Quinoa: A Welcome New Guest at the Pesach Table these Days


quinoaSusan Schwartz of The Montreal Gazette reports:  There’s a welcome new guest at the Passover table these days for many Jews: quinoa – or as one food writer called it, “the grain that’s not a grain.”

Jews who observe the eight-day festival, which this year begins Monday at sundown, are doing as Jews before them have done for a long time: it involves, among other things, abstaining from most grain or grain products.

According to Biblical law, there are five grains that can ferment when they come into contact with water and become leavened or, in Hebrew, hametz: wheat, barley, spelt, oats and rye. Consuming these grains in any form during Passover is prohibited: no bread, no pasta, no beer or whisky.

The only exception is matzo, unleavened bread made from flour and water – quickly and under rigorous conditions to ensure it does not become leavened before it is baked. If Passover had an official food, it would be the dry, hard, cracker-like bread: eating it makes tangibly present the experience of the unleavened bread their ancestors ate in their haste to flee Egyptian captivity more than 3,000 years ago.

There’s more that’s off-limits. Medieval Ashkenazi rabbis excluded another class of foods in addition to hametz on grounds including the fact that it could be confused with the prohibited grains, or grown near them, and that hametz is boiled similarly. It includes rice, millet, corn (or any product containing corn), legumes and seeds, including mustard, cumin and sesame seeds. These foods are known as kitniyot, derived from the Hebrew word for small – katan.

By custom, then, Jews who observe Ashkenazi tradition, those whose ancestors are from Europe, don’t eat kitniyot during Passover. (The Sephardi Jewish community, with roots in the Mediterranean, the Middle East and north Africa, never adopted the prohibition against kitniyot.)

That’s a lot not to eat. For eight days.

Enter quinoa. As food writer Adeena Sussman put it in 2008 in the now-shuttered Gourmet magazine: “Like the new kid in town rolling up in a shiny convertible, this grain-that’s-not-a-grain is becoming the belle of the Passover ball.”

During the past few years, quinoa has become increasingly popular; it has become so mainstream – as food scientist and kosher food specialist Arlene Mathes-Scharf observed recently on kashrut.com, an online information source about kosher food – that Susie Fishbein, author of the über-popular Kosher by Design series of books published by ArtScroll, included quinoa recipes in her bestselling 2008 cookbook, Passover by Design (see recipes above).

For the growing number of Jews eating quinoa at Passover meals, there is the benefit of a food that is incredibly healthy, loaded with fibre and essential amino acids and one of the best, most complete vegetarian sources of protein available.

It cooks quickly, and quinoa salads and pilafs are simple to prepare. Quinoa has a fluffy consistency and a mild, delicate, slightly nutty flavour. Dry-roasting it in a pan or in the oven before cooking imparts a subtle toasted flavour.

Quinoa is delicious all year round, but it has found its way into the Passover kitchens of many observant Jews since the Orthodox kosher-certifying agency Star-K published an article some years back explaining that quinoa, which until then had been an obscure food found mostly in health-food stores and presumed to be a grain, is in fact not a grain – and is not related to the five types of grain that can become hametz.

Quinoa has been cultivated for centuries in the Andes mountains of South America, but was imported to North America only in the 1980s. In the late 1990s, a consumer contacted Rabbi Shmuel Heinemann of Star-K and asked him to investigate whether quinoa was kosher for Passover.

Heinemann learned that quinoa is, in fact, a member of the goosefoot family – related to beets, spinach, Swiss chard and lamb’s quarters. Whereas it’s the leafy greens we eat of most goosefoot we know – and in the case of beets, the roots – with quinoa it’s the seeds.

Star-K tested quinoa seeds to see if they would rise when mixed with water, the way hametz does; they decayed. As well, Heinemann determined that quinoa doesn’t qualify as kitniyot, in part because it does not grow in the vicinity of hametz. Quinoa grows in the Andes under severe and arid conditions that would not support the growth of grains that can become hametz. And as a New World food, arguably, it wasn’t something rabbis in the 13th or 14th century considered in determinations about kitniyot.

Different rabbis, though, have different opinions.

And although many widely respected kosher certification organizations have said that quinoa is kosher for Passover – the raw quinoa should be checked to make sure no foreign matter has slipped in – there are some rabbis who hold that quinoa is kitniyot.

Even Fishbein includes a qualifying – if somewhat confusing – note with her quinoa recipes: “Although the halachic state of quinoa (for Passover) is ambiguous, many kashrut organizations deem it acceptable, while others do not. Consult your local rabbi for clarification.”

