In my constant search for healthy, wholesome camp meals, I am always on the lookout for new foods that add variety to expedition dinners while also offering excellent nutrition and saving precious cooking time. Fuel is scarce, everybody is hungry after a long day of kayaking or canoeing and no one feels like spending two hours preparing a meal, no matter how good the end result might be. Let’s put it this way: being creative with an outdoor diet can be a tall order, especially when you are on a multi-day trip; it requires a bit of work and effort. No wonder many people limit their food choices to cereal bars, Gorp and the peanut butter jar with, maybe, a hot dog on the camp fire paired with marshmallows for their first night out.
But, despite those challenges, I believe it is very important to keep looking for new ingredients for the paddling kitchen and to learn to cook them in many delicious yet simple ways to avoid boredom. That’s why I got so excited when I first discovered quinoa (pronounced keen-wah). It might very well be the amazing super food that outdoor enthusiasts crave!
How to master the cooking technique for quinoa
But the road towards including new ingredients to a regular menu is often a bumpy one, even for someone like me, who makes a living being on the lookout for finding new attractive products. I'm always up for a challenge, but I must admit that, along with extra-firm tofu, quinoa has been a particularly tough one for me for a number of years. I'll admit it: although I have long wanted to tell you more about its many advantages from a paddler’s perspective because it cooks really quickly, it is easy to add to any meal, it is loaded with good quality proteins and nutrients and it keeps well in any conditions, I've postponed that mission for one simple reason: I didn't get the results I wanted.
The problem for me was with the cooking process. Most recipes that include quinoa call for boiling the cereal under low heat until tender for about 15 minutes. But this method doesn’t work because it becomes very mushy and it separates the bran from the grain. Another problem with cooking quinoa is that you must rinse it thoroughly under running water in order to eliminate its metallic aftertaste that is linked with some residues of saponin, a harmless substance found on the grain envelope. Most of it has been eliminated in the polishing and commercial rinsing process. But it is still strongly recommended to rinse the grain once more before cooking. This can be a problem for paddlers because our fresh water supply is often limited. After many trials and errors and many recipes that were just good for the garbage bin, I have finally mastered the perfect way to cook quinoa and to make it delicious. My technique has one advantage: it is perfectly suited for a camping trip. Instead of rinsing quinoa for 5 minutes under running water, soak it for 5 minutes in 3 times its volume of water. Drain, rinse again if possible and add quinoa to a pot; cover with cold water or broth, add a pinch of salt and dry herbs like marjoram and thyme if you cook a savoury dish and bring to a gentle boil for 2 minutes. Turn off the heat and let stand 30 minutes, covered, without lifting the lid during the entire standing process. It should be perfectly done and ready to add to your favorite recipe of salad, casserole, dessert or morning cereals.
A sacred Inca food
Now that we know how to prepare quinoa, let's talk about this super food that is actually not a grain at all, but rather what's called a pseudo-cereal, which is the term used to describe plant foods that cook like cereals and have similar health benefits but belong to a different family. Quinoa comes from a plant that closely resembles spinach and Swiss chard. It has been cultivated by the Inca people since ancient times, probably as long as 6000 years, and was one of their major food staples, along with beans and corn. The Incas considered it sacred and called it chisiya ma, or mother grain. Quinoa is a very resilient plant and it can survive under harsh climatic conditions such as the ones found in the Andes. That's why it was found throughout the Inca Empire and is still today an essential staple of the Bolivian diet. Although Spanish conquistadors of the 15th century tried to eradicate quinoa in order to weaken the Inca culture the sturdy plant survived and is now making its way onto many North American supermarket shelves.
Awesome health virtues
Like most whole grain cereals quinoa is rich in fibers, iron, manganese, vitamin E and essential fats (like the ones found in olive oil). But it also has one unique quality that distinguishes it from its competition: it is very rich in excellent quality proteins. This means that its content of amino-acid (there are 16, all essential to human beings) is the most important of all grains. One and a half cups of quinoa provides 7,5 grams of proteins, which is roughly half your total requirement for one meal. Add organic soy milk and a handful of almonds and you have a complete meal! For people with gluten intolerance and celiac disease, quinoa is also an excellent alternative to wheat.
The cooking possibilities are endless: you can use quinoa as a breakfast cereal, make excellent salads, stuff bell peppers or tomatoes with it, add it to a mix of broth and vegetables to fix a quick and filling soup or create a nutritious pudding-like dessert by cooking it with maple syrup, dry fruits and milk. Add some pistachios and you’re in for a treat!
Mexican quinoa salad (4 portions)
- 4 cups cooked quinoa
- 1 small can corn, drained
- 1 can black beans, drained
- 1 red bell pepper, diced
- 1 green bell pepper, diced
- 4 green onions, diced
- 1 tsp cumin
- 1 marinated chipotle pepper, chopped (or a pinch of dry chilli pepper)
- 4 tbsp lime juice
- 4 tbsp canola oil
- Salt and pepper to taste
- Fresh coriander to taste (optional)
Mix all ingredients, let stand 10-15 minutes to blend flavors and serve. If you leave for a short trip make sure to bring along fresh coriander. Add it to the last minute to the salad for an authentic taste.
Onion, mushroom, tofu quinoa soup (4 portions)
- 1/2 cup dry mushrooms (shitake, porcini, or a mix)
- 1 large onion, diced
- 2 stalks celery, with leaves, chopped
- 1 cup uncooked quinoa, rinsed and drained
- 1 block silken extra-firm tofu, diced (no refrigeration needed)
- 8 cups chicken or vegetable broth (made with cubes and reconstituted in hot water)
- 1 tbsp roasted sesame oil
Rinse dry mushrooms and put in a pot with quinoa. Add broth, onions, celery and bring to a boil. Lower heat, cover and simmer over very low heat until quinoa is cooked (10-15 minutes). Add tofu, heat thoroughly and pour in 4 large bowls. Add sesame oil and serve as a complete meal.