Amaranth: Protein positioned for A pop-ular future

Steve Peters / Photo

Steve Peters / Photo

Steve Peters

When quinoa is finally displaced as the world’s favorite superfood grain, I’m betting amaranth will take the lead. Although amaranth has both an edible leaf and grain and has grown for centuries worldwide, we don’t hear much about it, do we? That’s odd because amaranth grows easily (too easily in some cases) and is perhaps even more nutritious than quinoa.

According to the Amaranth Institute, amaranth is a crop well positioned to solve many of our global health issues. The grain – ok, so technically it’s a seed – has 13 to 15 percent protein. That’s the highest amount of protein for any grain, making amaranth an excellent protein source for vegetarians and vegans. Not to mention, in amaranth, you’ll also find fiber, calcium, iron, potassium, phosphorus, zinc and vitamin A. It’s the only grain to also contain Vitamin C. That’s big! Yet again, I have to wonder why most of us have barely if ever, touched amaranth.

There’s more. Amaranth is gluten free. Just like quinoa, amaranth is considered a complete protein because it contains lysine, an amino acid typically found in animal proteins, not grains. And not only is the amaranth seed nutritionally valuable, the leaves are also edible. Try them raw in a salad or sautéed as you would beet greens and Swiss chard.

The more I researched amaranth, the more I could see the potential value in the world’s changing climate. Quinoa, a cool season crop grown only in specific climates in the Andes mountains, takes some effort to grow. Amaranth, on the other hand, is a warm weather, drought resistant plant that you could grow in your backyard, if so inclined. You may already have some there and not even know it. The common weed known as pigweed is a species of amaranth. For farmers in some parts of the country, amaranth varieties pose a real nuisance as an invasive weed.

Amaranth can grow up to six feet tall with dark red, purple, pink or yellow flowers. Each flower can contain thousands of seeds that are dried after harvesting.

Of course, just because we are less familiar with amaranth in the US, doesn’t mean it’s new to other cultures. Its versatility is appreciated throughout the world. The greens are often used in Asian cooking. In Mexico, the grain, which may be popped like popcorn, is combined with nuts, seeds, dried fruit and sugar to make a treat like a granola bar. It was a staple in the diets of ancient Aztecs and Mayans.

It may be small and look like quinoa, but when cooked, it’s texture is a different story. In addition to popping the seeds, they may also be ground into a flour, cooked to make a porridge, mixed and served with other grains, and added to soups to serve as a thickener.

I must say that I’ve had some fun popping amaranth. Mostly because it wasn’t what I expected. To pop amaranth, you want to use just a tablespoon of the seeds at a time. Heat a small, dry pan over medium-high heat, add the seeds, cover and shake. Within a few seconds, the amaranth will begin popping and should finish within 20 – 30 seconds total. Just empty them into a bowl and continue to process until you’ve popped as much as you need.

I’ll admit that I burned my first batch and you may do so as well. If the seeds turn dark brown instead of popping, just dump them out and start again. Once I got the hang of it I wasted no time snacking on the tiny popped seeds. There’s something about the crunch that I can’t help but enjoy. The flavor is a little toasty, nutty and reminiscent of breakfast cereal.

Popped amaranth doesn’t just make a good snack. Use it as a garnish for soups, salads, and vegetables. Or, as I did in this recipe, as a crunchy layer in a grapefruit and yogurt parfait.

Grapefruit Amaranth Parfait

Makes 2 parfaits

1/2 cup amaranth

1 cup Greek yogurt

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

2 grapefruits peeled, sectioned and roughly chopped

1/2 cup toasted coconut flakes

4 teaspoons honey

½ teaspoon cinnamon

Start by popping the amaranth. Heat a small pan over medium-high heat for a couple of minutes until hot. Add a tablespoon of the amaranth to the pan and cover. Shake until you hear it start to pop, about 30 seconds or less. Quickly slide the popped amaranth into a bowl. Continue popping the remaining amaranth one tablespoon at a time. The process will go quickly once you get the hang of it.

Stir the yogurt and vanilla together. Add a few spoonfuls of the yogurt into the bottom of each jar, followed by layers of: grapefruit pieces, coconut flakes, honey and the popped amaranth. Then repeat the layering process once more. Sprinkle with the cinnamon to finish.

These are best served cold and within a day of assembling, otherwise the amaranth will lose its crunch.

Steve Peters

Steve Peters is a cook, gardener and baker living in Rutland.

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