Look at all the reasons to enjoy quinoa, and it’s easy to see why this ancient grain has zoomed past specialty and health food store shelves right to the center of supermarkets across North America and Europe. This summer, quinoa (pronounced KEEN-wah) moves to center stage at the Pharmacy Teaching Tables in Wegmans Food Markets. These displays near the prescription counter educate customers about a food’s healthful properties, encouraging them to try it with coupons and recipes.

“A kind of perfect storm is driving the rise in quinoa’s popularity,” says Wegmans Nutritionist Jennifer Felice, R.D. “There’s culinary interest – many people want to try foods that are new to them and delicious. There’s special dietary needs – it’s a great option for vegans, vegetarians, and those looking for gluten-free foods. And now that it’s in grocery aisles near the rice and beans, more people are seeing it and putting a package in the cart. Sales of quinoa are about double what they were a year ago.”

Earlier this year, Wegmans introduced their own line of grains under the Food You Feel Good About banner that included Red Quinoa, one variety. A seven-ounce package sells for $2.99. It was featured in the Winter 2011 Wegmans Menu magazine, along with a recipe for Red Quinoa-Avocado Salad. Other recipes on wegmans.com show just how versatile this food can be: there’s a breakfast cereal recipe called Super Sunrise Start; two recipes for cold salads with quinoa, and three recipes that showcase it as an entrée or side dish: Quinoa with Almonds, Quinoa with Pecans, and Stuffed Delicata Squash.

“I’ve been eating quinoa for years,” Felice says, who appears in a video on wegmans.com about quinoa. “First, I’m a believer in eating a variety of different foods to get a full range of tastes and nutrition. Quinoa is a super-nutritious alternative to other more common grains like oats, rice, cracked wheat, or couscous. Like rice, you can enjoy it as a hot dish or eat it cold in salads. I make tabbouleh with quinoa instead of cracked wheat.”

Though quinoa is botanically classified as a seed and comes from a different plant family than the grasses that give us wheat, corn or oats, it shares the nutritional plusses of whole grains, Felice says, and has some unique virtues of its own. “Like other whole grains, it’s a heart-healthy choice that lowers the risk of cardiovascular disease and diabetes. Quinoa has fiber, healthy fats, some calcium and iron, and B-vitamins that support the body’s immune response. But it also contains all nine essential amino acids that make it a complete protein, so it can replace protein in our diets from animal sources. That makes it a great option for vegans, vegetarians, or anyone who wants to eat less meat.” 

For gluten-sensitive people (Felice is one of them), quinoa is a must-have pantry item. “Quinoa is naturally gluten free,” she says, “but if you’re highly sensitive to gluten, you should rinse the quinoa before cooking it by putting it in a fine sieve and running water through it. We recommend this because the quinoa may have been packaged in a facility that also processes other grains containing gluten, such as wheat or barley, so cross-contamination could occur.”

Rinsing before cooking also removes any residue of saponin, a natural coating of the quinoa seed with a bitter taste. Most brands today remove this coating before packaging, but rinsing at home before cooking takes care of any leftover traces.

If you like rice and couscous dishes, you’ll probably love quinoa, Felice says. “Cooked in water, it has a mild, slightly nutty flavor that blends right in with the other flavors of your meal, or you can cook it with broth instead of water for a flavor more like pilaf.”

Quinoa, an ancient grain that sustained the people of the Andes mountain range over thousands of years, is still mostly grown in South America at higher elevations, since temperatures above 90 degrees make its pollen sterile. Wegmans Red Quinoa is grown and processed in Bolivia.

What else is great about quinoa? It’s one of the fastest cooking grains on the planet. It cooks for about 15 minutes. Then, turn off the heat and rest it for another 10 minutes. It fluffs up to about three times its original volume – so one 7-ounce package makes enough to serve four or five for dinner.

One more reason to give quinoa a try: it’s kid-friendly. “It looks cool on the plate,” says Felice. “Each grain looks like it has a little tiny tail, like a tadpole, that comes from the seed’s covering. It’s got a slight crunch too that makes it really fun to eat.”