Quinoa ‘risotto’ blends traditions of Peru, Italy [Featured]

May 16th, 2009

Marlena Spieler writes in the San Francisco Chronicle about the Andean “grain” called Quinua (Quinoa), and cooking the indigenous food with an Italian twist.

A while ago I popped in to visit James Shenk at his Peruvian restaurant, Destino, in San Francisco. He had promised to teach me how to make a quinoa dish I had tasted at his restaurant.

Entering the kitchen, I found James deep in thought, rubbing his hands together. Was he excited about something? Was he cold? I peered closer and saw that in his hands were tiny seed-like grains, and he was rotating them in a circular motion.

“The shamans on the Inca trail say this is the way to activate the grains,” he said. James is very proud of his Peruvian heritage, and spends as much time as he is able hiking the Inca Trail, sampling local foods and imbuing his life with traditional tastes.

Oh, yes, he also has a pisco bar; for the uninitiated, pisco is a delightful distilled alcohol that stars in both the national Peruvian cocktail, the pisco sour and that San Francisco-created drink, pisco punch.

However, upon hearing about “activating the grains” by rubbing them in the hands, I’d be dishonest if I didn’t confess to a few wee cynical thoughts. Here is the thing, though: I might be cynical about what I perceive as hocus-pocus, but if there is resulting deliciousness, I can become a believer. I had already rethought my former feelings about quinoa because James’ version had tasted so yummy. My previous interactions with quinoa were based on its being a healthy food, albeit not too exciting.

Healthy it is though, big time: high in protein – all the essential amino acids, unlike wheat or corn; beneficial minerals and vitamins; and the protective omegas. A seed rather than a grain, quinoa is gluten-free and fiber-rich, and helps maintain a steady blood sugar level.

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