I was going to write about salad harvesting as the warm weather has brought on the tasty green leaf season however, I thought I had better dedicate an entry to quinoa as it is now May and the frosts are receding leaving anyone who wants to plant some protein-rich grain right now before the sowing season ends in June. If you are unsure about this crop, hopefully this will change your mind.
A friend of my mum’s tried growing quinoa last year. He said, I think I quote correctly, that it was ‘a waste of time’, meaning they either did not germinate or died without giving him a single seed. After this I was skeptical about trying to grow something that sounded so exotic but my mum was encouragingly excited for us to try it.
We bought our seeds from a delightful online company caller ‘Read Seeds’ (http://www.realseeds.co.uk). We bought a lot of lovely packets from them and all are (so far…) doing really well. It is a delightful company and I would recommend checking them out as they have excellent principles on the using and purchasing of seeds for your veg patch and are worth the pennies spent on their unusual offers (Tree Cabbage, Mibuna, Mispoona, Sutherland Kale are just a couple of examples of what we purchased this year).
They offer the following varieties of quinoa:
‘Rainbow’ – if left long enough with patience, the seeds on the plant turn different colours. It is an ideal variety for growing in damp locations in soggy England.
‘Temuco’ – comes from South America and is a good choice for wet, windy parts of the UK as they have open seed heads that help to shed the rain without damaging the plant.
However, another very common weed looks exactly like quinoa. Fat hen is a native summer annual, common garden weed that thrives throughout England – and loves my garden soil. Fat hen was eaten as a vegetable from Neolithic times until the 16th century when it was replaced by spinach and cabbage. It is rich in vitamin C. The seeds were ground into flour and in Canada it was grown as food for pigs and sheep. Although it can contain potentially harmful levels of nitrates, cases of poisoning are rare. It is very efficient at extracting nutrients from the soil. Fat hen is an important constituent in the diet of farmland birds. The leaves are a source of ascaridole, an oil used to treat infestations of round worms and hook worms. It is one of the foragers’ perks yet is an invasive weed for the vegetable gardener, taking over the beds so if you do decide to keep it, try your best to keep it under control.
Fat hen image from internet – looks identical to quinoa
The other grain that I have bought from ‘Real Seeds’ that is similar to quinoa is amaranth. ‘Real Seeds’ sell ‘Mixed Grain Amaranths’. They make up to 200,000 seed per plant, are very easy to thresh. The seeds don’t need grinding as they are so small the chef can just add them to anything. Very filling and nutritious, ‘Real Seeds’ say that they add it to rice as it adds both flavour and protein. Harvesting is much like quinoa and sowing times are the same. So far these are doing as well as the quinoa in the ground. More on this crop later to see how it is getting along.
They recommend sowing quinoa seeds from late April to early June so that you get a harvest from September to October. After trailing the internet and seeing that some people sowed their quinoa indoors or undercover as early as March, I keenly sowed my first batch at this time, indoors, in a hot room in a seed tray of compost. They did well – until a slug broke in and nibbled half of them before I found it and tossed it outside in disgrace.
I sowed another batch indoors last month, sometime in the middle of April. These germinated even more successfully than the previous lot. I planted out all of the quinoa last week in trenches that had been filled with rotted manure, compost and sand before being topped with a thick layer of mulch earlier this year. They are in a sunny spot so I am currently using fleece as shade and protection from any wind. Quinoa apparently likes sandy soil and a sunny site. So far, I am surprised to say, most look happy! Let us hope that I can keep them going a little longer and I might even harvest a couple of seeds later in the year.
Quinoa is ready for harvest in 90-120 days. While you are waiting, you can pick some of the young leaves to add to your salad and steam them to use as greens.
When the leaves have fallen and only the dried seed heads remain on the stalks, quinoa is ready to harvest. As long as the weather is dry, the seeds will withstand a few light frosts. Allow the seeds to dry out naturally on the stalk if the weather is dry. If the weather is wet remove the stalks and lay them out to dry in an area that is sheltered from the rain. Dry the seeds until they are difficult to dent with your fingernail.
The dry quinoa seeds are easy to harvest. Using a gloved hand, seeds can be easily stripped upwards off the stalk. You can blow away small pieces of dirt or debris by pouring the grain from one container onto another in front of a gently blowing fan or use a screen to sift the grain. Thoroughly dry the quinoa grains before storing by spreading them out in the hot sun or in near an indirect heat source. Dried quinoa grains should be stored in air-tight containers in a cool, dark location. Quinoa will store in this way for up to six months.
