Yesterday, when Meri and I were at the Ballard farmers market, I walked by a stand selling Chinese spinach. Leafy green like spinach, but thinner, more ornate. And in the middle of each leaf, a burst of purple, a splotch of color unlike anything I had ever seen. Three stalls down, another pile of the unusual greens. Apparently, they came into season this week, because every third stall was selling them. I had never seen them before, but I knew I had to have some. Fascinated, I asked the young girl behind the table where these came from, originally. She shrugged her shoulders; she didnt know. I handed her a dollar bill and took it home, determined to find out.
Thank goodness for the internet. Thanks to a fabulous website called the Cooks Thesaurus, I was able to locate Chinese spinach almost immediately, along with a photograph of it. There it was. And when I started reading, I was even more excited. Amaranth? Chinese spinach is actually the leaves of one species of the amaranth plant, the same plant that produces the gluten-free grain Ive most been wanting to try.
Amaranth was first grown domestically seven thousand years ago, in Mexico. For the Aztecs, it was a sacred grain, used in almost every aspect of their lives. Historians believe it was as important as maize to the Aztecsthey used it to feed themselves, their animals, and their blood sacrifices. At least, the Conquistadores claimed that the Aztecs used amaranth in ritualistic killings, mixing amaranth, lime, and blood to form little idols that would be eaten in the middle of ceremonies. Is this true? Well never know for sure. And its not clear if the Conquistadores made it a crime to grow amaranth or simply looked down upon it. Clearly, they didnt approve, because amaranth nearly disappeared forever over the next century. If it hadnt been grown secretly on farms high on the Andes or in hidden pockets of Mexico, amaranth would no longer exist in the world.
But Im glad it does. This grain fascinates me. I have to admit that Im actually quite humbled by how little I really knew about food before I was handed my celiac diagnosis. Eating gluten-free is forcing me to look outside my own little sphere of knowledge and reach out to the rest of the world. As I have done so, the world feels wider and smaller at the same time. And I love learning that, and sharing that with you.
In my research on the grain this morning, I learned that amaranth is actually eaten all over the world, especially in some of the poorer places. In Nepal, people mill amaranth flour to make chapatis, which they eat daily. People in Peru have learned how to make beer out of amaranth. (At the rate Im going, Ill probably start making it soon!) And in Ecuador, women drink a distilled liquid of amaranth grain to regulate their menstrual cycle. Its no wonder that amaranth grows so prolifically in those countrieseach plant can produce 40,000 to 60,000 seeds, making it an economically efficient crop. Its high in iron and fiber, as well as being a complete protein. Wow. Im starting to wonder why Americans are so stuck in a rut with wheat. Its about the least-interesting grain in the world.
I also found a wonderful company called Nu-World, which sells amaranth products. It has all the qualities I love in food producers: a family-run business, which keeps health in mind, tries to help people, and produces food that tastes great. Heres a quote from their website:
Amaranth, though an ancient food and a staple of the Aztecs, was introduced into this country about 20 years ago by the National Academy of Sciences who researched over 400 foods that had been in humankinds food supply. They reported that amaranth, because of its incredible nutrition and flavor, would be an outstanding food source for today.
Enter, Larry Walters, Food Scientist and principal Founder of Nu-World Amaranth Inc. Larry was introduced to amaranth by John Rodale who sponsored a food industry conference on amaranth. At that time there was 100% market potential but a US production base of 0% and 0% worldwide availability. Amaranth was not ready for the consumer food market! Larry saw the benefits of amaranth as a nutrition boost to the US diet though. He decided to experiment with raising it, got seed from John Rodale (Rodale Press) and he and his brother, Terry grew a few acres. The following spring a story appeared in Organic Gardening Magazine listing them as one of four growers in this country. As a result of that article, Larry and Dianes (his wife) mail box was inundated with people who wanted to buy it, grow it and learn more about it! Thats how our business began.
Im going to look for some of their products at PCC the next time I go.
