Learn about amaranth, the ancient grain and eat it for a healthy protein, calcium, and iron packed choice.
Cattail Moonshine & Milkweed Medicine: The Curious Stories of 43 Amazing North American Native Plants (Storey, 2016), by Tammi Hartung a longtime herbalist and organic farmer, tells little-known and captivating stories of how humans have relied on these plants for millennia to nourish, shelter, heal, clothe, and even entertain us. Hartung has been growning and working with herbs for more than 30 years and is a frequent teacher and lecturer. She and her husband cultivate more than 500 varieties of herbs, heirloom food plants, and perennial seed crops on their organic farm in Colorado. The following excerpt is from the “A” section.
For years I’ve grown ‘Hopi Red Dye’ amaranth in my gardens. The plants are stunning: almost six feet tall and deep burgundy red. Not only is it a gorgeous dye plant, it’s also a traditional food plant of the Southwest; I add the young leaves to my salads and toss in some of the delicious seeds when I’m making muffins. Packed with protein, calcium, and iron, the seeds are NASA-recommended for space missions!
Amaranth could become an important food in a future affected by climate change. It’s easy to grow in many climates (and with limited water), adapts well to different soils, and doesn’t require much fertilizer (whereas other grain crops like corn generally need good soil, abundant water, and lots of fertilizer and pesticides). And because it’s so packed with nutrients, it can help reduce the rates of malnutrition wherever it’s grown.
When my daughter, M’lissa, was young, I wanted to make new curtains for her bedroom. I had limited funds available for the project but yards of unbleached muslin cloth in my sewing closet and a lot of ‘Hopi Red Dye’ amaranth growing in my herb garden. Traditionally the flowers, leaves, stalks, and seeds of this amaranth have been used by Pueblo, Hopi, and Navajo Indians to color foods and textiles a bright reddish-pink. They call this amaranth komo.
I harvested the entire plant, crushed it up a bit, and steeped it in a sun-heated washtub of water on my back patio for a full day. Then I strained out the herb, placed M’lissa’s newly sewn curtains into the dye bath, and left them to soak overnight. The next day I had bright pink curtains, perfect for a little girl’s bedroom window.
Native Americans have been eating amaranth seeds for thousands of years. The Apaches and Navajos used amaranth to make flour for bread, while the Aztecs and later the Tarahumara (Rarámuri) people of what is now Mexico would make pinole — toasted amaranth or cornmeal that is mixed with sugar, spices, and a bit of water and eaten as hot cereal or cooked into cakes. Amaranth flour, mixed with cornmeal, was made into dumplings, too, and the seeds were popped like popcorn.
In Mexico a traditional sweet treat called alegría (Spanish for “joy”) — popped amaranth seeds mixed with honey and chocolate, sometimes with pumpkin or sunflower seeds added, too — is made in honor of the Day of the Dead and other celebrations. The recipe’s origins go back as far as the Mayans and Aztecs. Amaranth has again become an important food for the descendants of those early Mayans, who grow the amaranth and make products from the seeds, including alegría, as a way to earn a livelihood and provide nutritious food for their families.
Many varieties of amaranth are favorites for both ornamental and food gardens. Most are grown as annuals for one garden season only, but they can easily reseed, giving the gardener the blessing or curse of many volunteer plants the following year. Thankfully, seedlings can add beauty to a new garden season or they can be easily pulled out as young plants.
One popular ornamental form, with long, weeping seed plumes, is called, rather dramatically, “love-lies-bleeding.” The heirloom ‘Hopi Red Dye’ amaranth is a tall form with deep purple foliage and maroon seed plumes; it was used by the Pueblo peoples for coloring corn-based foods. Considered a threatened traditional food plant, preservation efforts have kept it alive and available in the trade. ‘Opopeo’ is an heirloom from Opopeo, Mexico, and is another wonderful, showy amaranth. This variety has bronze-green leaves and very large red seed spikes. Red leaf salad amaranth is small and quite delicious. Its light green leaves with pink markings add beauty to green salads. The seeds of all these forms are tasty and nutritious baked in muffins and cooked up with couscous.
All varieties of amaranth may be left in the garden at the end of the growing season as a source of food for wild birds. They will enjoy your generosity in the fall and winter seasons when other foods are not easy to come by.
Amaranth seeds are easy to cook and tasty. Like its cousin quinoa, amaranth is a rich source of protein and other nutrients, and it’s gluten-free. One cup of uncooked seeds provides 26 grams of protein, 307 milligrams of daily calcium, 14.7 milligrams of iron requirements, and 158 micrograms of folic acid. This nutritious food is especially good for children and pregnant women, for whom it’s very important to consume adequate amounts of protein, folic acid, calcium, and other essential nutrients. The folks at NASA know its value; they’ve recommended amaranth as one of the most nutritious foods that can be taken on space missions.
Other parts of the plant are edible, too. Young leaves are a great source of vitamin C and vitamin A, and can be eaten fresh in salads or steamed and served as a cooked vegetable. Even the roots are edible when cooked, and make a great addition to soups and casseroles.
Excerpted from Cattail Moonshine & Milkweed Medicine, © by Tammi Hartung, photography or illustration by Edith Rewa Barrett, used with permission from Storey Publishing.
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