Amaranth: a Healthy Grain for Vegetarian Recipes

by Karen Railey

Amaranth (Amaranthus) has a colorful history, is highly nutritious, and the plant itself is extremely attractive and useful. Amaranth was a staple in the diets of pre-Columbian Aztecs, who believed it had supernatural powers and incorporated it into their religious ceremonies. Before the Spanish conquest in 1519, amaranth was associated with human sacrifice and the Aztec women made a mixture of ground amaranth seed, honey or human blood then shaped this mixture into idols that were eaten ceremoniously. This practice appalled the conquistadors who reasoned that eliminating the amaranth would also eliminate the sacrifices. The grain was forbidden by the Spanish, and consequently fell into obscurity for hundreds of years. If not for the fact that the cultivation of amaranth continued in a few remote areas of the Andes and Mexico, it may have become extinct and completely lost to us.

Amaranth is used in various cultures in some very interesting ways. In Mexico it is popped and mixed with a sugar solution to make a confection called "alegria" (happiness), and milled and roasted amaranth seed is used to create a traditional Mexican drink called "atole."

Peruvians use fermented amaranth seed to make "chicha" or beer. In the Cusco area the flowers are used to treat toothache and fevers and as a food colorant for maize and quinoa. During the carnival festival women dancers often use the red amaranth flower as rouge, painting their cheeks, then dancing while carrying bundles of amaranth on their backs as they would a baby.

In both Mexico and Peru the amaranth leaves are gathered then used as a vegetable either boiled or fried. In India amaranth is known as "rajeera" (the King’s grain) and is popped then used in confections called "laddoos," which are similar to Mexican "alegria."

In Nepal, amaranth seeds are eaten as gruel called "sattoo" or milled into flour to make chappatis. In Ecuador, the flowers are boiled then the colored boiling water is added to "aquardeinte" rum to create a drink that "purifies the blood," and is also reputed to help regulate the menstrual cycle.

Since 1975 amaranth has been gaining support in the U.S. and is now grown in Colorado, Illinois, Nebraska, and other states, but is still not a mainstream food. It is found in many natural food stores and the flour is often used in baked goods.

The name amaranth hails from the Greek for "never-fading flower." The plant is an annual herb, not a "true" grain and is a relative of pigweed, a common wild plant also known as lamb’s-quarters, as well as the garden plant we know as Cockscomb. There are approximately 60 species of amaranth and there is no definite distinction between amaranth grown for the leaf (vegetable), and the seed (grain).

Amaranth is a bushy plant that grows 5 to 7 feet, with broad leaves and a showy flower head of small, red or magenta, clover like flowers which are profuse, and constitute the plants exquisite, feathery plumes. The seed heads resemble corn tassels, but are somewhat bushier. They are quite striking as well. The seeds are tiny (1/32"), lens shaped, and are a golden to creamy tan color, sprinkled with some occasional dark colored seeds.

Each plant is capable of producing 40,000 to 60,000 seeds. The leaves of ornamental varieties, such as Joseph’s Coat resemble the coleus plant and are quite striking. Their coloring can range from deep red, purple-red, orange, pink, green, to white. The sight of a full-grown amaranth field with its vividly colored leaves, stems and flower or seed heads is an amazingly beautiful sight that evokes much emotion.

Aside from amaranth being such an attractive plant it is extremely adaptable to adverse growing conditions. It resists heat and drought, has no major disease problems, and is among the easiest of plants to grow. Simply scratching the soil, throwing down some seeds, and watering will reward you with some of these lovely plants.

Amaranth can be cooked as a cereal, ground into flour, popped like popcorn, sprouted, or toasted. The seeds can be cooked with other whole grains, added to stir-fry or to soups and stews as a nutrient dense thickening agent.

Amaranth flour is used in making pastas and baked goods. It must be mixed with other flours for baking yeast breads, as it contains no gluten. One part amaranth flour to 3-4 parts wheat or other grain flours may be used. In the preparation of flatbreads, pancakes and pastas, 100% amaranth flour can be used. Sprouting the seeds will increase the level of some of the nutrients and the sprouts can be used on sandwiches and in salads, or just to munch on.

