Year of Quinoa, we're curious if there really is evidence of a growing anti-quinoa movement. We asked two area chefs, Dan Murray of Pedalers Fork and Mary Sue Milliken of Border Grill, for their thoughts.
"I don't see quinoa going away any time soon," said Murray, executive chef at the new Calabasas eatery, adding that his quinoa burger is one of the most requested items on the menu. He uses quinoa in daily specials and readily offers it as a gluten-free substitute in, for example, the couscous salad. The cooked grain is mixed into the bakery's whole wheat muffins, adding texture and nutritients.
Murray expressed frustration with the WSJ article, finding the notion of an anti-quinoa movement kind of ridiculous. But he conceded that years ago, when he first tried cooking quinoa, the results weren't good. After a learning curve, he became a fan and now eats it practically every day.
Murray's main tip for cooking quinoa is to make sure it's well-rinsed. That is especially true for organic varieties, which he also recommends soaking for 20 to 30 minutes to remove the bitter-tasting powdery layer around the kernels, which naturally shields the grain from insects.
Like Murray, Milliken, co-chef and co-owner (with Susan Feniger) of the Border Grill restaurants and truck, agreed that it takes patience and practice to get quinoa right. She finds that toasting the grain, before cooking it, can enhance the taste. "I think it's absolutely delicious that way, without a lot of camouflaging flavors. It actually has a nice flavor itself."
Milliken recommended buying high quality, organic quinoa and experimenting with colors: "I love the red, the black and the white ... The mixture of them is quite lovely."
The Border Grill chefs were early believers in quinoa, serving it back in the '90s. "I don't think it's a trend, I think it's definitely in our pantries to stay," said Milliken.
One of the most popular items on the Border Grill menu is the quinoa fritters appetizer. Milliken and Feniger shared their recipe with us: