The Amaranth plant is tall (5 to 7 feet) and busy, with very broad leaves and showy flower heads of small, clover-like flowers . Many gardeners grow it for its looks. The flowers turn into seed heads resembling very bushy corn tassels. The tiny seeds are generally a golden to creamy tan colour. Each plant produces from 40,000 to 60,000 seeds, certainly enough to assure the next generation of this annual plant.
You can also eat the leaves of Amaranth. It is closely related to spinach and beets, and when the leaves are young and tender, they will taste much like spinach and can be used as you would spinach or beet greens. Some varieties are better at producing the seed; others are better for growing as a greens crop that can be harvested within 5 to 6 weeks after planting. Like most greens, the smaller leaves are always the best.
The seeds can be ground into a flour with a pleasant, nutty taste. For baking yeast-risen items, it must be mixed with other flours as it is gluten-free (in a ratio of 1 to 3 or 4). For non-yeast items such as quickbreads, pancakes and pastas, it can be used straight. The seeds can also be cooked as you would rice or bulgur wheat (boil for 18 to 20 minutes, or simmer for 30 minutes). Don’t overcook as it can become gummy — consider in fact cooking a small amount of Amaranth with another grain such as rice to make it more appetizing.
Can be steamed, or toasted, in which case they will puff and pop like popcorn. Can be sprouted for salads.
High in protein (15-18%);
- Large amounts of calcium, fibre, iron, potassium and vitamins A and C;
- Contains lysine and methionine, two essential amino acids not usually found in grains;
- Fibre content is 300% more than wheat;
- Iron content 500% more than wheat;
- Contains 200% more calcium than milk;
- Even though you cook it as you would a grain, it acts as a legume would in terms of complementary protein: that is, cooking with wheat, corn or brown rice results in a complete protein;
- Contains tocotrienols (a form of vitamin E) which may have cholesterol-lowering activity in humans;
- Amaranth consists of 6-10% predominantly unsaturated oil;
- High in linoleic acid;
- The Amaranth leaf contains higher calcium, iron, and phosphorus levels than spinach.
1 cup = 195 grams
Store Amaranth seeds in the refrigerator for up to 6 months if you use it only occasionally. Otherwise, keep it in a cool spot and use in a reasonable time frame. Like all high-protein grains (the same being true for whole-wheat, for instance), the proteins in it can go rancid over time.
Amaranth is a new world food (despite the Greek name that was applied to it.) But why, for such a wonder food in terms of taste, ease of growth, and nutrition, didn’t it make it back to the Old World kitchens as did tomatoes, potatoes, corn and chocolate?
Amaranth was a basic food item for the Aztecs. So basic, that they even incorporated it into their human sacrifice rituals — sometimes mixing Amaranth flour with human blood to make a macabre version of gingerbread men, which they then ate in religious ceremonies. The Spanish priests were completely abhorred — they were obviously a bit more queasy than their colleagues at home conducting the Spanish inquisition — and reacted by banning cultivation of the plant, and obliterating it wherever they found it: it only survived because it was grown in remote parts of the Andes and Mexico.
In the 1960s, Rodale Research Center in Pennsylvania, USA, reintroduced Amaranth and set about popularizing it. Currently (2004), it is still mostly considered a “health-food”.
Literature & Lore
The name Amaranth (Amaranthus) derives from a Greek word for “never-fading flower.” The plant’s flowers can be so spectacular that many people grow it for its appearance.