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Article updated: 2/20/2013 1:40 PM

Get acquainted with quinoa

By Deborah Pankey

Today it begins: The United Nations launches its 2013 International Year of Quinoa initiative.

If you're not familiar with quinoa (keen-WA) yet, you will be soon. Once found only in specialty food stores, this grain is considered a super food by nutritionists and health experts for its high fiber and protein content. If that wasn't reason enough to like it, it's also high in essential amino acids and is free of gluten and cholesterol.

Demand for this healthier grain has led to a production spike (a boon for once poverty-stricken farmers in Bolivia and elsewhere the grain is grown) and now it's on the shelves in most grocery and big box stores.

But what do you do with it? Peapod's Fresh Markets expert Tony Stallone says his family enjoys quinoa in recipes that call for rice or couscous.

"We love its slightly nutty flavor, and my kids love the pop of the grains as they chew," he says.

Tony shares these tips for preparing quinoa:

Ÿ Cook quinoa just like rice: one part quinoa to two parts liquid. "I use chicken stock as my liquid for additional flavor, but you can use water or a 50/50 blend to keep the cost down," he adds. Bring your liquid and the quinoa to a boil, then turn down the heat and simmer covered and cook 12 to 15 minutes (that's faster than brown and long-grain rice).

Ÿ Read the package and buy quinoa that is pre-rinsed. It saves you a step in prep time.

Ÿ For more intense flavor, dry roast quinoa in a pan over medium heat for five minutes, or until lightly browned, before adding liquid and cooking.

Ÿ Combine cooked quinoa with rolled oats for hearty breakfast. Stir in blueberries, strawberries and sliced almonds.

Giving Blais a chance: I didn't want to like "Try this at Home: Recipes from my Head to Your Plate" by former "Top Chef" contestant Richard Blais. I still remember season 4, the one filmed in Chicago, like it was yesterday and couldn't stomach Blais' arrogance. Oh how sweet it was when he lost to Windy City gal Stephanie Izard.

So when his cookbook landed on my desk earlier this month my first impulse was to push it to the bottom of the stack. But the crazy cover called to me, and once I picked it up I could hardly put it down. Opening-page praise by respected Chicago chef Grant Achatz and TV/movie darling Zooey Deschanel and a forward by "Top Chef" host Tom Colicchio made me turn a few more pages.

While Blais has made a name for himself as a modernist chef -- he loves his immersion cooker (sous vide) and his liquid nitrogen -- the majority of the recipes are quite approachable. Making yogurt foam for a fruit and granola breakfast dish is a side note and very easy with the right equipment.

I couldn't find anything not to like about his frittata-like Potato Chip Omelet, Green Gazpacho (with directions for freezing it) and Spaghetti+Meatballs (which he recommends eating shirtless, to save on laundry) and angel food cakes made in the microwave.

Speaking of the microwave, he also uses it to make applesauce that he serves with pan-seared spiced pork chops and it couldn't be easier. Peel, core and roughly chop two Granny Smith apples. Put them in a glass bowl with 1 tablespoon water and cook on high for four to five minutes or until very soft. Mash with a fork or potato masher until smooth.

Want the recipe for his pork chops? Head to dailyherald.com/entlife/food or pick up the book; it hits bookstores Tuesday, Feb. 26.

Looking for a reason to enjoy a margarita? Look no further than Friday. Yes, Feb. 22 is National Margarita Day according to the folks at Tequila Partida, and who am I to argue.

The margarita was created around 1934 in Mexico City. If you're still keeping your New Year's resolution to trim calories you'll like Partida's lighter version that trades sugary triple sec or Grand Marnier for agave nectar.

In a shaker filled with ice combine 1 ounces tequila (blanco or reposado) with 1 ounce fresh squeezed lime juice (about one lime), ounces agave nectar (or to taste) and ounces pure water. Strain over ice and enjoy!

Ÿ Contact Food Editor Deborah Pankey at dpankey@dailyherald.com. Be her friend at Facebook.com/DebPankey.DailyHerald or follow her on Twitter, Pinterest or Instagram @PankeysPlate.

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