(Halacha is Hebrew for Jewish law and jurisprudence; kashrut is Hebrew for Jewish dietary laws.)

The Jewish Community Council of Montreal, which has the certification of kosher food products among its responsibilities, has not taken a position on quinoa during Passover; its recommendation is also that people consult their rabbis.

The recipes: Dishes that will take root: Quinoa seeds are fast-cooking and are high in protein, calcium and iron

Quinoa looks like a grain and it’s cooked like a grain – but it’s not a grain: it’s the seed of a leafy plant related to beets and to spinach. And it has gone, in relatively short order, from obscure health food to a darling of many Passover kitchens.

Pasta, bread, grains and, basically, most carbs except potatoes (and matzo, but a person can eat only so much matzo) are out of bounds during Passover, so quinoa is a welcome guest at the table.

It cooks quickly and it’s fantastically versatile, as good at room temperature, tossed with vegetables and a vinaigrette in a salad, as it is hot in a pilaf, casserole or soup.

It is incredibly healthful – high in protein, calcium and iron, a good source of vitamin E and several of the B vitamins. Quinoa contains a near-perfect balance of all eight amino acids needed for tissue development in humans, which makes the protein in quinoa a complete protein.

Quinoa is native to the Andes mountains of Bolivia, Chile and Peru, where it has been cultivated for centuries. If the seed is not harvested, it will sprout a leafy vegetable; although the leaves of the quinoa plant, which can grow several feet high, are edible, quinoa is grown mainly for its seeds. Its taste is mild and slightly nutty, its texture fluffy and slightly crunchy.

Here are some recipes, good during Passover – which begins Monday at sundown and lasts eight days – and all year round.

Quinoa Timbales With Grapefruit Vinaigrette

Serves 8

This recipe for timbales, as lovely to look at as to eat, is from Susie Fishbein’s cookbook Passover by Design: Picture Perfect Kosher by Design/Recipes for the Holiday, published in 2008 by ArtScroll Mesorah Publications.

I’ve adapted it slightly; I use olive oil in place of margarine, for instance, and fresh garlic and ginger in place of the powder in the original recipe, but it’s good both ways.

20 ounces (625 mL) quinoa, rinsed

2 tablespoons (30 mL) olive oil or margarine

1 small zucchini, cut into 1/4-inch (5 mm) dice

1 small carrot, peeled, cut into 1/4-inch (5 mm) dice

1 small yellow squash, cut into 1/4-inch (5 mm) dice

1/2 teaspoon (2 mL) garlic powder or fresh minced garlic

1/4 teaspoon (1 mL) ground ginger, or 1/2 teaspoon (2 mL) fresh ginger

1/4 teaspoon (1 mL) fine sea salt

1/4 teaspoon (1 mL) freshly ground black pepper

3 to 4 cucumbers (each 8-10 inches/20-25 cm), unpeeled

Olive oil for brushing ramekins

Grapefruit vinaigrette

3 tablespoons (45 mL) juice from a large grapefruit; save segments for garnish

2 tablespoons (30 mL) extra-virgin olive oil

1/4 teaspoon (1 mL) fine sea salt

1/4 teaspoon (1 mL) freshly ground black pepper


Zucchini, unpeeled

Yellow squash, unpeeled

Four-ounce (125 mL) ramekins are the perfect size for this dish, Fishbein says.

Place quinoa in a medium-size pot with about a quart (1 L) of water. Bring to a boil. Cover, reduce heat and simmer until water is absorbed and quinoa is translucent – usually 10 to 14 minutes. Don’t overcook.

While quinoa is cooking, prepare the vegetables. In a large frying pan, melt margarine or heat oil over medium heat. Add the zucchini, carrot and squash. Sauté until soft, about 4 to 5 minutes. Season with garlic, ginger, salt and pepper. When quinoa is cooked, remove from heat and let stand, covered, for a few minutes. Then fluff with a fork and add to vegetables. Toss to mix. Set aside.

Using a hand-held mandolin, cut 32 thin, lengthwise slices of cucumber. Brush eight ramekins with olive oil. Stand the cucumber slices around the inside perimeter of the ramekin in a double layer to form a wall. Pack 1/2 cup (125 mL) quinoa into each ramekin. Hold a plate over the top of each ramekin and flip out the timbale.

