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The 10 Things You Need To Eat: Quinoa

Posted: 01/22/10 03:52 PM ET

It's hard to label anything a perfect food. But when it comes to culinary and nutritional perfection, there's one food that gets awfully close: an amazing little grain from South America called quinoa.

Most Americans have no idea what quinoa is, let alone how to pronounce it (keen-wah). But here's why it's something you should absolutely have on your plate.

In the 1990's, a team of NASA scientists set out to find the consummate grain, one that was so complete they could send it with astronauts on long-duration space flights to Mars and beyond. These are trips that could easily last two years, requiring every morsel of food to be carefully selected for maximum nutrition and efficiency.

If the nation's smartest minds are endorsing it, shouldn't you be eating it?

What makes quinoa so unique is that it's extremely high in protein -- up there with meat and dairy products -- which by itself is unusual for a food that comes from plants. It contains more protein and fewer carbs than wheat, rye, rice and oats, not to mention double and triple the fiber of most grains.

Think about it this way: a single cup of quinoa is packed with about as much protein as four eggs! And on top of that, it's what nutritionists call a "complete" protein, meaning it has all the essential amino acids, which is something else you don't usually see in plants or soy products.

Its soft texture and slightly nutty flavor are reminiscent of couscous, only better. Cooking it is quick and easy, and you can find quinoa in pretty much any major supermarket or health food store.

Its also versatile. I've found ways to use it in recipes for every meal of the day, from breakfast to dessert. One of my favorites is my recipe for Linguine and Quinoa Meatballs with Tangy Tomato Sauce, which you'll find in our new book, The 10 Things You Need to Eat.

In the recipe I use quinoa to give the meatballs a light body and an unusually healthy twist: you cut out some of the meat and fat and replace it with quinoa's fiber and nutrients (without sacrificing any protein, of course). It's a healthier version of the traditional meatball.

If you're looking to add a near-perfect food to your diet, then grab a pot, a box of quinoa and get started on some of these recipes. And be sure to come back and let me know what you think!

We hope you find quinoa as satisfying and delicious as we do. Next week, we'll tell you why you should be adding more nuts to your diet!