MISSOURI GIRL EATS WEEDS
Wed, 11/11/2020 - 11:50am admin
Ann J. Hines, PhD
This week’s edible is often considered just a nuisance weed, yet it’s more nutritious than kale, so it deserves a little consideration. It’s often called pigweed, but pigweed is a nickname given to a number of weeds. There are several varieties of amaranth, all edible, some that are cultivated for their ornamental value or for making dye. Some grow several feet tall and have huge seed heads featured in floral arrangements. One varietal currently growing in my mother’s garden is easily over ten feet tall!
Despite its belittled status in modern American culture, it was used extensively by early Native Americans; some tribes even cultivated it. The Sanskrit word for amaranth is rajgira, for “royal” and “grain,” belying its revered status in ancient cultures. It was venerated by the Aztecs of Mesoamerica, for whom amaranth was a major crop used for food and in religious ceremonies. The seeds were mixed with corn and honey or agave syrup and shaped into idols, to be eaten as part of religious celebration. This ritualistic reverence for amaranth led to it being banned by the Spanish conquistadors. Today in Mexico amaranth is seeing a revival. Alegria, meaning happiness in Spanish, is a sweet treat made with puffed amaranth seeds and molded into shapes like skulls or flowers to celebrate the Day of the Dead.
Around the world, including India, China, Greece, Africa, as well as Mexico, amaranth’s leaves are used as a green. Brought by slaves from West Africa to the Caribbean, an amaranth greens dish known in Jamaica as callaloo is made with onions, garlic, tomatoes, thyme and, notably, Scotch bonnet pepper. In South Africa, the greens are used in a soup called morogo.
Among those with gluten intolerance or seeking to reduce their intake of glyphosate-laden wheat products, amaranth has seen a bit of revival in the US in recent decades. Amaranth seeds are even smaller than quinoa, can be ground into a high-protein flour, and have a stickier texture when cooked. It can be used as a thickener for soups and sauces. You can generally substitute 20% amaranth flour for regular flour in most of your recipes. The tiny seeds can be popped or puffed in a matter of seconds in a hot pan and eaten as a cereal or made into a bar similar to rice crispy treats. The greens can be used on pizzas, in soups, or as a pesto atop crostini.
Amaranth is high in amino acids, vitamins A, C and folate, and minerals such as calcium, magnesium, potassium and iron. It does contain oxalates, like spinach and many other plants, so boiling them and discarding the water is prudent if you want to limit the oxalates. Avoid harvesting amaranth near roadsides as green plants take up lead, and in fertilized fields, as they tend to concentrate nitrates in their leaves.
Next time you see this unusual looking plant, I hope you’ll think, “Dinner!” instead of “Nuisance!”