By Gretchen McKay


Quinoa: A high-octane fuel for hungry runners

Categories : Food , Uncategorized
The food of the Incas, quinoa is considered a "superfood" because it's so nutritious/Gretchen McKay




This time of year when so many are obsessing about eating less in an effort to fit into warm-weather shorts and bathing suits, it’s all I can do not to think about food and how much of it I can possibly stuff in my mouth. Spring ushers in the start of racing season — the city’s biggest running event, the Pittsburgh Marathon, is May 6 — and with it, the long weekend training runs that make my fellow distance runners and me feel so very hungry.

This year, a record-breaking 25,000 have signed up for the city’s full and half marathons, the majority of them (56 percent) women. That means there’s a whole bunch of people rooting around in their refrigerators and pantries looking for something tasty with which to fuel and refuel their hard-working bodies.

Pasta and other high-carb foods are obvious choices in the weeks leading up to an endurance event such as a marathon to assure adequate stores of glycogen, the muscle’s primary fuel source during exercise. But runners need protein, too, to help build and repair muscles, along with fat and fiber to keep them regular during training. And don’t forget lots (and lots) of water.

In other words, that power bar that hits the spot so perfectly after a morning on the trails ain’t gonna cut it over the long run.

It’s time to get your game on with a one-stop food that’s not just super delicious, but also super nutritious: quinoa.

A member of the goosefoot family, which include beets, spinach and chard, quinoa (pronounced “keen-wah”) has been nourishing people for thousands of years. It was particularly revered by the ancient Incas, who considered the sacred seed grown in South America’s Andean mountain region chisaya mama, or the “mother of all grains.” It was so prized, in fact, that leaders planted the first seeds each season using a golden shovel and planned celebrations around the harvest, write Jessica Harlan and Kelley Sparwasser in “Quinoa Cuisine” (Ulysses, March 2012, $16.95).

Spanish explorers who conquered the Incas in the 16th century destroyed the fields in which the plant was grown along with the rest of their civilization, and as a result, quinoa — declared illegal — almost disappeared from Andean dinner tables. Even after those South American countries won their independence in the 1820s, and the plant again could be freely grown, its comeback was slow. Only the poor and provincial fed it to their families.

Introduced commercially to Americans in the 1980s, quinoa is still relatively unknown in many home kitchens. Which is unfortunate, because few foods can match the seed’s nutritional profile.

You name it, quinoa’s got it. It’s a complete protein that contains all eight essential amino acids, it also is rich in calcium, iron, fiber and potassium, and is an excellent source of folate, magnesium, vitamin B6, thiamin, niacin, potassium, and riboflavin. And all for 222 calories a cup.

Quinoa also is gluten-free, so it’s a good choice for people with celiac disease or those who are sensitive to gluten, wheat and other grass-based food products.

If that doesn’t sell you on the food, consider this:

Because it’s higher in protein and fiber than corn or wheat (the germ in its seeds makes up about 60 percent of the grain), quinoa will help you feel fuller longer. So you may actually end up eating less. Well, theoretically, at least, because once you try it, you’re going to find that you like it, even in recipes as disparate as chili, lasagna and cookies, as my family discovered.

Quinoa is prepared much like rice or pearled barley in about 15 minutes — you can boil it, cook it in a rice cooker, bake or microwave it, using one part grain to two parts liquid — but the results are crunchier and nuttier tasting. It comes in four colors with varying flavors — white, which is the most common, mildest and cheapest; slightly nuttier-tasting red; black, which has the earthiest flavor and a seedlike crunchiness; and tri-color (also called rainbow), which is a mix of all three.

It’s not your cheapest grain — I paid $3.99 per pound for bulk white quinoa at Giant Eagle Market District Robinson, and $8.99 for a 16-ounce bag of Eden organic red quinoa — but keep in mind that it triples in volume when cooked. Though it’s harder to find, some stores also carry quinoa flakes — good as a substitute for oatmeal or breadcrumbs — and quinoa flour.

