We spilled the grains – you already know we are going to talk about quinoa!
As every chef knows, balancing creativity and profitability when writing a new menu is a challenge.
How do you find fresh ways to let your craft shine without alienating your customers?
How do you create dishes you’re excited about while meeting growing dietary demands, like plant-based and gluten-free?
An on-trend ingredient, especially one that checks all the right boxes (plant-based, high-protein, gluten-free), is a great place to play. After years of surging popularity, quinoa isn’t new on Canadian menus, and that’s exactly why it’s ripe for menu invention.
And with a new, distinctly Canadian-grown varietal on the market, this tiny grain can do more than you may realize. It’s the perfect time to elevate quinoa beyond that same old salad and ride the next wave of menu innovation.
Not all quinoa is the same
Quinoa is traditionally from the Andean region of South America, but there’s a new Canadian-grown varietal that’s well adapted to the North American prairie. And while Canadian Prairies quinoa builds on the established nutritional and menu appeal of its South American cousin, it brings its own set of characteristics to the kitchen. For starters, it looks different. South American quinoa can be found in white, red and black grains, while Canadian-grown quinoa is golden ivory in colour.
Looking at South American quinoa and Canada-grown quinoa “is like looking at a regular lemon and a Meyer lemon,” says Chef Jason Gronlund, Technical Sales Manager for Foodservice with Ardent Mills. “They’re different ingredients to work with.”
Chefs in Saskatoon, SK, close to where much of the Ardent Mills Great Plains Quinoa® is grown, are embracing the difference in this local quinoa and have been enthusiastic early adopters.
On the Menu
At Nosh Eatery & Tap, Chef Justin O’Reilly is already a fan: “I like the texture, and it’s nutty, earthy and delicious.” He features the grain on his menu offerings from brunch to dinner.
“A good scrambled-egg dish is like a hug from the inside out,” he says, and he sought to re-create that feeling without the eggs. His breakfast hash starts with quinoa simmered in coconut milk, to bring out the starch. Then he adds caramelized onions, heirloom cherry tomatoes, a crumble of tofu and hash browns and finishes it with fried flowering kale and an almond dill cream.
On his dinner menu, O’Reilly features the quinoa in a dish of roasted eggplant, slow-cooked in a Calcutta-inspired curry sauce with chickpeas, greens and rose petals.
“When the quinoa is cooked like a risotto, it does get quite creamy,” he notes. “You get a really good mouthfeel.” In addition to the culinary attributes of Great Plains quinoa, supporting local growers is important to O’Reilly. “It’s nice to have an international dish where everything but the spices are local,” he adds.
Chef Alex Stephenson, at Una Pizza & Wine, has been using Great Plains Quinoa in a variety of applications for nearly a year. “It works really well for what we do here,” he says. “And it’s local.”
For a crowd-pleasing starter, he combines quinoa with egg and cheese, bakes the mixture in tins and serves the little patties with marinara sauce for dipping as “pizza bites.”
Transforming the grains into puffed quinoa or quinoa crisps is a favourite method. He makes his own puffs in a hot, covered pan with oil, shaking just as you would with popcorn until the grains pop. And he mixes the whole grains into a brown-butter granola that puffs up in the oven. For a twist on using quinoa in a salad, he tops an otherwise traditional Caprese salad with puffed quinoa for added crunch.
Canadian quinoa even made it onto Stephenson’s Thanksgiving table. “A lot of my friends stick to a gluten-free diet,” he says. “So I used it in a stuffing for my turkey, with just mirepoix and fresh herbs to let the quinoa shine. It was a hit. People said they liked it better than traditional bread stuffing.”
Chef Craig Hodel, of Drift Sidewalk Café & Vista Lounge, is currently making the most of alternative quinoa formats. “Flakes and crisps were new to me,” he says, “and now I’m using them more than the whole grains.”
