More than just an ancient grain, quinoa (pronounced keen-wah) is making its comeback as a protein-packed health food.

The ancient Incas held quinoa to be sacred, referring to it as "mother of all grains." Technically speaking, quinoa is not a grain, but rather the seed of a plant distantly related to the spinach family. But the Incas were right about one thing: this little yellow seed is possibly one of the world’s most nutritious superfoods.

Unlike wheat or rice, quinoa contains an almost perfect balance of essential amino acids needed for tissue development in humans. The protein in quinoa is considered to be a complete protein due to the presence of all 8 essential amino acids. Grains such as corn, barley and rice generally have less than half the protein of quinoa. In fact, the United Nations has classified quinoa as a supercrop for its very high protein content, which is around 15 per cent.

But the benefits of quinoa don’t stop there. It is also high in magnesium, calcium and iron, so it is great for vegetarians.

It is gluten-free, very easy to digest and low allergenic, which makes it perfect for anyone with digestive disorders, bloating, IBS, Celiac disease or those on low allergy diets.

And of course, quinoa, like most grains, is a good source of fibre, making it an important addition to any healthy, balanced diet.

How to prepare:

Quinoa is easy to prepare, has a pleasantly light and fluffy texture when cooked and its mild, slightly nutty flavour makes it an excellent alternative to rice or couscous.

Before cooking quinoa, the seeds must be rinsed to remove their bitter resin-like coating, called saponin. Most quinoa is rinsed before it is packaged, but it’s best to rinse it again at home before cooking. To remove the saponins, just rinse the quinoa under cold running water for a few minutes.

A common cooking method is to treat quinoa much like rice, bringing 2 cups of water to a boil with 1 cup of quinoa, covering at a low simmer and cooking for 14-18 minutes. As it cooks, the external germ, which forms a band around each seed, spirals out, forming a tiny crescent-shaped ’tail’ similar to a bean sprout. It should have a slight bite to it, like al-dente pasta. For a nuttier taste, try toasting the quinoa in a hot dry pan for about 5 minutes before cooking.

How to eat:

Quinoa is one of the most versatile foods. Uncooked quinoa seeds can be added to soups and stews as you would barley or rice. Cold salads with quinoa, chopped vegetables, green leaves or cooked beans taste great and make a quick, easy and nutritious meal. Quinoa can also serve as a high-protein breakfast food mixed with honey, almonds and berries, or try this delicious quinoa pudding as an interesting alternative to a traditional rice pudding.

Quinoa Pudding (Serves 6)

2 cups cooked quinoa

3 large eggs

1 cup milk

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

¾ cup plus 1 tablespoon sugar

pinch of salt

1 tablespoon fresh breadcrumbs

¼ cup slivered almonds

¼ cup sultanas or raisins

½ teaspoon cinnamon

organic honey

Preheat oven to 350°F. Whisk together eggs, milk, vanilla, ¾ cup sugar, and salt in a large bowl until just combined. Stir in quinoa, breadcrumbs, almonds, and sultanas and pour into a buttered 9-inch baking dish.

Stir together cinnamon and remaining tablespoon sugar and sprinkle over top of pudding. Bake in the middle of the oven until a knife inserted in the center comes out clean, about 40 minutes. Serve warm drizzled with honey.

Leisal Shepherd is a freelance journalist currently based in Vancouver. She has a background in Public Relations and Journalism in Australia, where she contributed to niche publications. Most recently her profile was published in the online women’s publication ’UrbanBoheme’.