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Quinoa: The Secret Weapon of the Aztecs!

By September 20, 2012January 7th, 2023Cuisine

Quinoa: the 6,000 Year-Old Miracle Food!


Packed with more protein and minerals than almost all other foods, quinoa (pronounced “keen-woh”) is an ancient grass, and its seeds were a primary food group in the diet of the ancient Mayans and Azetcs.  Today, quinoa is enjoying a roaring return to popularity amongst foodies on at least four continents.  It’s a staple of healthy living and vegetarian lifestyles, as it is wheat and gluten free.


In the past few years, quinoa has graced the menus of 5* restaurants and elementary school lunch boxes alike.   Quinoa is ubiquitous!  You find it in muffins, inside a turkey on Thanksgiving, alongside kale in a Co-op salad bar, and on the “A” shelf in the grain section.   You can buy quinoa flour and quinoa pasta.  Where I come from in the United States, there are even quinoa burgers (I like quinoa, but that seems excessive.)  There is red quinoa and black quinoa and plain old beige quinoa.

Quinoa Needs Help!

I’ll be honest with you – quinoa is great, but not on its own.  I think of it as an oboe  — pleasant yet dull as a solo instrument,but  so much better in an ensemble!   The grains are very absorbent and so lend themselves beautifully  to dressings and vinaigrettes.   Because quinoa has a distinctively nutty and earthy flavor, I find it best to introduce opposing flavors to set it off.  Citrus is a natural choice, as is ginger, sesame, garlic, and onion.  They all show up in this easy and versatile quinoa salad, which is perfect as a side dish, ideal as ballast and heft to a green salad, or satisfying just on its own for a quick and nutritious snack or lunch.

Quinoa Pairs Well!

Quinoa is a natural accompaniment to all game, poultry, and some fish.  It makes a great canvas to roasted vegetable and a reliable partner for legumes — notably chick peas and lentils.  My rule of thumb is:  the meatier your meat, the lighter your dressing should be.  Try the recipe below with turkey, chicken, or shrimp.

Orange Sesame Quinoa Salad with Dried Cherries:

This salad, partially inspired by Whole Food’s version with lemon, dill, and cranberry owes much as well to Maria Speck’s wonderful cookbook, “Ancient Grains for Modern Meals,” which I enthusiastically recommend for anyone looking to explore the world of grains further.  It  can  be served molded for an elegant presentation, or just heaped in a serving dish, garnished with bright green cilantro and mint and the accent black of toasted sesame seeds!


Sesame Citrus Quinoa Salad


  • 250 ml (1 cup) quinoa
  • 500 ml (2-1/2 cups) water
  • 150 gm (5 oz) dried cherries
  • 1 bunch scallions
  • 1 red, yellow or orange pepper (diced)
  • 30 ml (2 Tbl) olive or vegetable oil


  • 75 ml (1/3-cup) sherry vinegar
  • 75 ml (1/3-cup) sesame oil
  • 1 orange (zested, then juiced )
  • 75 ml (1/3-cup) olive oil
  • 1 knob fresh ginger (peeled and grated)
  • 15 ml (1 Tbl)sumac (available at farmers’ markets and many Halal stores)
  • 15 ml (1 Tbl) sea salt
  • 30 ml (2 Tbl) coriander seeds (crushed with a mortar and pestle)
  • 1 ml (1/4-tsp) ground cinnamon


  • 75 ml (1/3-cup) fresh mint (roughly chopped)
  • 75 ml (1/3-cup) fresh coriander (cilantro) (roughly chopped)
  • 30 ml (2 Tbl) black sesame seeds (toasted)


  • Place all of the Vinaigrette ingredients into a food processor fitted with a steel blade or in and process for 10-20 seconds until well combined. You can also use a hand-held mixer. Set aside.
  • Rinse the quinoa grains in a sieve under cold running water.
  • Heat the 2 Tbl (30 ml) or olive or vegetable oil in a deep skillet or Dutch Oven over moderate heat. Add the scallions and a pinch of sea salt and cook for approximately 1-1/2 minutes until the scallions are soft.
  • Add the quinoa and stir with the back of a wooden spoon to ensure that the grains are thoroughly coated with the oil. Take care that they do not brown. You will know the grains have been toasted sufficiently when they begin to emit a nutty odor and the occasional grain “pops.”
  • Add the water and cherries and the remaining salt and bring to a slow boil. Immediately reduce heat to low and simmer, covered, until all of the water is absorbed by the quinoa. Use a fork to “fluff” the quinoa.
  • Decant 1/4-cup of the vinaigrette and set aside. Add the remainder to the quinoa and toss to combine. Tent loosely with tin foil or a clean tea towel and let sit for 20-30 minutes. The quinoa will absorb the vinaigrette, so don’t worry if it seems a bit soupy at first.

Prior to serving, toss the quinoa with the remaining 1/4-cup of vinaigrette, the diced peppers. Serve molded or just heaped in a serving dish, garnished with cilantro, mint and sesame seeds. 


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