May 8, 2013

Grain Challenge - May: Amaranth

**info from whole grain coucil
Amaranth is the common name for more than 60 different species of amaranthus, which are usually very tall plants with broad green leaves and impressively bright purple, red, or gold flowers.  The name for amaranth comes from the Greek amarantos, “one that does not wither," or “the never-fading.”  Although several species can be viewed as little more than annoying weeds, people around the world value amaranth as leaf vegetables, cereals, and ornamental plants.
It isn’t a true cereal grain in the sense that oats, wheat, sorghum, and most other grains are.  “True cereals” all stem from the Poaceae family of plants, while amaranth (among others) is often referred to as a pseudo-cereal, meaning it belongs to a different plant species.  So why are these interlopers almost always included in the whole grain roundup?  Because their overall nutrient profile is similar to that of cereals, and more importantly, pseudocereals like amaranth have been utilized in traditional diets spanning thousands of years in much the same way as the “true cereals” have been.  
Amaranth grain has a long and colorful history in Mexico and is considered a native crop in Peru.  It was a major food crop of the Aztecs, and some have estimated amaranth was domesticated between 6,000 and 8,000 years ago.  Annual grain tributes of amaranth to the Aztec emperor were roughly equal to corn tributes.  The Aztecs didn’t just grow and eat amaranth, they also used the grains as part of their religious practices.  Many ceremonies would include the creation of a deity’s image that had been made from a combination of amaranth grains and honey.  Once formed, the images were worshipped before being broken into pieces and distributed for people to eat.  When Cortez and his Spaniards landed in the New World in the sixteenth century, they immediately began fervent and often forceful attempts to convert the Aztecs to Christianity.  One of their first moves?  Outlaw foods involved in “heathen” festivals and religious ceremonies, amaranth included.  Although severe punishment was handed to anyone found growing or possessing amaranth, complete eradication of this culturally important, fast-growing, and very prevalent plant proved to be impossible.
Amaranth Growing in a Field
Amaranth plants in full flower offer up flowers in a vibrant range of reds, oranges, purples, and golds. 
 Amaranth Ready for Harvest
Orange amaranth flowers that have been harvested and allowed to dry, making it easier to harvest the amaranth grains. 
Amaranth Grains
Once harvested, tiny amaranth grains are revealed to be a nearly uniform shade of pale cream. Some grains are occasionally darker, ranging from light brown to nearly black in color, so if you see dark specks in your bulk amaranth don’t worry. It’s just a few grains of a darker shade than normal.
Amaranth Grains in Detail
To show you just how tiny amaranth grains are, the WGC got up close and personal for this photo. Each individual grain is so small, it only covers the space of a few ridges of an average person’s fingerprint, about one millimeter. 
Popped Amaranth
Sometimes referred to as puffed amaranth, here’s what happens when you pour a few tablespoons of amaranth grains onto a very hot surface – they pop! They may not be as robust as other popped grains, but what these little puffs lack in size, they more than make up for with enthusiasm and can leap right out of a four-quart sauce pan while popping!
Amaranth Flour
We know, it's white and powdery... It could be any type of flour! But trust us on this one, it's ama


Amaranth contains more than three times the average amount of calcium and is also high in iron, magnesium, phosphorus, and potassium.  It’s also the only grain documented to contain Vitamin C.  Very little research has been conducted on amaranth’s beneficial properties, but the studies that have focused on amaranth’s role in a healthy diet have revealed three very important reasons to add it to your diet.
It’s a protein powerhouse.  At about 13-14%, it easily trumps the protein content of most other grains.  You may hear the protein in amaranth referred to as “complete” because it contains lysine, an amino acid missing or negligible in many grains.  
It’s good for your heart.  Amaranth has shown potential as a cholesterol-lowing whole grain in several studies conducted over the past 14 years. 
Last but not least, it’s naturally gluten-free.  Gluten is the major protein in many grains and is responsible for the elasticity in dough, allows for leavening, and contributes chewiness to baked products.  But more and more people are finding they cannot comfortably – or even safely – eat products containing gluten, often due to Celiac disease, an autoimmune digestive disease that damages the body’s ability to absorb nutrients from food.  This makes amaranth an important grain to take note of during May, which is Celiac Awareness Month.


In many South American countries, you can find it 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 (“alegria” is the Spanish word for joy), a sweet candy-like confection made from popped amaranth mixed with sugar or honey.  And of course, amaranth can be eaten straight up.  Its flavor runs from light and nutty to lively and peppery, making it a popular ingredient in cereals, breads, muffins, crackers, and pancakes.
Cooking amaranth is very easy – measure grains and water, boil water, add grains, gently boil with the occasional stir for 15-20 minutes, then drain, rinse, and enjoy!   It never loses its crunch completely, but rather softens on the inside while maintaining enough outer integrity so that the grains seem to pop between your teeth.  None of our culinary experts reported any success when trying to prepare amaranth for a pilaf, but the cooked grains can be spread on a plate or other flat surface to dry a bit, then sprinkled on salads, added to cookie batters, or stirred into soups.
We suggest at least 6 cups of water for every one 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 “your cooking liquid will thicken slightly” is putting it delicately.  Our experiments with the average amount of liquid (about 2 cups) left us with about two inches of excess water that was goopy and viscous, in part due to starch being released by amaranth as it cooks.  The grains hadn’t gone bad or anything, and they were fine after a brief rinse in a fine-mesh strainer, but it was a bit of a surprise.

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