NEW YORK — Passover can leave Jews hankering for a carb fix.
That’s because during this eight-day celebration marking the ancient Israelites’ liberation from slavery, many Jews abstain from grains, including most wheat, barley, rye, spelt and oats, as well as rice, most other grains, corn and legumes.
Which is one reason more Jews are embracing a newly popular (yet quite ancient) grain-like product — quinoa, a nutrient- and protein-rich and increasingly popular food first cultivated thousands of years ago by the Incas of South America.
“On Passover the No. 1 thing you’re really missing is grains, and quinoa is such a great substitute,” explains Susie Fishbein, whose “Passover by Design” cookbook includes several quinoa recipes.
While technically a seed, quinoa (pronounced keen-wah) takes on a grain-like consistency when cooked, and also can be ground into flour. It’s been a mainstay of the natural foods world for a while, but now is catching on in the mainstream.
“The fact that you almost never hear people calling it ‘kin-owa’ anymore says something” about its emergence onto the American food scene, says Cynthia Harriman, director of Food and Nutrition Strategies for the Whole Grains Council.
According to Harriman, quinoa flour is an increasingly common ingredient in processed foods. And ConAgra Foods recently unveiled a line of quinoa flour. It’s also a popular wheat alternative with those who can’t eat gluten.
Sales of quinoa have grown more than tenfold since 2003 for Bob’s Red Mill, a Milwaukie, Ore.-based grains company.
Lorna Sass, author of the cookbook “Whole Grains for Busy People,” praises quinoa for being both easy (her basic preparation, in which she boils it like pasta in a large pot of water, takes about 15 minutes) and versatile.
“You can use it every which way,” she says. “One day I’ll make it Southwest style. Another day Mediterranean or Middle Eastern.”
Echoing Sass, kosher cookbook author Fishbein calls quinoa a “blank canvas for almost any flavor you want to add.” Many kosher chefs are turning to quinoa for pilafs, breakfast cereals, salads and desserts.
Despite its growing popularity, quinoa is not universally accepted as kosher for Passover in Orthodox Jewish circles.
Star-K, the Chicago Rabbinical Council and several other U.S.-based kosher supervising agencies, have come out with statements in the past decade approving use of quinoa, with the caveat that it be processed on separate equipment from other grains.
However, the Orthodox Union – the largest kosher certifying agency in the world – takes no position on quinoa, posting on its Web site that “there is a difference of opinion among Rabbinic decisors” and that “we suggest asking your local Orthodox rabbi.”
In Israel, most Orthodox Ashkenazi rabbis – including Rabbi Yosef Shalom Eliashiv, a widely revered authority among ultra-Orthodox Jews – argue that quinoa falls into the same category as legumes and corn, and should be avoided.
That hasn’t stopped Jeffrey Nathan, executive chef of Abigael’s, a kosher restaurant in New York, from serving quinoa for Passover, his busiest time.
“Any recipe I would use rice in, I put quinoa in,” Nathan says, adding that he finds it works well in risotto, soups and salads like tabbouleh as well.
Every year, new kosher-for-Passover foods that aim to mimic the flavor and mouth feel of wheat pasta and bread appear on the market. Nathan is dismissive of most. But he puts quinoa in a radically different category.
“It’s not faking it,” he explains. “Quinoa I use all year round, so why not take advantage of it for Passover?”