This was recorded in Italy as the warmest winter ever. I’m not complaining. My dream is to live in a place whose climate is an eternal springtime, and this year, my wish has been granted. With these gentle rains and warm sun, nature has had an earlier chance to create the ideal environment for tiny grains of amaranth to sprout and begin to grow into very tall plants with broad green leaves and impressively bright purple, red, or gold flowers. Although several species of amaranthus are considered in many cases annoying weeds, people around the world increasingly value it as leaf vegetables, whole grains, and ornamental plants.
But amaranth is no spring chicken. Its grain has a long and colorful history in Central America. The seeds of the plant are considered a native crop in Peru and a major food for the Aztecs. It has been estimated that amaranth was domesticated between 6,000 and 8,000 years ago and, the Aztecs didn’t just grow and eat amaranth, they also used the seeds in their extravagant religious practices. Many ceremonies would include building statues of gods made from a combination of amaranth grains and honey. Once formed, the statues were worshipped before being broken into chunks and distributed for people to eat. These practices did not go down well with Cortez and his conquistadores, who set off to the New World in the sixteenth century with an agenda that included converting the natives to Christianity. Foods involved in religious ceremonies, amaranth included, were outlawed and severe punishment was handed down to anyone found growing or possessing amaranth. Fortunately, complete eradication of this culturally important, fast-growing, and very prevalent plant proved to be impossible.
In many central and southern American countries, amaranth is sold on the streets, most often having been popped like corn. In India, Mexico, Nepal, and Peru, it’s a traditional ingredient for breakfast porridge. In Mexico, a favorite treat is dulce de alegria, a sweet candy-like confection made from popped amaranth mixed with sugar or honey. If you’ve ever been a participate in a true Mexican Día de Muertos (Day of the Dead) celebration, perhaps you’ve seen – or even eaten – an amaranth seed skull, which is both creepy but delicious.
Lately, amaranth is receiving renewed interest as a food source and is part of a growing popular eating trend. And justly so, since amaranth contains more than three times the average amount of calcium; it is also high in iron, magnesium, phosphorus, and potassium. Curiously, amaranth is furthermore the only grain documented to contain Vitamin C. Studies that focus on amaranth’s role in a healthy diet reveal three very important reasons to add it to your diet. It’s first of all, a protein powerhouse; secondly, it’s good for the heart as a cholesterol-lowering whole grain; and thirdly, it is naturally gluten-free. Like quinoa, amaranth is not properly a grain, rather the seeds of the plant – and does not contain any gluten.
The flavor of amaranth runs from light and nutty to lively and peppery, and cooking amaranth is very easy: measure grains and water, boil water, add grains, gently cook, occasionally stir for 15-20 minutes, drain, rinse, and eat… it’s that simple.* I sprinkle amaranth on salads, add it to cookie batter, mold it into dumplings, stuff it in tamales or stir it into soups. Cooked amaranth never loses its crunch completely, but rather only softens on the inside so that the grains seem to pop between your teeth, much like caviar – minus the fish taste.
If you’re hungry (or curious) for a little amaranth in your life, I suggest making this filling and flavorful amaranth and cannellini soup. The ingredients listed below yield 4 servings.
2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
2 large leeks, white parts only, sliced
3 cloves of garlic, minced
1/2 cup amaranth
2 and 1/2 cups vegetable stock
1 bay leaf
1 tbsp tomato paste
2 cups cooked cannellini beans, rinsed and drained, divided
1/2 cup chopped fresh basil
1 tbsp chopped fresh oregano
Pinch of sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
Heat the olive oil in a large, heavy saucepan over medium heat. Add the leeks and cook, stirring frequently until golden and soft, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and simmer for 1 more minute, then add the amaranth grains, stock, bay leaf, and tomato paste and bring to a boil. Then reduce heat to a simmer, cover and cook for 30 minutes.
Remove the bay leaf from the pot, add 1 cup of the beans, and use a handheld immersion blender to puree within the pot until smooth.
Stir in the remaining beans, the herbs, and the salt. Warm gently just to heat through, if desired, thin the soup with additional heated stock. Season with additional salt and pepper to taste and serve in deep bowls drizzled with a thread of oil.
* There’s only one real rule to follow when boiling a batch of plain amaranth – don’t skimp on the water! Consider at least 6 cups of water for every cup of amaranth, not because the little grains will absorb that much liquid, but because of what happens to the water that’s left: to say “the starchy cooking water will thicken slightly” is an understatement.
Eleonora Baldwin is a TV host, journalist, and culinary connoisseur based in Rome, Italy. Her writing appears in several food and travel publications. Her show “ABCheese” is broadcast on Italian food network Gambero Rosso. She loves guiding culturally curious, food-passionate travellers seeking experiences in Italy beyond the guidebook.