Tumbleweeds of my youth, back as quinoa in Cañar

I grew up on the western slope of the Colorado Rockies, where tumbleweeds were a constant in my small-town landscape –  rolling across the sagebrush desert and down the roads, piled up against every fence. When I was six and we lived in the country, my fantasy play involved using tumbleweeds as umbrellas (rain was an important part of fantasy in that high dry climate, there being very little of it). And of course I grew up hearing – every morning on KRAI country radio, it seemed – Tumbling Tumbleweeds by The Sons of the Pioneers. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_UiSMyyj-Ac)tumbleweed 1

I hadn’t thought much about tumbleweeds until recently, when I began to write this blog and discovered they are in the same family as the gorgeous quinoa and amaranth growing in the field behind our house. In fact, the main reason I’m writing this blog, which I think might be the last before we leave on June 24, is because I’m so in love with the view outside our windows. view quinoa

Here is quinoa, at about six months. As it ripens and grows ever brighter, it turns from a sort of lavenderish pink to a pinkish red. And when the sun is setting, the reflected light inside the house seems to glow with its shades. I can’t stop photographing it. quinoa closeAnd here is Lourdes, our architect on a visit from Cuenca, standing amidst the amaranth, in the same field alongside the quinoa. lourdes amaranthAmaranth (amaranto in Spanish) might be even more beautiful and strange than quinoa.amaranth close upAnd finally, in this magical field, we have sangorache, a hybrid of amaranth. Lourdes collected the leaves and made a hot alcoholic tea, with lemon and Zhumir, that brightened our evening tremendously and impressed our guests from Puerto Rico. SangurachiSo, believe it or not, these three plants are all species of goosefoot, a huge genus that includes the tumbleweeds of my youth. The subspecies in our field is a chenopod, closely related to beetroots, spinach, and Swiss chard. Our particular chenopod family produces tiny edible seeds called pseudocereals, not real grains like wheat or barley because our plants not part of the true grass family. 

Still with me?

The seeds of the amaranth are tiny, and you wonder how anyone figured out how to cook and eat them. Here they are in the hand of one of the agronomists who has been consulting with us and Jose Maria (our compadre who plants the field). The agronomists are part of an effort to reintroduce quinoa to this region as a cash crop, but so far Ecuador is way behind Bolivia and Peru as producers.amaranth grains

Quinoa (the Spanish name is derived from the Quichua, kinwa) originated in the Andean region of Ecuador, Bolivia, Colombia and Peru, where it was domesticated for human consumption 3,000 to 4,000 years ago.

Despite it’s amazing qualities (near-perfect protein source, anti-oxidant, anti-inflammatory, maybe even cholesterol-reducer) and popularity in the U.S., Michael has yet to be converted. Nor is it popular in local kitchens. Years ago, quinoa had to be washed and washed and rinsed multiple times to rid it of its bitter coating of saponins. This took time and, for households with no running water, too much trouble. Most families here prefer rice or potatoes for starch, and for their grain, barley or máchica, roasted, ground-up barley.  For Michael, who loves our local potatoes, of which there are several varieties, he can”t see the appeal of quinoa. Nonetheless, at my request he has cooked it a couple of times, with so-so results. But sitting at his chess table every morning and watching the birds feast on the pseudocereals in our field, he did feel compelled to make a scarecrow.scarecrowMike scarecrpwWell dear friends, I was hoping for a harvest to finish this story, but I think that won’t happen for another week or so. This means you’ll probably hear from me once more before our Cañar sojourn is over for 2014. Meanwhile, for those of you who cook with quinoa, send some recipes – let’s try to convert Michael.

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12 thoughts on “Tumbleweeds of my youth, back as quinoa in Cañar

  1. I had quinoa for lunch today! Lately I’m loving it as the base for a bowl of healthy goodness. Today I tossed it with chive oil and cilantro, layered on some fresh radishes and avocado and topped it all with a drizzle of fresh sorrel sauce. Tell Michael to rinse it until the water runs clear, then toast it in the saucepan until it smells nutty before adding the water. Use it like you would any grain–pilaf, tabbouleh, in a vegetable burger, etc.

  2. Thanks Laura. We can get everything you mention here except, I suspect, the sorrel sauce. I’ll pass this on to Michael, señor cocinero…

  3. I had almost forgotten about amaranto! They grew beauifully in my mother’s spectacular garden. Thanks for bringing back a plant that was so much part of my early life in Argentina.
    Safe travels back to the US..

