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It's official: Quinoa has achieved cult status. The ancient Incan grain has captured the public's imagination with its mix of nutritional superpowers, delicious flavor and rainbow colors, popping up on trendy restaurant menus and holistic health websites alike.

With all nine essential amino acids, it's a complete protein -- like meat -- which makes it the Holy Grail of the vegetarian world. And, it's gluten-free.

"It has an incredible cult following," says Alex Postman, editor-in-chief for Martha Stewart's Whole Living magazine and website, where quinoa is one of the top search terms. "It's so nutritionally packed. But the first time I cooked it, I said, 'What is up with this?' I was not a quinoa connoisseur."

That's because there are a few small but simple tricks for turning that bag of tiny seeds into a gustatory wunderkind. First, quinoa needs to be rinsed before use, to eliminate the bitter coating that surrounds each seed. Overcook it or use too much water, and quinoa loses its marvelous, fluffy texture. And then there's the color -- yes, black quinoa cooks into inky hues and red stays richly vibrant. That can be a perk or a liability.

"It comes in a spectrum of colors, from white to pink, orange and black. I would advise first timers to start with the lighter types, because those are a little blander," Postman says.

>Quinoa-Turkey Patties in Pita with Tahini

Tahini sauce:

1 garlic clove

1/4 cup tahini

1/4 cup fresh lemon juice

1/4 cup water

Patties:

2 cups water, or more

1 cup quinoa, rinsed and drained

12 ounces ground turkey

1/4 teaspoon plus 1 pinch ground allspice

1/2 teaspoon plus 1 pinch ground cumin

Pinch crushed red pepper flakes

2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh mint

2 scallions, finely chopped

Coarse salt

2 teaspoons canola or safflower oil, or more

6 lettuce leaves

1 English cucumber

1 small red onion, halved and thinly sliced

6 pita breads

In a food processor, process tahini sauce ingredients until smooth. Chill.

Bring 2 cups water to a boil in a saucepan. Add quinoa. Stir once, cover and reduce heat. Simmer until tender, but still chewy, about 15 minutes. Fluff with a fork; let cool.

In a clean food processor, pulse turkey, spices, mint, scallions and 3/4 teaspoon salt to a smooth paste. Add quinoa; process until mixture comes together around the blade. Roll into 24 balls; flatten slightly to form patties.

Heat oil in a large skillet. Working in batches, fry patties until cooked through.

Divide lettuce, cucumber and onion evenly among pita breads. Top each with 4 quinoa patties, drizzle with about 1 tablespoon tahini dressing. Fold pitas over filling and serve. Serves 4.

-- "Power Foods" by the editors of Whole Living Magazine (Clarkson Potter, $24.99)

Per serving: 434 calories, 9g fat (2.1 g saturated), 32.5mg cholesterol, 60g carbohydrates, 23g protein, 380 mg sodium, 5g fiber.

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>Quinoa, Apricot and Nut Clusters

1 1/2 cups water

3/4 cup white quinoa, rinsed and drained

1 1/2 cups old-fashioned rolled oats (not instant)

1/2 cup raw shelled sunflower seeds

1/2 cup raw shelled pistachios, coarsely chopped

1 cup unsulfured, dried apricots, thinly sliced

1/4 cup sugar

1/2 teaspoon coarse salt

1/4 cup honey

2 tablespoons canola or safflower oil

1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla

2 large eggs, plus 1 egg white, lightly beaten

Vegetable oil cooking spray

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Bring the water to a boil in a small saucepan. Add quinoa; return to a boil. Stir once; cover and reduce heat to a simmer. Cook until quinoa is slightly underdone and has absorbed most of the liquid, 12 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, transfer quinoa to a rimmed baking sheet. Bake, fluffing with a fork occasionally, until pale golden, 30-35 minutes. Transfer to large bowl; let cool.

Spread oats evenly on a baking sheet; bake, stirring occasionally, until lightly browned, 15 minutes. Add oats to quinoa. Spread seeds on baking sheet and bake, stirring occasionally, until lightly toasted, 7 minutes. Add to quinoa; let cool. Reduce oven temperature to 300 degrees.

Toss nuts, apricots, sugar and salt with quinoa mixture. Mix honey, oil and vanilla into eggs; stir into quinoa mixture.

Line a rimless baking sheet with parchment paper; lightly coat with cooking spray. For each cluster, place 1/4 cup mixture onto sheet, spacing 3 inches apart. Flatten to 1/4 -inch thick. Bake, rotating sheet halfway through, until crisp, about 25 minutes. Let cool completely on a wire rack. Store loosely covered with aluminum foil up to 2 days. Makes 20.

-- "Power Foods" by the editors of Whole Living Magazine (Clarkson Potter, 384 pp., $24.99)

Per 2-cluster serving: 329 calories, 10.6g fat (3.4 g saturated), 42mg cholesterol, 49g carbohydrates, 10g protein, 5g fiber, 139 mg sodium.

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>Quinoa Salad with Red Bell Pepper and Cilantro

1 cup quinoa, rinsed and dried on a towel

1 1/2 cups water

Salt and pepper

1/2 red bell pepper, seeded and chopped fine

1/2 jalapeno chile, stemmed, seeded and minced

2 tablespoons minced red onion

1 tablespoon minced fresh cilantro

2 tablespoons lime juice

1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil

2 teaspoons Dijon mustard

1 small garlic clove, minced

1/2 teaspoon ground cumin

Toast quinoa in a large saucepan over medium heat, stirring often, until lightly toasted and aromatic, about 5 minutes. Stir in water and 1/4 teaspoon salt; bring to a simmer. Reduce heat to low, cover and simmer until quinoa has absorbed most of the water and is nearly tender, 12 minutes. (Any remaining water will evaporate as the quinoa cools.) Spread quinoa in a rimmed baking sheet and set aside until tender and cool, 20 minutes.

Transfer quinoa to a large bowl. Stir in the bell pepper, jalapeno, onion and cilantro.

In a separate bowl, whisk the lime juice, oil, mustard, garlic and cumin. Pour over quinoa and toss to coat. Season with salt and pepper and serve. Or refrigerate in an airtight container up to 2 days; season with salt, pepper and lime juice to taste before serving. Serves 4.

-- "America's Test Kitchen's Healthy Family" (America's Test Kitchen, 528 pp., $34.95)

Per 3/4 cup serving: 200 calories, 6g fat (1g saturated), no cholesterol, 30g carbohydrates, 6g protein, 3g fiber, 220 mg sodium.