But in the meantime, luckily, I had some amaranth on my pantry shelves, since I had bought some in bulk a couple of weeks ago. And I remembered reading a recipe in The Splendid Grain for popped amaranth cereal. Always on the look for a whole-grain breakfast to take the place of my oatmeal, I turned on the stove and waited for my skillet to heat up almost to the point of smoking. When it grew so hot I thought Id set off the smoke alarm the next minute, I threw in 1/4 cup of the tiny amaranth seeds and waited to see what would happen. I didnt have to wait long. They began popping, jumping off the skillet, dancing and fluttering. The smell that wafted to my nose made me pop a little too. It smelled a bit like popcorn, with more warmth, woody, a little more depth. The entire kitchen smelled of it, like I had made an entire meal. (And when I returned from the swimming pool, hours later, I could still smell it as I walked up the stairs to my house.) I couldnt wait to eat it. I find that I love foods that make me feel like Im playing, like a kid, when I cook it. And this is definitely one. After about two minutes, most of the grains were toasted a darker brown, letting off this delicious smell. And the rest had stopped popping. I spooned the hot grains into my favorite red bowl, filled it with soy milk, a tablespoon of maple syrup, and a a few spoonfuls of my blackberry jam. And ate. Ah, the decadence. It doesnt taste like anything else I have ever eaten. I can really taste the little seeds in my mouth, and they are crunchy and mushy at the same time. Easy going down, but quite clearly a whole grain, as well. And all morning, afterwards, I felt energized and clean.
Im having more tomorrow.
(And oh, yes, I made that blackberry jam last night. I finally redeemed myselfMeri and I went out picking yesterday afternoon, after the farmers market, at Discovery Park. And yes, my hands were stained purple and filled with scratches from thorns. And the plastic bags we used to hold the berries leaked little drops of juice, which are still splattered on my floor. The first batch we made turned out great, because we used Sure-Jell, which provides the easiest jam-making experience I can imagine. But when we realized we had enough berries for more jars, I ran across the street to Kens for more Sure-Jell and found only Pomona Pectin. Maybe Im not good enough to use this stuff, but it seems extraordinarily too complicated. And inadequate. Those jars have little chunks of congealed pectin in them, so only Meri and I can eat them. But the first batch are ready for toast tomorrow. Come on over.)
And so, for lunch, I wanted more amaranth, the leaves this time.
Its starting to be autumn around here. Oh, the day outside my window is gloriously blue-skied, but there are giant, puffy clouds blotting out parts of the blue. The heat is thinner than it was in July. And last night, as we were making jam, Meri and I looked out the window and noticed it was dark. At 8:30 pm. Damn. Dont get me wrongI love autumn too. I love the crisp air, the fresh crop of apples, the coziness of sweaters. But the start of fall means the start of school. And Im just not ready to go back to teaching yet. Oh, I don’t want to talk about it yet.
But this celiac diagnosis is a blessing in disguise, in so many ways. And among other lessons, its only reaffirming what I had learned in the rest of my life: accept life as it arises. Dont deny it. Dance with it instead. So the air outside the window is cooler than it was before, and Emily Dickinsons certain slant of light is coming through too. That just means its time for grilled cheese sandwiches.
Slashfood is hosting yet another blog competition, this one for grilled cheese sandwiches. I just cant resist the chance to participate again. Now, according to the various lists I consult online, American cheese is gluten-free. Or can be, depending on the manufacturer. But after making popped amaranth for breakfast, I couldnt just have a mainstream sandwich. So heres what I did:
I toasted some Food for Life raisin-pecan bread first, because GF bread can be a little hard to brown. (It’s also denser than regular bread, and quite small, about half the size of a regular piece of bread, so this is a condensed sandwich.) I spread the thickened, leftover blackberry sauce I made the other day on one side, then piled little slices of gooey brie, some soft goat cheese with herbs made by Les Fromages D’Anne Marie, a local, artisan cheese maker, and a half-goat, half-sheep’s milk cheese that tastes a little like Havarti, made by the same local cheesemaker. I piled on some of the amaranth leaves (or Chinese spinach, as youll find it at farmers markets). Put the other piece of bread on. And then, I just rubbed a small smidgen of butter over the bread. Actually, I just ran the end of the cube over the bread. Because it’s already toasted, I use less butter that way. (Of course, this isn’t a low-fat sandwich!) And then I put it in the sautee pan on medium, and put a souffle dish on top of it to flatten it a bit. (Don’t laugh. It was the closest heavy object at hand.) Eight minutes later, and I had to restrain myself from eating it, because I had to take pictures first.
I have to say: it was damned good.
So there you have it, my adventures with amaranth. But not quite, because I’m planning on using the rest of the leaves tonight, in a stir-fry with tofu and the organic zucchini I bought at the market yesterday too. I love how much I look forward to the next meal…..