Quinoa, peas and mint

Quinoa came up in a few conversations I had last week at the Allergy and FreeFrom Show, and most of what I heard was negative, with people largely expressing grim-mouthed disdain for this South American, naturally gluten-free grain. “Eurgh, it’s really soapy!” said one visitor to our stand.

Soapy? I’ve never noticed this, but I do know that quinoa is covered in bitter-tasting saponins – chemicals which form soapy or sudsy solutions when mixed with water – and I suspect that this could have been the reason for that soapy taste. Solution? Rinse it. I use hot water for a minute or so, but Cookipedia suggest more prolonged rinsing than that.

But that can’t be the only reason for its apparent unpopularity among coeliacs. I wonder whether sometimes people’s unsatisfying first cooking experiences with quinoa put them off trying a second? When you’re new to a food – any food – and you don’t have a great time with it on your first date, it can, I know, put you off for years. I won’t forget my first fling with okra when I was a student in the 80s. How wrong can you go, I reasoned at the time, by first slicing it and rinsing it in preparation to fry it up into a nice curry? Very wrong, as the mucilaginous horror show that resulted in my sieve proved – a culinary nightmare from which it would take 20 years to recover.

Similar thing happened with pomegranates. First time I bought them I had the misfortune to acquire some filled with grim pinky brown seeds which were clearly past their best and tasted like it. Some ten years later, I stumbled upon those glorious, heavy, deep purple, winey Middle Eastern pomegranates – much better than the smaller yellow Spanish ones – and suddenly realised what the fuss was about. They’re now one of my favourite fruits.

So, had I let myself loose on quinoa without a benign guiding hand I perhaps would have stumbled and prepared it badly and put myself off the stuff until, I don’t know, 2028. It was colleague and friend and queen of quinoa Michelle Berriedale-Johnson who first introduced me to it with a dish of quinoa and okra, no less, and I think it may have been this one. It was delicious, I was hooked – and the bonus was discovering okra to be Not Evil.

mintpeasquinoaI’m a wheatie and I’m an Italian. Among the Italians in my world, and those who cross my path, pasta is invariably revered. So what I’m about to say goes against the grain in more ways than one, and is blatant treason: I don’t really rate pasta as a health food. The Italian diet is terrific because of its emphasis on fresh fish and vegetables and home cooking – not for the foods for which we mostly know it, ie pizza and pasta. These aren’t eaten as often as you might think, and often when they are, they are made from scratch, and so likely to be far healthier than ready-made versions seen here. It’s also just too easy for people to go wrong with pizza (too much cheese; not enough veggie toppings) and ditto pasta (simply serving too much of the stuff; adding cheesy rich sauces), that what could and should be averagely healthy-ish fare is served up overly starchy and too fatty.

It is damn tough to go wrong with quinoa on this level. Cheese absolutely doesn’t work with it, and it begs for healthy treatment with vegetables and herbs. Despite my gluten-chomping, and my ethnic background, quinoa has replaced pasta (and rice) as number one staple in my house, and no guest has ever grumbled at being served it.

So, it may be a bit of a predictable choice for Caleigh’s Mint Madness Monday, but there was never any contest because the thought of making minty quinoa appealed immediately. I don’t think I got hold of the best mint: I’m afraid it was one of those sorry little pots you find in Sainsbury’s which invariably makes a violent bid for suicide during the five minute journey from supermarket to home, so try to get hold of some proper fresh and wild stuff, which grows like crazy.

The recipe is simple and non-controversial, and if you’re still thinking you find it bitter, you could, actually, chuck a few pomegranate seeds in it, mix it up, and serve it at room temperature. Even if you don’t try this, or Michelle’s many other terrific quinoa recipes, I would obviously urge you to give quinoa another go and add it to your repertoire, even if you have had an unsatisfactory early experience with it, especially if you’re gluten-free. It’s not that strong tasting, and absorbs flavours well. It could be you just haven’t yet found a quinoa recipe you like yet. Keep looking.

Serves 2

200-250g Quinoa, rinsed in hot water
2 carrots
3 sticks celery
1 large onion
2 cloves garlic
A mugful (or more) of frozen peas
Vegetable stock (made from GF bouillon, two teaspoons) – around 500ml
Lots and lots of mint and lemon or lime juice
Black pepper if you like

If you want to gently fry the chopped vegetables and garlic in some olive oil first, you can, but I make this virtually fat free and just start to simmer all the vegetables, including peas, in the stock, for a few minutes before adding the quinoa and continuing to cook fairly vigorously for around 15 minutes, until the quinoa’s appearance changes, the tails detach from the grains, and it all fluffs up a bit as it cooks. Add water if you need to as it cooks. Once cooked, remove from heat, let it stand to absorb remaining liquid, then add lots of citrus juice and abandunt chopped mint. Stir. Serve. Eat.

For other recipes in the mint gluten-free recipe challenge, see Caleigh’s blog here


  1. gluten-free[k]

    I love quinoa! I have had a couple of over-cooking issues when I have either added too much water, or forgotten that it was on the stove – it goes a bit porridgy when you do that…

    I like the look of this recipe, I shall certainly be giving it a go soon.

  2. Lola

    How surprising to find this in my blog reader – I cooked my first quinoa this evening!

    It was a tabbouleh-style salad, with tomatoes, cucumber, mint, parsley and lemon juice. I am away from home and didn't have any measuring equipment in the rented apartment, so I had to guess at the proportions of grain to liquid and it all ended up a bit wet, but I'm going to have another try later in the week.

    I couldn't actually pick out the taste of the quinoa among all that herby vegetably goodness! But I did rinse it first.

  3. charissa (zest bakery)

    I've been looking for a substitute for my beloved couscous and this sounds like a winner. Look forward to giving it a try.

  4. Michelle Berriedale-Johnson

    Eureka – converts!!

    I love quinoa – as Alex has already pointed out – both for itself and as a great substitute for rice or bulgar/couscous in almost any dish. Well, not great in a creamy Risotto Milanese – but I did say almost… And Alex is right – it works much better with 'healthy' ingredients – not great with cream or butter – much better with oil and coconut, and, of course, okra!!
    And, of course, it is nutritionally excellent – loads of protein, minerals, B vitamins, folate, low fat, low calorie; no vitamin C but then you always cook it with vegetables which have lots!!

    If you want inspiration there are a positively embarrassing number of recipes in the 'veg' section of our recipes site here – http://www.freefromrecipesmatter.com/recipes/fm_veg/index_veg.html. Happy cooking!

    PS One thing to remember is that quinoa does not swell as much as the rice or wheat for which you might exchange it, so remember to use more than you would with either of the others.

  5. Alex G

    Ah, yes – some quinoa fans! Must say Lola's recipe sounds very good. Despite saying that cheese doesn't work with it I can't help wondering whether it could handle some cubes of feta in that recipe?

  6. Lola

    As a matter of fact, I did consider feta, but instead I sprinkled some cubes of goats cheese on top – I personally prefer it to feta, more mellow and fragrant and less sharp.

  7. Alex G

    Yep, I may be tempted to try that!

  8. Pingback: Savoy, leek and tomato quinoa: low cost and classless | Naturally Healthy Life

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

By continuing to use the site, you agree to the use of cookies. Please read our Privacy Policy and our Affiliates Disclosure in 'About' more information

The cookie settings on this website are set to "allow cookies" to give you the best browsing experience possible. If you continue to use this website without changing your cookie settings or you click "Accept" below then you are consenting to this.