To cook amaranth boil 1 cup seeds in 2-1/2 cups liquid such as water or half water and half stock or apple juice until seeds are tender, about 18 to 20 minutes. Adding some fresh herbs or gingerroot to the cooking liquid can add interesting flavors or mix with beans for a main dish. For a breakfast cereal increase the cooking liquid to 3 cups and sweeten with Stevia, honey or brown rice syrup and add raisins, dried fruit, allspice and some nuts.

Amaranth has a "sticky" texture that contrasts with the fluffier texture of most grains and care should be taken not to overcook it as it can become "gummy." Amaranth flavor is mild, sweet, nutty, and malt like, with a variance in flavor according to the variety being used.

Amaranth keeps best if stored in a tightly sealed container, such as a glass jar, in the refrigerator. This will protect the fatty acids it contains from becoming rancid. The seeds should be used within 3 to 6 months.

The leaves of the amaranth plant taste much like spinach and are used in the same manner that spinach is used. They are best if consumed when the plant is young and tender.

Amaranth seed is high in protein (15-18%) and contains respectable amounts of lysine and methionine, two essential amino acids that are not frequently found in grains. It is high in fiber and contains calcium, iron, potassium, phosphorus, and vitamins A and C.

The fiber content of amaranth is three times that of wheat and its iron content, five times more than wheat. It contains two times more calcium than milk. Using amaranth in combination with wheat, corn or brown rice results in a complete protein as high in food value as fish, red meat or poultry.

Amaranth also contains tocotrienols (a form of vitamin E) which have cholesterol-lowering activity in humans. Cooked amaranth is 90% digestible and because of this ease of digestion, it has traditionally been given to those recovering from an illness or ending a fasting period. Amaranth consists of 6-10% oil, which is found mostly within the germ. The oil is predominantly unsaturated and is high in linoleic acid, which is important in human nutrition.

The amaranth seeds have a unique quality in that the nutrients are concentrated in a natural "nutrient ring" that surrounds the center, which is the starch section. For this reason the nutrients are protected during processing. The amaranth leaf is nutritious as well containing higher calcium, iron, and phosphorus levels than spinach.

For something new, different, and highly nutritious in your diet, try amaranth and have some fun experimenting and discovering your favorite ways to use it. If you would like to learn more about whole grains and their uses, you may wish to try one of these books. They are available at Amazon and can be purchased through Health and Beyond Online by simply clicking on the title.

Complete Whole Grain Cookbook, Aveline Kushi

All American Waves of Grain: How to Buy, Store, and Cook Every Imaginable Grain, Barbara Grunes

Amazing Grains: Creating Main Dishes With Whole Grains, Joanne Saltzman

Amaranth with Spinach Tomato Mushroom Sauce
1 cup amaranth seed
2-12 cups water
1 Tablespoon olive oil
1 bunch spinach (or young amaranth leaves if available)
2 ripe tomatoes, skinned and coarsely chopped
1/2 pound mushrooms, sliced
1-1/2 teaspoons basil
1-1/2 teaspoons oregano
1 clove of garlic minced
1 Tablespoon onion, minced
Sea salt and pepper to taste (or use a salt substitute)

Add amaranth to boiling water, bring back to boil, reduce heat, cover and simmer for 18-20 minutes.

While amaranth is cooking, stem and wash spinach, then simmer until tender. Dip tomatoes into boiling water to loosen skin, then peel and chop. Heat oil in a skillet over medium heat and add garlic an onion. Sauté approximately 2 minutes. Add tomato, mushrooms, basil, oregano, salt, pepper and 1 Tablespoon of water. Drain and chop spinach and add to tomato mixture. Cook an addition 10 – 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. Lightly mash tomato as it is cooking.

Stir the sauce into the amaranth or spoon it on top.

Amaranth "Grits"
1 cup amaranth
1 clove garlic, finely chopped or pressed
1 medium onion, finely chopped
3 cups water or vegetable stock
Sea salt or soy sauce to taste
Hot sauce to taste
Garnish: 2 plum tomatoes

Combine the amaranth, garlic, onion, and stock in a 2-quart saucepan. Boil; reduce heat and simmer covered until most of the liquid has been absorbed, about 20 minutes.

Stir well. If the mixture is too thin or the amaranth not quite tender (it should be crunchy, but not gritty hard), boil gently while stirring constantly until thickened, about 30 seconds. Add salt or soy sauce to taste.

Stir in a few drops of hot sauce, if desired, and garnish with chopped tomatoes.

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