An Andean plant that originated from Lake Titicaca, Peru and Bolivia, quinoa was cultivated and used by pre-Columbian civilisations and used as a local food staple. It was replaced by cereals on the arrival of the Spanish. At the time of Spanish arrival, quinoa was well-developed and widely distributed beyond Inca territory. The first Spaniard to record quinoa noted that the Native Indians planted crops around Concepción for food. Quinoa is then described as being one of the second grains cultivated on the face of the earth, somewhat resembling millet or short-grain rice. It is also recorded that the first shipment of seeds to Europe arrived dead and unable to germinate because of the high humidity of the sea voyage. In 1560, Cieza de León reported that quinoa was cultivated in the highlands of Pasto and Quito in abundance. Little maize was grown but the quinoa apparently thrived in this cooler climate. Throughout history, explorers have noted that quinoa is a staple food source for indigenous populations in South America in particular.
Historical evidence indicates that its domestication may have occurred between 3,000 and 5,000 BCE. Archeological discoveries of quinoa in tombs in Chile and in different regions of Peru support this theory. Before domestication, wild quinoa was probably first used for its leaves and seeds. Early evidence of its morphology can be witnessed on pottery sourced from the Tiahuanaco culture depicting a quinoa plant with several panicles along its stem, which would suggest one of the more primitive strains of the plant. Quinoa has undergone a wide range of morphological changes during its domestication and as a result of human activity. These include a more compact inflorescence at the tip of the plant, an increase in size of stem and seed, loss of seed dispersal mechanisms and high levels of pigmentation. These changes that can be witnessed in almost any crop cultivated by humans most likely occurred for the purpose of tolerance for climates and the necessary need we have for them.
Quinoa has had a lot of press lately about being a health food. It is high in protein, uncommon for some grains, and is considered a source of essential amino acids. Many vitamin Es are sources in quinoa, difficult again to find in grains and it is a very good source of manganese, phosphorus, copper, magnesium, dietary fiber, folate and zinc. For the home growing vegetarian or vegan, quinoa is an excellent crop to try to grow.
Quinoa seeds are naturally protected from insects and birds by a yellow coating that tastes bitter. This is removed by soaking the seeds overnight and rinsing a few times in cold water before cooking for about ten minutes, or until the seeds have absorbed all of the water, just like rice would. Consider preparing quinoa like you would do for dried beans.
As far as eating quinoa is concerned, it is just like any other grain. You cook it and serve it like rice or couscous. However, I found that it does have a slightly nutty or, unsurprisingly, seedy taste and texture making it, well, gritty. Have no fear, if a fussy eater like me can get by that, then you are fine. I have eaten it along with salads and on its own in other ways but the best way I have found so far is to serve it with some sort of stew instead or along with rice. Therefore, I offer you my mum’s Chicken Casserole. We used to eat this with rice all the time but now we sometimes serve quinoa instead or alongside it for variation and added protein. For vegetarians or vegans, omit the chicken and if you like, serve it with some mushrooms or beans instead (butter beans are my favourite for this but it is equally delicious just plain). This is a ‘quick’ version, cooking the chicken before adding it to the dish rather than having to leave the meat to slowly cook in the casserole for hours.
Chicken Casserole with Quinoa
– 2 large chicken breasts, cut into pieces – Olive oil, for frying – 1 large onion, peeled and thinly sliced – 2 large garlic cloves, diced – x2 450g tinned tomatoes – 4 large carrots, peeled and sliced into thin circles – Dash of Lea and Perrin’s – Dash of dark soy sauce – 1/4tsp Miso paste – Salt and pepper, to flavour – 300g quinoa – Peas, broccoli, cabbage, kale or runner beans, to serve – Greek yoghurt, to serve (optional)
- Put the olive oil in a frying pan and gently fry the chicken until cooked. Take the frying pan off the heat and set aside.
- In a large, heavy-based pan or casserole dish, add a little more olive oil and the chopped onion. Fry on a high heat until the onion starts to brown and then turn the flame down to a simmer.
- Add the garlic and the tinned tomatoes, stirring the ingredients together. Turn the flame up to high and add the disc-shaped cut carrots. Once the dish is bubbling, add the chicken and turn the flame down to simmer again. If you are adding any mushrooms or cooked beans, add them now too.
- Add the flavourings: a dash of Lea and Perrin’s will give it some heat, a dash of soy sauce will give it some more salty flavouring, a 1/4tsp miso paste will give it some more taste but it is quite strong so use only a little. Add a grating of salt and pepper over the top, stir and put a lid over the top of the dish and leave it to simmer for at least ten minutes, longer if you have time to let the flavours combine and the carrots to cook.
- To cook the quinoa, place a small amount of water in a pan, just enough to cover the quinoa, and bring it to the boil. Add the quinoa and turn the heat down to a simmer. Once the quinoa has absorbed all of the water and has turned soft, remove from the heat. Put another pan of water onto boil and add the prepared green vegetables of choice. Drain once boiled.
- To serve, place a helping of quinoa on a plate, a helping of casserole over the top alongside the green vegetables and, if you like, try a spoonful of Greek yoghurt on the side.
- Left overs can be stored in the fridge or frozen.