Often served as a side dish (it makes for a wonderful pilaf, especially when paired with fruit and nuts), cooked quinoa also can headline a meal in soups, chili, stir-fries, casseroles, stews and salads. Surprisingly, it’s also a great addition to baked goods and desserts. For instance, I subbed cooked red quinoa for dried cranberries in a batch of chocolate chip cookies with pretty good results.

Whatever you plan on stirring quinoa into, make sure you rinse the seeds under cool running water before cooking them, to remove any traces of a bitter coating called saponin that might have escaped manufacturers’ pre-washing. Store quinoa like other grains, in a tightly closed container in a dry, cool place.

The following dishes will help you fuel up for your long training runs, or bring your weary body back to life after you’ve put in the miles.

Gretchen McKay








Two-bean quinoa chili

PG tested

I couldn’t find black quinoa so substituted red.

  • 1/2 cup black quinoa, rinsed
  • 1 cup water
  • 1 tablespoon canola oil
  • 1 medium yellow onion, diced
  • 1 medium clove garlic, minced
  • 3/4 pound ground turkey or chicken
  • 28-ounce can crushed tomatoes (preferably fire-roasted)
  • 15-ounce can kidney beans, rinsed and drained
  • 15-ounce can black beans, rinsed and drained
  • 1 tablespoon ground cumin
  • 2 teaspoons chili powder, or to taste
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 2 teaspoons dried Mexican oregano

Chili “fixings” such as shredded cheese, sliced green onions, sour cream

In a small saucepan over high heat, bring quinoa and water to a boil, then reduce heat to low, cover and cook until water has been absorbed and the quinoa is tender, 18 to 20 minutes. Turn off heat and let quinoa sit for 5 minutes. Fluff with fork, cover and keep warm.

In a large heavy pot, such as a Dutch oven, heat canola oil over medium heat. Add onion and saute, stirring occasionally, until transluscent and beginning to brown, 7 to 9 minutes. Add garlic and saute, stirring constantly, for 30 seconds. Add turkey or chicken and cook, stirring frequently and breaking up the meat into small chunks, until meat is cooked, about 5 minutes.

Add tomaotes and their juices, kidney beans, black beans, cumin, chili powder, salt and oregano. Bring to simmer over high heat, then reduce heat to medium low and simmer, uncovered, for about 10 minutes to allow flavors to meld.

Stir in cooked quinoa and simmer until quinoa is heated through, about 5 minutes longer. Serve hot in bowls, letting each person garnish their chili with the fixings of their choice. Serves 6.

— “Quinoa Cuisine: 150 Creative Recipes for Super-Nutritious, Amazingly Delicious Dishes” by Jessica Harlan & Kelley Sparwasser (Ulysses Press, March 2012, $16.95)

Gretchen McKay








Quinoa Lasagna

PG tested

This creamy pasta dish is made with bechamel, a white sauce of cream and butter, so it’s not necessarily low-cal. But it tasted great.

  • 1/2 pound lasagna noodles, cooked according to package
  • 1 cup cooked quinoa
  • 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 1 small onion, chopped
  • 1 small carrot, chopped
  • 1 stalk celery, chopped
  • 1/2 pound ground chicken
  • 1 cup diced canned tomatoes
  • 1 tablespoon granulated sugar
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 2 tablespoons flour or cornstarch
  • 2 cups cream
  • 1/8 teaspoon nutmeg
  • 1 cup shredded mozzarella cheese

Set aside cooked lasagna noodles and cooked quinoa.

Heat vegetable oil in a medium saucepan and saute onion, carrot and celery until tender, about 4 minutes. Add the ground chicken and brown, stirring, breaking it up into chunks. Add tomatoes and sugar, and season to taste with salt and pepper. Simmer for 25 minutes, or until meat is cooked through.

In the meantime, make a quick bechamel sauce by making a roux with the butter and flour. Cook for 2 minutes and whisk in cream. Season with nutmeg, salt and pepper.