  4. Take any favorite tabbouleh recipe and substitute quinoa for the usual bulgur. I just use less of the quinoa (than the bulgur) and more veggies in the mix. Works slick! Mel

  5. I love quinoa too but I’ve been making an overnight oatmeal with amaranth lately. I mix oatmeal and a few tablespoons of amaranth with some boiling water, add a little sweetener (I add maple syrup but I’m sure honey would work) Let it sit overnight. Cook it in the morning and add a grated apple and some walnuts. It’s very satisfying!
    I’m sure I have some good quinoa recipes somewhere, too!

  6. Hey Judy, I regularly make The Mighty Grain Salad from the cookbook Good Food for All. I mostly use quinoa for the grain portion. I love it because it’s so versatile. Here goes.

    2 cups cooked grain (quinoa, bulgur, couscous, barley, wheat berries…)
    3 tbsp oil (olive, grapeseed, sunflower…)
    3 tbsp acid (vinegar, citrus …)
    2 tsp or more of desired spices (cumin, coriander, paprika, turmeric, curry powder…)
    salt and pepper
    2 cups vegetables cut in small dice (peppers, cucumbers, carrots, peas, asparagus…)
    1 small handful each of scallions and herbs (parsley, chives, cilantro, dill …) finely chopped)
    1 19-oz can of beans (chickpeas, kidney beans, white beans, black beans…) rinsed
    1 handful toasted nuts or seeds (pumpkin seeds, pecans, almonds…)
    1 handful dried fruit (cranberries, raisins, cherries, chopped apricots…)
    1 small handful crumbled feta or goat cheese

    Mix the oil, acid and seasonings and toss with cooked grain.

    Add vegetables and other ingredients and toss well to combine.

    If you let it sit for awhile, the flavours will combine better.


  7. Nice to remember those tumbleweeds in Craig when we were little girls Judy! We have them on the eastern slope too. In the spring it seems like you can’t get rid of them. Your back field is beautiful. I appreciated the quinoa recipes since I try to use it.

  8. HI Judy and Michael: I haven’t been very creative in my use of Quinoa other than to include it in my salad toppings. I like to toast seeds (sunflower, sesame,pumpkin ) along with Spike infused croutons for salads. Quinoa seeds, though small add just a slight crunch when toasted. Try it!

  9. HI Julie – you are one of the few I know who remembers those tumbleweeds from Craig, Colorado. It’s always so nice to hear from you…

  10. I just listened to Lynne Rossetto Kasper of The Splendid Table on OPB yesterday. Organic quinoa is now over $8 a pound. Because of its remarkable qualities, scientists want to develop the seeds into a variety that can grow at lower altitudes. The indigenous people of the altiplano in Bolivia (I think that was the country) claim the ancestral rights to the seeds. This is an issue, before quinoa was grown and shared all SA, because of intellectual property and that someone, other than the indigenous people, can legally claim the rights to the seeds and biologically modify (not gmo) the seeds. This is a bit of what I remember from yesterday. A journalist has been following this story.

  11. Such beautiful plants! Janice’s “oatmeal” recipe sounds delish. I’m with Michael – potatoes are more my style – but I do have one quinoa recipe that most folks enjoy (or at least pretend to):

    Quinoa with Pine Nuts and Dried Fruit
    Adapted from Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone (Deborah Madison)


    1 cup quinoa
    1 yellow pepper, seeded and finely chopped
    1/2 cup dried apricots, finely chopped
    1/4 cup dried currants (I used dried blueberries)
    1/4 cup golden raisins
    1/4 cup dried cherries
    1/2 cup pine nuts, toasted lightly

    Cumin Lime Vinaigrette:
    1 garlic clove, minced
    Grated zest of 2 limes
    3 tbsp fresh lime juice
    2 tbsp finely chopped shallot
    1/2 teaspoon cumin seeds
    1/2 teaspoon coriander seeds
    1 bird’s eye chile, minced, seeds left for added heat
    1/3 cup olive oil
    2 tbsp chopped fresh cilantro

  12. Jude, just found and read this wonderful piece.
    I think I still have a small container of this lovely red
    seed from Whole Foods..in my pantry. I steamed
    it like couscous but didn’t find the taste
    compelling. I will trust that Michael will deliver the perfect
    way to cook it! I’ll wait for instructions!

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