Ancient Grains: What’s Old is New Again

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By Mary Menz, gardener and outdoor educator for the Teller-Park Conservation District
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Many people see the words “ancient grains” and think they refer to trendy restaurant fare. That’s partly true; ancient grains are featured as side dishes and bakery goods in many fine restaurants. The online marketplace is also littered with marketing of ancient grains in new food products.

But after taking a backseat for hundreds of years to modern grains like wheat, corn and rice, true ancient grains are making a comeback -- and not just in trendy eateries. Crops like spelt, einkorn, amaranth, quinoa (pronounced “keen-wah”) and others have been feeding the masses since time began. Soon, they could be feeding the masses again.

Quinoa, in particular, has become a common food staple and not just for people in the Andean regions of Peru, where the crop originated more than 6,000 years ago.

According to Nanna Meyer (RD/PhD), professor at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, quinoa has an extremely valuable nutrition profile.

“It’s an excellent source of protein, providing many of the essential amino acids needed by our bodies for tissue growth and repair. It’s high in dietary fiber and is an excellent protein source for vegans who also incorporate beans in their diet and for people who live a gluten-free lifestyle by necessity or choice.”

 

Growing Quinoa in Colorado

The Inca referred to quinoa as the “mother grain.” The United Nations has called quinoa a super food. And for all of the same reasons shared by Meyer, Joe Morin of Lake George, Colorado, agrees that quinoa is a nearly perfect food source.

“Quinoa is the best food in the world,” says Joe Morin. “That’s why God made it fairly difficult to grow, more difficult to harvest, and nearly impossible to thresh, winnow and then clean it of its bitter protective covering (saponin) that keeps birds and insects from consuming the crop.”

Morin, along with his family, has first-hand experience performing all of the growing and harvesting tasks by hand.

“Two acres doesn’t sound like a lot of quinoa until you find yourself standing amidst 200,000 plants—harvesting one at a time,” he says.

Like the Inca did 4,000 years ago, the Morins do it all themselves.

“We can’t justify the expense of a combined and advanced processing machinery, so we do what we can to keep the art of growing quinoa alive with our primitive and insanely arduous techniques.”

Morin is modest about the very small-scale farming operation that he recently inherited from his father. His dad, Joe Morin Sr., was an informal participant in Colorado State University’s 1984 quinoa trials. No one really knew what to expect back then from the seeds that arrived from similar altitudes of South America. It was remarkable that the plant grew in the dry climate and decomposed granite found in our fair state.

Like the mid-80s foothills plantings of his father, Morin found that the quinoa plants thrive in Lake George at an altitude of 9,400 feet. The 3- to 9-foot stalks begin life in various shades of gorgeous green woody stems and later transform into fall colors mimicking those of the aspens that surround Morin’s fields. The large drooping seed heads comprise up to half of the plant’s total height at maturity.

“The harvest is a fulfilling endeavor that allows us to get out, get dirty and — in a good year — sell a few hundred pounds more than we eat ourselves,” Morin says.

 

Cooking and Eating Quinoa

Rinsing quinoa before cooking is the most important part of the process. Rinsing eliminates the bitter resin, or saponin, coating.

Some people like to toast it in a small amount of oil and then simmer with water or broth until all of the liquid has been absorbed. Quinoa can be cooked and eaten like a risotto, porridge, or a pilaf depending on how much liquid is used to cook and soften the grain, which exposes the germ of the quinoa kernel.

The grain is a versatile dish that can be adapted with vegetables, grated parmesan cheese, and other creative ingredients. For variety, try it in a cold, chopped salad.

 

More About Quinoa

The CSU Extension service website has quite of bit of useful information about quinoa.

Check it out at http://www.ext.colostation.edu.

For even more in-depth and scientific information, be sure to read the Alternative Field Crops Manual from Purdue University’s horticulture department. Access it at http://www.hort.purdue.edu/newcrop/afcm/quinoa.html.

If, after reading this article, you’d like to try your hand at growing quinoa, look for seeds available from Botanical Interests. The company's “Quinoa Brightest Brilliant Rainbow Organic Seed,” Chenopodium quinoa (Item #2013) is available in garden stores along the Front Range.