Quinoa flakes take the place of nuts in his pesto, where he leverages the natural nuttiness of the grain and pulses it with herbs, olive oil and other seasonal ingredients. His sun-dried tomato pesto is brightening multiple dishes, from a topping on trout to pizza specials to being folded into a cream sauce for mac and cheese.
Crisps also feature on his dessert menu in a pumpkin magic cake, a multilayered treat of custardy and airy textures, topped with pumpkin purée and quinoa crisps.
While diners’ dietary restrictions are something Hodel takes note of, they haven’t been a prime motivator in his finding new ways to use quinoa. “We use quinoa mostly to be creative and to use something local,” he says, “although we like to have a dish that everyone can enjoy, not just someone who is vegetarian or gluten-free.”
Are you ready to get creative with Canadian-grown quinoa on your menu? A few kitchen tips from Chef Jason Gronlund will help you get started.
Mind your liquids
Different varieties of quinoa absorb water differently. The two main methods of cooking quinoa are pilaf and pasta-style. If you’re doing the pilaf method, you’re probably accustomed to the 2:1 liquid-to-grain ratio that works for South American quinoa. Canadian quinoa doesn’t accept as much water, so you’re going to get the best results with a 1:1 ratio. If you’re cooking the grains pasta-style in a lot of water that you’ll drain off when the quinoa reaches the desired texture, you’ll need to keep an eye on your time. It’s going to cook up faster than the South American variety, but only if you want a drier, fluffy end-product.
Get sticky with it
A fluffy texture isn’t always the desired result, and Great Plains Quinoa shows great range in terms of texture and moisture. Because it has amylopectin, which is the same natural starch that makes sushi rice sticky, oversaturating the grain brings out a natural stickiness that makes this quinoa a great binder.
To activate the starch, cook the quinoa pilaf-style with more water than the 1:1 ratio. When the amylopectin works its magic, you get a host of new applications. “Then the quinoa is the star of the flavour and the structure of a dish,” says Gronlund.
The grains that bind
Great Plains Quinoa brought to the sticky stage is self-binding and can keep a mix together with no eggs required, giving you a dish that’s delicious, as well as vegan and gluten-free.
- Use it to bind house-made veggie burgers or croquettes
- Add to blended burgers or meatballs where ground meat is being combined with grains and vegetables for a more plant-based alternative
- Fry quinoa balls Arancini-style, dusted in your favourite spice blend and served with a dipping sauce for appetizers or on a bar menu
- Form into “tots” and fry for a kids’ menu, with or without vegetables blended in
All-day comfort in a bowl
Great Plains Quinoa’s starches will stretch all the way to silkiness in slow-cooked porridge and congee applications.
- Create a hearty brunch item of multigrain porridge with fruit, nuts and sweet additions
- On-trend Korean congee-style bowls served hot and topped with rich and pungent additions, like pork belly and kimchi
- Prepare the quinoa risotto-style, where the depth and nuttiness of the grain pairs well with rich alpine cheeses, mushrooms and winter squash
Coatings and batters
In addition to being sold whole, Great Plains Quinoa is milled into flour and flakes or puffed into crisps for flavourful, gluten-free alternatives with many applications. “When fried, the starch caramelizes to provide an extra depth of flavour and gets super crispy,” notes Gronlund.
- Crust fish or meat in quinoa crisps or flakes for a gluten-free crunch
- Add quinoa flour to batters for onion rings or fried vegetables
- Use quinoa flour in a crepe or blini for a springy, injera-like texture
Quinoa flour and crisps can go sweet, as well as savoury. “One of my favourite things to do with quinoa flour is to make a graham cracker-style crust,” says Gronlund. “With butter and sugar, it tastes like a conventional graham cracker crust, but it’s gluten-free. And, as an added benefit, you can cut it straight from the fridge without any crumbling.”
- Sprinkle crisps to add texture to a plated dessert, or in a granola topping for a yogurt parfait
- Bring depth and nuttiness to cookies and muffins by adding quinoa flakes
- Add quinoa crisps or flakes to a mix of nuts, sugar and cinnamon for a crunchier streusel