The more I’ve learned about amaranth, the more I’ve come to think of it as quinoa’s little cousin. The two certainly have a lot in common. Like quinoa, amaranth has a long New World history. It was revered among the native peoples of Mexico and Central America, and it was so crucial to the Aztecs’ diet, culture and even religion that the Spanish conquistadors outlawed its cultivation.
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Also, like quinoa, amaranth is considered a “pseudo-grain” because it isn’t a true cereal grain, though it shares many of the same nutritional and culinary qualities. Amaranth “grains” are actually the seeds of the plant, which also yields very tasty, tender green leaves that you might have seen labeled as “Chinese spinach” at farmers’ markets or Asian groceries.

And, along with quinoa, amaranth is a nutritional dynamo. A quarter-cup uncooked amaranth (about 3/4 cup cooked) has 179 calories, 3 grams of fiber and a whopping 7 grams of protein. Even better, amaranth is one of the few plant sources of complete protein (like quinoa, surprise, surprise). If you’re a vegan or simply trying to enjoy more meatless meals, amaranth should have a place on your plate. Oh, yeah, and it’s gluten free, too.

So what’s the difference? For all its similarities to quinoa, amaranth has some unique characteristics:

What It Looks Like: Amaranth’s teeny-tiny pale-golden beads look like a much dinkier version of quinoa. (Tip: The tiny grains tend to scatter everywhere, so if you buy amaranth from the bulk bins, use a funnel to decant it into another container. I learned this the hard way.)

What It Tastes Like: Texture is the first thing you notice about amaranth. Whereas quinoa cooks up with fluffy individual grains, amaranth releases lots of starch during cooking. That lends it a gelatinous consistency with each grain creating a subtle, caviar-like “pop” when you chew it. Amaranth has a mildly nutty quality and readily absorbs the flavors of other ingredients.

How to Cook It: Use 1 part amaranth to 3 parts liquid, which can be anything from plain water to stock to milk. Bring the amaranth and liquid to a boil, then cover, reduce the heat and let it simmer for 25 minutes or until tender. Stir it occasionally. To enhance amaranth’s nutty flavor, saute the grains in a little bit of fat before adding your liquid. One cup of uncooked amaranth yields about 3 cups cooked.

How to Use It: Choose dishes that make the most of amaranth’s rich, pudding-like texture. Indeed, we’ve found it makes an excellent dessert in our Chai-Spiced Amaranth Pudding or Chocolate Amaranth Pudding (yes, we love pudding around here!). I’d also try it for breakfast in place of millet in our Creamy Millet with Blueberry Compote. Or use it instead of corn in grits or polenta.

Additional Notes: You’ll also find amaranth flour, which you can use to in baked goods or to make atole, the warm, thick traditional Mexican drink. Look for puffed amaranth at health-food stores (or pop it yourself at home), which you can use as a cold breakfast cereal or to make like alegria–a lovely Mexican snack that has been described as Mexico’s answer to the Rice Krispie treat.

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