By Janet Blaser
For Mexico News Daily
Like many other so-called superfoods we’re just “discovering,” amaranth has a long and storied history.
The Aztecs cultivated it thousands of years ago on the same scale as maize, and it was considered one of their prime sources of protein and energy as well as an integral part of spiritual and seasonal rituals. In fact, it was so important to their civilization and health that the Spanish outlawed the cultivation and consumption of it. (Tsss …)
Thankfully, once they were gone, amaranth popped up its pretty head again.
You’ve undoubtedly seen alegrías — bars of amaranth candy — in markets and candy shops throughout Mexico. This traditional sweet uses a simple syrup to bind the amaranth seeds and sometimes other nuts and seeds into a tasty energy bar, full of protein and, surprisingly, vitamin C. It’s been shown to lower cholesterol and is naturally gluten-free.
It’s also fun to eat and work with; could that be why the candy is called alegría, the Spanish word for happiness? And it’s laughably inexpensive: I bought a quarter-kilogram of amaranth to test some of the recipes for this story — about eight cups — for a whopping 20 pesos.
The bushy, easy-to-grow plants have big, beautiful upright catkins of flowers that range from green to deep red and everything in between. (They’re beautiful in vases too!) It’s from those flowers that the tiny whitish-beige seeds are harvested. The leaves of some amaranth varieties are also edible and can be cooked like chard or spinach in soups and stews.
With more than 50 types of amaranth, the flowers come in a dazzling array of shapes and colors, and most likely, you’ve seen some of them like the tiny, purply globe amaranth, the deep red “love lies bleeding” variety or the trailing foxtail in flower stores and supermarket arrangements.
The possibilities for using amaranth — and reaping its benefits — are almost endless. Mix into any breading, for fish, chicken, veggies, burgers, whatever.
Add amaranth to granola, muffins, cookies and breads as well as tortillas, empanadas, salads and uncooked “energy bite”-style snacks. Flavor-wise, it’s almost invisible, but the distinctive pop and crunch announce its presence delightfully. Cooked in stock, as in the polenta recipe below, amaranth absorbs the flavor and provides a perfect base for other more flavorful ingredients.
Alegría (Amaranth Bars)
½ cup amaranth seeds
¼ cup pumpkin seeds
½ cup sugar
1 Tbsp. honey or molasses
Line a 9×9-inch pan with parchment; set aside. Heat a medium pot over medium-high heat. Add 1 Tbsp. amaranth to the hot pot; cover with lid and shake pot constantly as grains pop. (The pot is hot enough if the seeds begin popping within a few seconds. If it takes longer, it’s not hot enough and seeds will burn before popping.)
Once popping slows, remove lid and pour popped seeds into large bowl. Repeat popping process 1 Tbsp. at a time until you’ve popped all the amaranth. Add pumpkin seeds to popped amaranth.
Heat sugar in a deep pot over medium heat. As sugar slowly melts, add honey/molasses; stir to mix.
Remove from heat. Immediately add popped amaranth and pumpkin seeds. Mix well. Quickly transfer to prepared pan and spread evenly with a spatula. Cool slightly, then cut in squares. Cool before serving.
½ cup amaranth
3 Tbsp. honey, heated so it’s pourable
2 Tbsp. cocoa powder
½ tsp. vanilla extract
1/3 cup chocolate chips
Line 9×9-inch pan with parchment. Pop amaranth as described in Alegría recipe above.
Stir honey, cocoa, salt and vanilla in a cup or small bowl until smooth; pour over popped amaranth. Add chocolate chips. Stir well until evenly coated. Scoop mixture into prepared pan, pressing evenly and firmly. Cut into squares. Remove from pan and store in airtight container.
4 tuna steaks, about 1 inch thick
¼ cup toasted sesame seeds
¼ cup soy sauce
3 Tbsp. rice vinegar
½ cup amaranth
1 Tbsp. black sesame seeds
3-4 Tbsp. olive oil
Salt and pepper
Mix soy sauce, rice vinegar and toasted sesame seeds; set aside. Combine amaranth and black sesame seeds on a plate.
Season tuna fillets with salt and pepper; then press both sides of each fillet into sesame/amaranth mixture. Heat oil till hot. Sear tuna 1–3 minutes on each sides. Bathe in sauce and serve.
1 cup cooked or popped* amaranth, cooled
1 cup minced curly parsley
½ cup diced red onion
1 tomato, diced
Salt to taste
1 lemon or 2 limes, juiced
¼ cup olive oil
*See Alegría recipe for popping directions
In large bowl, mix all ingredients. Refrigerate at least 30 minutes to blend flavors.
1 cup amaranth
2 cups water
Boil water; stir in amaranth and salt. Turn heat to low, cover and cook 25 minutes, stirring occasionally. When water is absorbed, remove from heat.
Serve like any hot cereal with fruit, nuts, etc.
Popped Amaranth Cereal
3 Tbsp. amaranth
Pop amaranth as directed in Alegría recipe above. Eat with milk, fruit, nuts, etc. like any other cold cereal.
3 cups chicken stock
1 cup amaranth
4 Tbsp. butter
½ cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, plus more for serving
Salt and pepper
2 Tbsp. finely chopped parsley
In saucepan, bring stock to boil. Whisk in amaranth, reduce heat to low and cover. Simmer 25 minutes, stirring occasionally, until liquid is absorbed and amaranth is tender.
Remove from heat, stir in butter and cheese; season to taste with salt and pepper. Garnish with additional cheese and parsley.
½ cup uncooked oats
¼ cup shredded unsweetened coconut
¼ cup natural peanut butter
2 Tbsp. chocolate chips
2 Tbsp. honey
½ Tbsp. chia seeds
¼ tsp. vanilla
1 cup amaranth
Pour amaranth onto a shallow plate. Combine remaining ingredients; roll into small balls, wetting hands with warm water if needed. Roll in amaranth to coat. Refrigerate one hour to set.
Tuna, Avocado & Amaranth Ceviche
½ cup popped amaranth (see Alegría recipe above)
1 tomato, chopped
1 Tbsp. chopped parsley
1 Tbsp. chopped mint
½ red onion, minced
2 Tbsp. olive oil
1 Tbsp. lime juice
1 avocado, halved
1 tuna filet, cubed
Salt and pepper to taste
In large bowl, mix 3 Tbsp. amaranth, parsley, mint, onion, tomatoes and tuna. Add lemon juice, olive oil, salt and pepper.
Pour remaining amaranth onto a plate; coat back sides of avocado halves. Stuff avocados with tuna mixture; sprinkle with amaranth.