When the meat sauce is cooked, fold in the cooked quinoa.

To assemble, grease a loaf pan with butter or oil. Cover bottom of the pan with 2 tablespoons of bechamel sauce. Layer with a strip of pasta noodle and then top with meat-quinoa sauce. Drizzle bechamel over meat-quinoa sauce, and repeat layer(s) of pasta and sauce. Finish with bechamel sauce and shredded mozzarella cheese.

Bake at 400 degrees for 20 to 25 minutes, or until cheese and bechamel sauce are browned. Serve with a salad of greens and crusty bread.

Serves 4.

— Adapted from

Gretchen McKay








Spicy Tropical Fruit Salad

PG tested

This easy salad would be delicious with a variety of fresh fruits, too.

  • 1 cup white quinoa, rinsed
  • 2 cups water
  • 2 medium oranges, segmented, juice reserved
  • 2 tablespoons diced dried apricots
  • 2 tablespoons golden raisins
  • 1/4 cup chopped dates
  • 1/2 cup chopped dried pineapple
  • 1/3 cup chopped hazelnuts
  • 1 cup cubed jicama
  • 1 small banana, peeled and chopped
  • 2 tablespoons frozen pineapple juice concentrate, thawed
  • 2 tablespoons honey
  • 1 tablespoon spiced rum (optional)
  • 1 teaspoon chili powder
  • 1/4 cup extra-virgina olive oil
  • Kosher salt and black pepper

1/4 cup diced fresh herbs, such as chives, mint or basil

In a medium saucepan over high heat, bring quinoa and water to a boil. Reduce heat to low, cover and cook until water has been absorbed and quinoa is tender, 10 to 12 minutes. Turn off heat and let quinoa sit for 5 minutes. Fluff with fork and allow to cool.

Place orange segments in a medium bowl and the orange juice in a small bowl (you should have about 1 tablespoon). To the orange segments add cooked quinoa, dried appricots, raisins, dates, dried pineapple, hazelnuts, jicama and banana, and stir to combine.

To the bowl with orange juice add the pineapple juice concentrate, honey, spiced rum (if using) and chili powder, and whisk to combine. Slowly add olive oil while continually whisking to emulsify the dressing. Add dressing to quinoa-fruit mixture, stirring to combine. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Refrigerate until cold. Just before serving, garnish with fresh herbs.

Serves 4 to 6.

— “Quinoa Cuisine: 150 Creative Recipes for Super-Nutritious, Amazingly Delicious Dishes” by Jessica Harlan & Kelley Sparwasser (Ulysses Press, March 2012, $16.95)


Almond Chocolate-Chip Quinoa Cookies

PG tested

Who knew you could fold quinoa into cookies, and not have your family gag? I’m guessing it’s because I substiuted chocolate chips for the craisins in the original recipe.

  • 1 1/2 cups flour
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature
  • 1/4 cup sugar
  • 1/4 cup (packed) light brown sugar
  • 1/4 cup honey
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1 teaspoon vanillla extract
  • 1/2 teaspoon almond extract
  • 1 cup cooked quinoa, cooled
  • 1 cup old-fashioned oats
  • 1 cup chocolate chips
  • 1/2 cup slivered unsalted almonds

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper. Whisk flour, salt, baking powder and baking soda in a medium bowl. Using electric mixer, beat butter, both sugars and honey in a large bowl until light and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Add eggs and extracts; beat until pale and fluffy, about 2 mintues. Beat in flour mixture, 1/2 cup at a time. Stir in quinoa, oats, chocolate chips and almonds. Spoon dough in 2-tablespoon portions onto prepared sheets, spacing 1 inch apart.

Bake cookies until golden, 12 to 15 minutes. Transfer cookies to a wire rack and let cool. Store cooled cookies in an airtight container at room temperature for 1 day or freeze for up to 1 month.

Makes about 3 dozen cookies.

— Adapted from