Prepare the vinaigrette: In a small bowl, whisk the grapefruit juice, extra-virgin olive oil, salt and pepper.

Drizzle vinaigrette over each timbale. Garnish with grapefruit segments and shapes cut out of the zucchini and squash. Or, if you prefer, simply dress the quinoa, skip the timbales, and pass at the table in a serving bowl.

Toasted Quinoa With Toasted Almonds and Green Onions

Makes about 7 cups (1.75 L)

Chef and cooking teacher Shawna Goodman-Sone prepared this recipe during Passover cooking classes this month at Beth Ora Synagogue in St. Laurent and at the Shaare Zedek Synagogue in N.D.G. It makes for one of those dishes that’s greater than the sum of its parts.

2 cups (500 mL) quinoa

4 cups (1 L) water or chicken or vegetable stock

1 teaspoon (5 mL) kosher salt

1 cup ( 250 mL) toasted slivered almonds

2 green onions, sliced finely

Place quinoa in strainer and rinse several times. Dry and place in a 2-quart (2 L) saucepan and toast, stirring constantly over medium heat for 2 minutes. Add water and salt. Bring to a boil, then cover, lower heat and simmer about 10 to 12 minutes, or until liquid is absorbed.

Remove from heat and do not stir. Let stand a few minutes, then fluff with a fork. Add the almonds and green onions just before serving, to keep the colour and crunch.

Bonus: Here are two recipes that arae offered to online-only readers.

Thai Quinoa

Makes 6 to 8 servings

This pilaf makes a fine accompaniment to a main course of grilled salmon or chicken. Like the timbales, it’s from Susie Fishbein’s cookbook Passover by Design: Picture Perfect Kosher by Design/Recipes for the Holiday.

1-1⁄2 cups (375 mL) dry quinoa

3 cups (750 mL) water

1 jalapeno pepper, seeded and minced

6 fresh basil leaves, finely chopped

3 sprigs fresh cilantro, leaves gently torn, stems discarded

1⁄3 cup (75 mL) minced red onion (about 1⁄2 small red onion)

1⁄2 firm mango, not too ripe, peeled, pitted, and cut into 1⁄8-inch (25 mm) dice

2 tablespoons (30 mL) extra-virgin olive oil

3⁄4 teaspoon (4 mL) fine sea salt

1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon (20 mL) fresh lime juice

Rinse quinoa thoroughly in a strainer or a pot, and drain. Do not skip this step or a bitter, soap-like natural coating will remain. Once quinoa is drained, place in a medium pot with the water. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat, cover and simmer until water is absorbed, 10 to 12 or 14 minutes.

Meanwhile, in a medium bowl, combine the minced jalapeno, basil, cilantro, red onion, and mango. Drizzle in the oil, salt, and lime juice. Stir to combine. Remove quinoa from heat and allow to stand, covered, for a few minutes. Fluff with fork and toss to combine with remaining ingredients. Season with salt to taste. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Lemon Lovers’ Quinoa Tabbouleh

Makes 10 side servings

This yummy citrus-y recipe is from The Complete Whole Grains Cookbook, by Judith Finlayson, published in 2008 by Robert Rose Inc.

This dish also works as an appetizer: just use the hearts of romaine to dip. By custom, some Ashkenazi Jews do not eat cumin during Passover. And there are some who won’t eat quinoa either (see main story, at the top here).

4 cups (1 L) cooked quinoa, cooled

1⁄3 cup (75 mL) freshly squeezed lemon juice

1 teaspoon (5 mL) ground cumin

1 teaspoon (5 mL) salt

Freshly ground black pepper to taste

1⁄2 cup (125 mL) extra-virgin olive oil

2 cups (500 mL) loosely packed flat-leaf parsley leaves, finely chopped

2 cups (500 mL) diced seedless cucumber

2 cups (500 mL) diced seeded peeled tomatoes

1⁄2 cup (125 mL) loosely packed mint leaves, finely chopped

1⁄2 cup (125 mL) chopped green onions, white part only

Hearts of romaine, optional

In a small bowl, combine lemon juice, cumin, salt and pepper to taste. Whisk in olive oil. Add to quinoa and let sit for about 15 minutes. Add parsley, cucumber, tomatoes, mint and green onions and toss well. Cover and chill well.

If using the lettuce, line a serving bowl with hearts of romaine and add the tabbouleh – or serve the lettuce as a dipper for people to use to scoop the salad.

{The Montreal Gazette/Matzav.com Newscenter}



Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here