Although popcorn is the world champion, some other grains and pseudograins -- such as quinoa -- can be popped or puffed to lighten their texture. You won't get the huge puffy kernels you see in commercial cereal, which are created in a vacuum, but puffing gives an interestingly different texture. For example, puffed quinoa only becomes slightly larger, but popping gives it a lighter texture and crisp surface, as well as a nuttier flavor.
A Bit of Background
Between the 1980s and the start of the new century, quinoa went from an obscure South American crop to a much-hyped "superfood." The quinoa plant grows vigorously in the harsh climates and poor soils, producing spinach-like greens and copious quantities of its tiny seeds. Like amaranth and buckwheat, it's not a true grain, so its seeds have a notably different nutritional profile. Quinoa has an unusually high ratio of protein to carbohydrates, and unlike grains its proteins contain all the essential amino acids. That means quinoa doesn't need to be eaten with legumes to provide complete proteins, a key consideration for meatless diets.
Preparing the Seeds
Like most plant foods that boast high levels of nutritional value, quinoa comes complete with a chemical defense against marauding insects and animals. Its seeds have a sticky coating containing a bitter chemical called saponin, which gives them a harshly bitter chemical flavor. Most commercially grown quinoa comes pre-washed, but unless you're already familiar with a given brand it's prudent to rinse it yourself. Fill a fine wire strainer with quinoa and rinse it thoroughly under cold running water, then drain it well. Transfer the quinoa to a parchment-lined baking sheet and let it dry overnight or in a barely-warm oven for a few hours. In either case, stir it regularly to ensure even drying.
Puffing the Quinoa
You can pop quinoa in a heavy-bottomed skillet, a Dutch oven or a heavy pot. Quinoa doesn't pop with the explosive enthusiasm of corn, but you'll still need a lid. Heat the pot over medium-high heat, then add a half-cup of quinoa. It can be popped dry for a more virtuous end result or in a half-tablespoon of oil for a crisper texture and nuttier flavor. Cover the pot and shake the pan vigorously to keep the quinoa from sticking. If you use a pot at least six inches deep, you can pop it without a lid and use a silicon spatula to stir the quinoa. Turn it out onto a sheet pan to cool.
Using the Quinoa
Puffed quinoa is barely larger than its original size, though its texture is markedly different. Toast it gently at 225 degrees Fahrenheit to dry and crisp the puffed grain and use it as a breakfast cereal, either on its own or in your favorite granola or muesli mixture. The puffed seeds can be added to muffins, cookies and breads to increase their fiber and protein content. They can also be used as the main ingredient in a number of sweet energy bars, bound together by sweeteners ranging from maple syrup or agave nectar to honey and organic sugar. Quinoa can even be combined with marshmallows for a grown-up version of the well-known crisp rice treat.