FOOD WISE: Arthritis? Low energy? Try Quinoa.

By CHEF RENEE MORGAN

Whew! What a day! Last Sunday I had the opportunity to participate in a very special event at the Cedar Park Center. The first annual Toros Fit Day, which was sponsored in conjunction with the Cedar Park Regional Medical Center, featured  yours truly conducting chef demos throughout the day.

What? I thought we were traveling around the world in food, you ask. No worries. We are. I just needed to pause my travels momentarily for this little thing called a job. You understand, right?

It was a great day with all sorts of fun activities planned, starting with a 5k fun run….or walk. Attendees could participate in yoga and zumba classes. The Toros did some public exhibitions and, of course the cheerleaders got in on the action. There was a sort of health fair with everyone from dermatologists to spas to energy drink producers exhibiting.

The most popular exhibit of the day was the chef demos. Wink! Wink! (Of course, that was probably because no food vendors were open.) I worked very closely with the hospital’s dietician to come up with dishes and a presentation that would teach participants some fun food ideas that were delicious, healthy and nutritious. We taught a total of six mini-classes — three for adults and three for kids.

The adult classes centered on ideas for how to make traditional favorite high calorie recipes more health conscious. Now, now…don’t roll your eyes. I made a low-fat Alfredo sauce for this demo. I admit I was a little skeptical myself. How could a low-fat Alfredo be good? Surely, it would be a pale, sad imitation of the real, full-fat version. Since I’d known about the demo for some time, I’d spent several weeks in trial and error development on this low-fat Alfredo alternative. Unfortunately, this is how recipe development has to be done. Make the recipe, tweak one element, and try again. Repeat until it’s right. Sounds like fun, no? With the help of Jerrine, the dietician, we came up with a really nice one. It was rich, tasty, buttery, garlicky and cheesy. All the things we want in an Alfredo sauce. The trick turned out to be the addition of fat-free cream cheese. Even my husband liked it and he doesn’t like diet or low fat anything.

We also presented a segment on super foods. For this one, I demonstrated how to make a quinoa salad. Again, stop with the eye rolling. Quinoa does sound like some strange, exotic tree-bark food, right? It’s actually very good and very good for you. It is one of the most ancient of grains, having been eaten by the Mayans. We call it a grain, but it’s really the seed of a plant related to spinach. I would describe it as a cross between rice and pasta in texture, but it looks a little like couscous. It’s also very easy to cook. It cooks just like rice – one part quinoa to two parts water, bring to a boil, cover and reduce to a simmer until the water is absorbed, about 15-20 minutes. It’s a really versatile grain. You can use it in stir-fry, mix it with cheese and taco seasoning and make patties to fry as an entrée, chill it and make it into a salad like the one I did for the Fit Day, toast it or make it into pudding (like rice pudding), or serve it as a side dish like rice or pasta.

Here’s why we love quinoa. Quinoa is very high in protein, but more importantly, it is a complete protein. It is also very high in that all-important dietary fiber and contains all nine essential amino acids. In fact, it is the only plant-based food to contain all of the amino acids. This is important to us because our bodies cannot synthesize amino acids. We must consume them in food sources. These are the building blocks of healthy protein our bodies need to function properly. We must have what these nutrients provide for our muscles, hair, nails, organs, cellular repair, growth and the list goes on. Need more convincing? Quinoa also contains anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidant properties in very high concentrations. Have arthritis? Eat some quinoa to reduce inflammation in your joints. Having low-energy issues? Eat some quinoa for more stamina. Furthermore, the relatively small amount of fat it contains is all healthy fat. To be able to get all of that from one food is nothing short of amazing!

While I was teaching the quinoa demo, I noticed a woman on the front row listening intently and taking notes. After I finished, she waited around until other attendees had left and then shyly approached me to ask if I had more quinoa recipes I could share with her. She told me that she was recovering from thyroid cancer and her energy level had completely tanked. Also, her meds had some undesirable intestinal side effects. But she was encouraged to be introduced to quinoa. She believed the fiber and all the other nutrients would help her with the issues she was struggling with. I believe she is right. I certainly notice a difference in my energy level when I eat lots of quinoa. That’s one of the things that is most gratifying about my job. The feeling of making a difference in someone’s life, whether it’s helping with a health issue or cooking for a family when they don’t have time to cook for themselves or even hearing the laughter of one of the children we feed as they eat hearty without the worry of hunger.

Our next segment was for kids and was the most fun of any of the demos. We set up pizza making stations where kids could build their own pizzas on whole wheat flat breads. Jerrine helped the kiddos understand why it’s important to eat veggies and why it’s best to eat brightly colored ones. Meanwhile, I helped them choose toppings from our 30 ingredient topping bar. They could choose any combination of ingredients they wanted. They could even make a healthy dessert pizza with vanilla yogurt and lots of different kinds of fruit. They were really creative. Even though some made faces when we first started talking about healthy choices, they really got into it and made some great choices, piling on squash, zucchini, shredded chicken, red peppers and avocado. I was proud of them and it just proved my mantra all over again. If they make it, they will eat it.

The day culminated with a great game, Toros vs. Rio Grande Valley Vipers. The Toros took it with a final score of 106 to 91. Everybody went away full, pleasantly tired from exercise, having experienced some new foods, exercise classes, spa treatments, sports supplements and energy drinks, and having been entertained by our own Austin Toros.

I’ve included my recipe for Quinoa Salad for you. I’m sure you’ll want to try it now that you know how much it will benefit you. Don’t let a strange sounding name stop you. Come on, give it a try!

 

Quinoa Salad

 

Serves 4

1/4 cup quinoa, rinsed well

1/4 chopped red pepper

1/4 cup shelled edamame (soybeans)

1/8 diced red onion

1/8 cup dried cranberries

White Wine Vinaigrette Dressing

2 tbsp olive oil

2 tbsp white wine vinegar

1 tsp Dijon mustard

Pinch sugar

Salt and pepper to taste

2 tbsp sunflower seeds, shelled

Put quinoa in a pot with ½ cup water. Bring quinoa to a boil, cover and reduce to a simmer. Cook until all water is absorbed, about 15 minutes. Turn heat off and allow the quinoa to sit, covered and continue to steam as you prepare the other ingredients. Cool completely and toss with red pepper, edamame, onion, and dried cranberries.

For white wine vinaigrette dressing, whisk together olive oil, white wine vinegar, Dijon mustard, and sugar. Add salt and pepper. Mix 2 tbsp dressing (or more to taste) into salad and sprinkle with 2 tbsp shelled sunflower seeds.