The amaranth plant was a dietary staple of the Aztec empire and was believed to have special properties that would give them extra strength. When the Spanish conquistadors arrived in Mexico in the early 1500s, the crop was destroyed and lost for hundreds of years. It resurfaced and was eventually found in the Untied States in the 1970s. Soon after, Americans began to take notice of the plant’s nutritional values.
The entire plant can be broken down for eating: Amaranth greens have a slightly sweet flavor and can be used in cooking and in salads; and the seeds are used as cereal or can be ground into flour for bread. Amaranth seeds—which are often called pseudo-grains because they’re not true cereal grains—are tan or light brown in color, about the size of poppy seeds and have a nutty flavor.
“Amaranth seeds are considered a complete protein,” says Ruth Frechman, RD, a Burbank-based spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association. Meaning, they have the adequate proportion of all nine of the essential amino acids. (Peanut butter is not a complete protein so you’d have to spread it on whole wheat bread to get all nine amino acids.) “The seeds contain 15 to 18 percent protein while other grains are usually just 8 to 15 percent protein,” Frechman explains. Amaranth is also high in fiber and contains calcium, iron, potassium, phosphorus and vitamins A and C. Its high-nutrient value makes it an effective agent against cancer and heart disease.
You can find amaranth leaves, seeds and flour in most health food stores and some major grocery stores. The leaves of the amaranth plant taste much like spinach and should be stored just the same. They are best if consumed when the plant is young and tender. Since warm, moist environments may cause the natural oils in amaranth seeds to go rancid, they should be stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator. The seeds should be used within 3 to 6 months of purchase. Keep the flour in an airtight container and store in a dry place or freeze it in the freezer.
Try these simple ideas to get cooking with amaranth:
Heat amaranth seeds in a heavy, dry skillet over medium heat until the seeds begin to pop like popcorn. Then serve in granola or yogurt for a healthy breakfast. Or add them to salads or soups for a crunchy, toasty treat.
Cooked amaranth leaves are high in vitamins A and C, potassium and iron. One and a half cups of cooked leaves packs 138 mg of calcium (that’s more than kale!). And half a cup of amaranth leaves adds up to just 14 calories. Use the leaves the way you would use spinach—try them boiled, steamed or stir-fried.
Better Than Rice
You can use amaranth seeds any place you’d use rice or quinoa—try them in soups or as a side dish. To cook them, steep one cup of amaranth seeds in 2.5 cups of liquid (such as water or vegetable stock) for 18 to 20 minutes until the seeds are tender.
Just for Dessert
For a slightly thicker, porridge-like consistency, use a greater proportion of water (a ratio of 1 to 3). Amaranth seeds have a stickier texture than other grains, so be careful not to overcook it, as the dish can become gummy.
Amaranth flour can be added to any baking recipe but it must be mixed with other flours for baking yeast breads, as it contains no gluten. Simply use one part amaranth flour to four parts regular flour. To bake whole wheat bread that’s a complete protein, substitute 25 percent of your wheat flour with amaranth flour.