Ten years ago I was on an island in the middle of Lake Titicaca in Peru. There was no electricity, no roads, no formal government and no meat. I was staying with a local family and at dinner they served me a vegetable soup. In the soup were hundreds of tiny tadpole-looking things. I was afraid to ask what they were until after I finished eating. To my surprise they were not insects or animals at all, they were quinoa seeds whose "tails" made them look like an unformed creature. This was before quinoa became an internationally known superfood. There in the highlands of Peru people had been cultivating and eating quinoa as a staple for thousands of years. Quinoa is a nutrient rich complete source of protein. Astronauts eat it in space because of the high nutritional quality. It is also one of the most beautiful crops I have ever seen. The plants are about 6 feet tall with its green leaves contrasted by its brightly colored seed heads. They can be yellow, orange, purple and red or sometimes even two toned.
While often considered a grain, quinoa is actually a seed. It belongs to the Amaranthaceae family along with spinach, beets, and lambsquarters, a very common weed found all over the world. Quinoa seeds are what are most often consumed but the leaves are also edible and highly nutritious.
I decided that while I was living in the heart of the Andes mountains in South America I should try growing quinoa in its native soil. They are rather big plants so I only planted about a dozen to see how they would do. Within seven months the stalks were as tall as I was and were vibrant ,bright, beautiful plants blowing in the wind. These plants basically grew themselves. When you grow a plant in its natural habitat it can thrive without human intervention. While growing it only required me to plant and harvest, the processing of harvesting the seeds was laborious. The seed heads have hundreds of seeds protected in its seed case. The quinoa seed was drying on the plant but this was attracting birds so I cut the seed stalks off of a few plants and brought them home to dry on a tarp.
I let them dry for ten days so that the plants would be brittle and separate from the seed easily. I stripped the seeds from the stalk wearing gloves and then crushed and threshed. The light papery seed coats are called chaff and since it is so light it can be blown away while the seeds are heavy enough to fall, a process called winnowing.
I set up an electric household fan on low and slowly poured the seeds into a bowl in front of the fan. I did this over and over until most of the chaff was blown away and separated.
Quinoa naturally has a bitter soapy coating from a compound called saponin. I had to rinse the seeds before I cooked them to remove the bitter taste. I used most of this harvest making a lemon herb quinoa chicken soup with lemons and herbs from our backyard.
This was my first time growing a starchy staple crop and it served as a good reminder of how easily available food is for us now. Even though I did a lot of this by hand I still had the help of plastic sheeting and a fan to blow the chaff away. I can’t image doing this process on a regular basis. Below is the recipe for the soup I made. The richness of the chicken stock is balanced well by the bright flavor of the lemon and herbs.
Lemon Herb Quinoa Chicken Soup
5 cups chicken stock (home made is best)
¾ cup quinoa, rinsed
2 celery stalks
1 large yellow onion
2 tbsp oil or butter
Salt and pepper to taste
Fresh herbs in any combination you like (sage, rosemary, cilantro)
Juice and zest of one lemon
Splash of white wine vinegar
In a large pot add the oil or butter. Lightly brown the onions and carrots, then add the celery, quinoa, and chicken stock. Add salt and pepper to taste. Cook for 20-30 minutes until quinoa is cooked and vegetables are tender. Add the chopped herbs, lemon, and vinegar at the very end to retain their flavor.