Quinoa crop at Kindred Organics.
QUINOA, the ancient crop of the Incas, is one of the hottest items on menus around town. It's a relative newcomer to Australian kitchens; we're still learning how to say it (keen-wah) and how to cook it. The good news is that this superfood is being grown in our backyard.
For thousands of years, quinoa was cultivated in the mountains of Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador and Chile. Discovering its nutritional value, scientists nominated it as an ideal food for space travel. First it appeared in health food shops and, as word spread, it moved into mainstream shops and cafes. The downside of its global popularity is that many of the locals in South America can no longer afford to eat it.
It's a fantastic seed that is wholly unrefined. - Richard Seymour
In a remote area near Cradle Mountain in Tasmania, Lauran and Henriette Damen have just finished harvesting their quinoa crop. With little research or fanfare, the couple started growing the South American seed four years ago. They are Australia's first commercial quinoa growers and this is their third harvest.
Lauran and Henriette Damen from Kindred Organics. Photo: Geraldine de Burgh-Day
''It's a primitive plant that only grows where it likes,'' Lauran says. ''We've got the right climate here as it's a cool-climate crop. One of the biggest hurdles was that there was no information - just a little bit on the internet.''
The Damens grow several crops on their organic 237-hectare farm in Kindred, about 20 kilometres from Devonport. They moved with their two young sons from the Netherlands to Tasmania in 2001 in search of affordable farming land and since 2006 they have slowly converted their farm to organic principles, achieving full certification in 2010. As well as growing beef, beans, oats, wheat, spelt and linseed, they were looking for a new crop with good earning potential. They obtained some quinoa seeds from a friend and began to grow them.
Despite misconceptions that it's a grain, quinoa is actually a seed. Officially it's a chenopod and belongs to the same family as beet and spinach. It has been a hit in kitchens all over the world because of its mild nutty flavour, its high nutritional value and its versatility. Treated as a pseudo-grain, it can replace grains or rice in recipes, it's almost a complete food and it's gluten-free.
While nutritionist Rosemary Stanton doesn't like the term ''superfood'', she says quinoa comes as close as you can get to a complete food. It's an excellent protein source and a good source of iron, magnesium, potassium, zinc, B-complex vitamins and amino acids.
Attempts to grow it in the US have met with little success. In Western Australia, scientists are running field trials. Dr Jon Clements, of the University of Western Australia, says: ''The crop is still experimental. It has enormous potential - it is a crop that is salt- and drought-tolerant.''
In Tasmania, the Damens are ahead of the pack. They are already producing organic white quinoa, which is sold in Tasmanian, Melbourne and Sydney shops under their Kindred Organics label and it's also available under the Mount Zero label. It's an eye-catching crop that often attracts the attention of neighbouring farmers and passers-by as the seeds change from green to red and the leaves are multi-coloured.
However, growing quinoa is not easy. The seed looks like grass, so it's difficult to tell the quinoa from the weeds. Harvesting is the easy part, Lauran says; it's the weeding that's the killer. For two to three months while it's growing, the Damens draft in 15 to 20 backpackers to help them weed by hand. The crop is cut and threshed to obtain the seeds, which are then dried. The Damens clean, polish and pack the quinoa themselves on the farm.
This year, the Damens produced about 40 tonnes of quinoa from 35 hectares, though yields are still an unknown quantity. They hope to plant more of the crop in October for the next season. They believe their crop tastes as good as the South American variety and it's organic and low in food miles.
Quinoa protects itself from birds with a bitter outer coating of saponin. Most South American quinoa is washed but the Kindred crop is not. Henriette says the flavour is better if it's washed just before use. ''It loses some goodness when washed and we want to keep it in as close to its original state as we can.''
Chef Cath Claringbold has cooked with the Tasmanian quinoa and its leaves (which are difficult to source). ''The product is different from the imported one as it has not been washed as much so it has a slightly bitter edge. The grains are slightly smaller but it's beautiful all the same,'' she says.
Another fan is Richard Seymour, who has sourced the product for his Mount Zero label, the first time he has moved outside the Wimmera.
''It is a fantastic seed that is wholly unrefined, with great flavour, incredibly nutritious, sustainably grown and is an Australian product,'' he says. ''Bringing seed from across Bass Strait …. is far better than dragging it across the Pacific.''
Kindred quinoa is available from: Organic Wholefoods, Fitzroy; Leo's, Hartwell; Sunnybrook, Ormond; CERES, Brunswick; and Bendigo Wholefoods, Bendigo. See kindredorganics.com.au
COOKING WITH QUINOA
WASH quinoa three or four times (once or twice if prewashed) but don't soak, as it absorbs saponin and becomes bitter. As it's already wet, don't put too much water in the saucepan - 12 millimetres above the quinoa will do. Cook for 10 to 12 minutes, stir a few times and let it dry after taking it off the heat. It should have a light, fluffy texture and sprout a little tail when cooked.
ADD 2 cups quinoa to 4 cups boiling water, milk or apple juice. Add pinch of salt, reduce heat, cook 5-10 minutes. Near the end, add ½ cup sultanas, 1 grated apple and cinnamon sprinkle.
COOK in stock, not water, to add flavour. Cool and spread out on a tea towel to dry. Add diced tomato, cucumber, carrot, corn, sliced snowpeas, spring onion and parsley. Combine olive oil, lemon, garlic and seasoning. Pour over salad.
SUBSTITUTE quinoa for rice. Wash and cook 2 cups quinoa. Stir-fry onion and garlic. Add carrot slices, broccoli and leek, then vegetable stock and herbs. Simmer.
MIX ½ cup almonds, ¼ cup pumpkin seeds, ¼ cup sunflower kernels, ¼ cup sesame seeds, ¼ cup linseed, ¼ cup coconut in a processor. Mix ⅛-¼ cup raw sugar and 45g butter; add all to ½ cup cooked quinoa. Place on top of any fruit and bake (moderate) 30 minutes.
According to Kindred Organics.
2.5 litres vegetable stock
1 litre quinoa, rinsed under running water for at least 5 minutes
4 onions, finely minced
2 tsp cumin, toasted and ground
100g brown sugar
■Prepare the vegetable stock. Combine quinoa and stock, add salt and bring to the boil, turn down to a simmer and cook for 15 minutes on a slow heat to absorb water and start steaming. The quinoa needs to cook until sticky and viscous.
■Meanwhile, saute onion until it just colours, then add cumin and tip into a bowl. Add the cooked quinoa and correct seasoning with brown sugar.
■Line two large trays with baking paper and press quinoa mix evenly into them - it should be about 3 centimetres thick. Press more baking paper onto mix to prevent a crust forming and set it in the fridge.
■When set - about 2 hours - cut squares or circles with a cutter and fry gently in a non-stick pan on a low heat until a golden-brown crust forms. Flip and repeat.
*Recipe can easily be halved.
According to Almay Jordaan, St Jude's Cellars.