The Aztecs were the first to cultivate amaranth. (Flickr/wlcutler)

Awesome Aztec Superfood Is Also Beautiful in Your Garden

Darla Antoine
7/17/13

“What are we going to do with that?” was my first thought when my husband Andy said he had planted amaranth in our garden. I’d see amaranth in health food stores before, and I knew it was a grain, but I had no idea how to harvest it or what we would do when it was harvested.

But now?

It’s my favorite thing growing in the garden.

Amaranth is an herb first cultivated by the ancient Aztecs. However, we consume the fruit of the plant which is much like a grain and so amaranth is more commonly referred to as a grain. Recent health studies have found amaranth to be anti-inflammatory, lowers cholesterol and risk for cardiovascular disease and is high in antioxidants, minerals and calcium. It’s also gluten-free, has more protein per serving than other grains, and studies are suggesting that it may also help you lose and maintain weight.

It’s also gorgeous.

Walking into my garden, I see a lot of green with dots of yellow. Green lettuces, green herbs, green squash plants with yellow flowers. Yellow tomatoes ripening on a green vine. Sugar snap peas. Yellow sunflowers on a tall green stalk. And in the midst of it all, a dozen stalks of magenta shooting straight up to the sky before the beautiful, velvety, tops flop over and add a casual elegance to all the greenness. You’re eye can’t help but land there, and it can’t help but to keep returning there.

Between its sultry good looks and amazing health benefits, I highly suggest ordering some amaranth seeds and getting some growing in your garden. Even if you have no intention to eat it, the ornamental value is worth it alone.

But what do you do if you DO want to eat it? How do you harvest it and how do you cook it. Amaranth is usually ready for it’s first harvest about three months after it’s been germinated. You’ll know when by the magenta flowers suddenly becoming little white fruits (smaller than BBs) and there will likely be a few birds happily beginning the harvest for you. Probably the easiest way to harvest the amaranth is to bend the flower over a buck and gently shake the flower or rub it in between your hands to release the fruit. If you’re not going to eat it right away be sure to let it dry in the sun for a few days to prevent it from molding in storage. The amaranth will continue to produce well into the fall. You can also harvest the leaves, which taste like a strong spinach, and use them much the way you would use spinach.

Amaranth stir-fried with garlic slivers (Flickr/Laurel Fan)

To cook the amaranth simply use a 1:3 ratio of amaranth to liquid (water, milk, almond milk, etc.). Bring to boil, then reduce heat and simmer for 20-25 minutes. Try it as a warm breakfast cereal. You can also pop amaranth like popcorn. Add amaranth to a pot over high heat (no oil) and stir it continuously until it pops. You can use this as breading or as a crunchy topping on soups or salads. However, I’m going to make Alegría  (Spanish for “happiness”) with my first harvest of amaranth. Alegría is a Mexican candy that is similar to popcorn balls. Pop your amaranth and then heat up an equal amount of honey. When the honey is warm, add the amaranth and a pinch of salt. Combine, and transfer to a greased baking dish. After they’ve cooled you can cut and serve!

Popped amaranth (Flickr/John Lambert Pearson/orphanjones)

Darla Antoine is an enrolled member of the Okanagan Indian Band in British Columbia and grew up in Eastern Washington State. For three years, she worked as a newspaper reporter in the Midwest, reporting on issues relevant to the Native and Hispanic communities, and most recently served as a producer for Native America Calling. In 2011, she moved to Costa Rica, where she currently lives with her husband and their infant son. She lives on an organic and sustainable farm in the “cloud forest”—the highlands of Costa Rica, 9,000 feet above sea level. Due to the high elevation, the conditions for farming and gardening are similar to that of the Pacific Northwest—cold and rainy for most of the year with a short growing season. Antoine has an herb garden, green house, a bee hive, cows, a goat, and two trout ponds stocked with hundreds of rainbow trout.

Darla Antoine on a recent visit to Washington State (Courtesy Antoine)

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