Watch out, white rice, orzo and egg noodles—a few ancient grains and seeds have reclaimed the culinary spotlight and may take your spot on the dinner table soon. Although small in size, quinoa and bulgur both offer a sweet stash of nutrients and an endless array of applications, while omega-3-packed chia complements just about any food. Here’s a look at three tiny palate pleasers with major health mojo.
Quinoa (pronounced KEEN-wah) is popping up in kitchens across America, starring in unique and internationally inspired dishes and replacing pastas and rice in traditional salads and side dishes. Although quinoa is often advertised as a whole grain, it’s actually the seed of a plant related to beets, Swiss chard and spinach, according to Jennifer McDaniel, RD, spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
Compared to pasta and rice, quinoa has slightly more fat and a similar carbohydrate load, but its nutritional résumé surpasses these starches—especially the refined, white varieties. “Quinoa deserves its ‘superseed’ reputation because it packs a hefty fiber and protein punch and provides iron, magnesium, folate and phosphorous,” McDaniel says. “It’s also one of the few plant-based proteins to contain all the essential amino acids that the body can’t produce on its own—making it ideal for vegetarians.”
Quinoa is also easy to work with. “If you can boil water, you can cook quinoa,” McDaniel says. “Rinse it first to remove a protective outer coating that lends a slightly bitter taste. Then boil two cups of liquid—I like to add chicken or vegetable stock and white wine to the water for extra flavor—and drop in 1 cup quinoa (yields 3 cups cooked). After about 15 minutes, the germ will separate from the rest of the seed, telling you it is fully cooked. Fluff with a fork, let cool for about 5 minutes, and serve.”
McDaniel adds that most people can safely eat quinoa, which is gluten free, regardless of food sensitivities.
Try this: Quinoa Pilaf with Sundried Tomatoes & Kale
Best known as the base of the Middle Eastern dish tabbouleh, bulgur comes from wheat, so it does contain gluten. McDaniel points out that it’s a true whole grain, because it contains all parts of the seed: germ, endosperm and bran. As for its arsenal of nutrients, “Bulgur contains more fiber than quinoa, oats, rice and pasta and is rich in iron and B vitamins,” she says.
Beyond tabbouleh, bulgur can be added to stews, soups, salads, breads and even desserts, lending a slight nutty flavor and chewy texture to your favorite dishes and culinary experiments. And like quinoa, bulgur cooks quickly and easily. “Bulgur comes in fine, medium and coarse sizes, but because it’s a pre-boiled grain, all varieties take about 10 minutes to cook,” McDaniel says. “Grain size will determine how much liquid you should boil, however, so follow package directions.” If you buy it in bulk, try two parts liquid to one part bulgur.
Try this: Hearty Lemon & Herb Bulgur
Another ancient seed reemerging as a versatile, nutrient-dense darling is chia—yes, ch-ch-ch-chia. Turns out the very seeds that make those kitschy clay “pets” grow can fuel humans too. “Chia is the highest plant source of omega-3 fatty acids and offers ample soluble and insoluble fiber, antioxidants and high-quality protein,” says Wayne Coates, PhD, author of Chia: The Complete Guide to the Ultimate Superfood (Sterling, 2012). Even better, all that nutrition is easily accessible, McDaniel adds. “Unlike flaxseeds—another great plant source of omega-3s—chia seeds don’t need to be ground up to release their nutrient-dense powers,” she says.
While bulgur and quinoa can headline entrées, chia is best used when added or stirred into foods. “The seeds are ideal for mixing into yogurt, smoothies and cereals; sprinkling on salads; and baking into breads, pancakes and muffins,” McDaniel says. “I’ve also seen chefs use them to coat proteins such as salmon.” Coates says you can even scoop them into ice cream. “The beauty of chia is it has essentially no taste, so it can be added to any food,” he says. “The key is to consume it the way you like it.”
Chia seeds absorb seven to 10 times their weight in water, making them solid hydration boosters. McDaniel has seen this mechanism in action: “Some of my endurance-athlete clients mix chia seeds with water to form a gel that helps them stay hydrated through long workouts,” she says. “Plus, the seeds’ slowly digesting fibers also may help keep glucose and energy levels steady.”
Try this: Chia Seed Cereal Bowl