How to get keen about ‘keen wa’

Quinoa may be a perfect food, but not by itself

I wanted to love quinoa because the top nutrition guru Patrick Holford reckons it is the best of all super-grains, a near-perfect food — and such is his dietary expertise that if Patrick told me that bed mites had an antidepressant effect, I’d eat my mattress.

Quinoa has lots of protein, including the amino acid lysine, which is rare in grains, plus iron, lots of B vitamins and magnesium. It also has an interesting taxonomy — it’s classified as a pseudocereal (not in the Coco Pops sense), which means that it isn’t a true grain but is the seed of a plant that is a fourth-removed cousin of spinach, which it smells like when you cook it. Legend has it that Inca soldiers mixed it up with fat, rolled it into spheres and called them “war balls” — not to lob as ammunition, but to eat for warrior energy. Wouldn’t you love to see “war balls” on a menu?

But the first time I tried to cook this quinoa (after mispronouncing it to the guy with the regulation dreadlocks in the heath-food shop — “Actually, it’s pronounced keen-waa” he snorted, making it sound like a cross between a world music artist and a dubious oriental sexual practice), it was a disaster. My first mistake — and don’t let it be yours — was not to rinse the tiny grains to wash off the bitter saponins, the same chemicals that give uncooked spinach its acidic bite and can leave a soapy aftertaste.

In theory it is prewashed but there is always some residue. You need a really fine-mesh colander to do it, and if you don’t do it you end up with a bitter, gelatinous porridge.

My second mistake was to be unduly alarmed that halfway through cooking, the kernels seemed to grow little tails — less like protein, more like protozoa. “Good God, they’re alive!” I shrieked, running out of the kitchen to phone Rentokil. The third mistake was to taste it neat.

Still determined to have quinoa for breakfast, it was back to the health-food shop to buy “quinoa popcorn” — suitable for a cold cereal, it said. This turned out to be a gross misnomer: nothing like film food, but a bit more like a tiny version of puffed wheat, without the personality.

A splash of freezing cold soya milk — may as well go the whole health hog — and a dollop of honey, and I still felt as if I was eating Styrofoam packaging granules.

You know you are doing something wrong with quinoa when top people — not just health gurus such as Holford, Joanna Hall and Matt Roberts, but proper food lovers like Nigel Slater — say it goes with everything, cooks faster than rice, tastes nutty and the little tail things add crunch.

So it was back to the kitchen to toast the quinoa first in a cast iron pan (makes the world of difference), stir-fry some vegetables with plenty of onions, garlic, ginger and soy sauce, boil the toasted quinoa (one part grain to three parts low-salt vegetable stock), mix the lot up and chuck in some raw pumpkin seeds and a few snips of spring onion, and it was actually moreish, whereas most of my recipe improvisations are lessish.

The key is to use it like rice in savoury dishes, not porridge or anything sweet or breakfast-like, go for a mix of textures (crunchy, soft, and inbetween) and strong flavours and you can’t go wrong.