Bartlett on Gardening: Keen for Quinoa?

Ancient grains are all the rage. One has to wonder why. What have they got that agri-science cannot improve upon?

Quinoa (pronounced KEEN-wah) and amaranth were staples of the Pre-Columbian world. They are both members of the spinach clan. The grain comes from seeds formed in the flowers. Like spinach, the foliage is edible.

Called the “mother grain” by the Inca, quinoa has been cultivated in the Andes for thousands of years. The seeds contain all eight essential amino acids, making them a source of complete protein. They are also gluten-free and high in iron and magnesium, and they have a low glycemic index. The texture is similar to couscous and the flavor delicious and mildly nutty.

Photo: A Day-of-the-Dead head made from amaranth seeds and honey.

Quinoa expands four times in volume when cooked, so adjust the amount when substituting it for rice in recipes. I did a one-for-one swap the first time I used it in soup and ended up with a mushy casserole instead!

We can’t defy the law of supply and demand. Demand for quinoa has soared over the last decade. It remains pricey because 90 percent of production is from small farms in the highlands of Bolivia and Peru. Colorado produces some quinoa but the quality of the seeds is inferior to those from South America from the standpoint of food processors. It is native to high, dry environments. Washington State University is conducting research to develop a cultivar for our cool summer regions.

Still, quinoa seeds are available from a few catalogs. You could grow it for the greens and attractive flowers, but do not expect seeds to develop. Amaranth is a better bet here. The heirloom amaranth, Hopi Red Dye, is as useful as an ornamental as it is nutritious. You can also use the bracts as red dye.

Drought-tolerant amaranth thrives in the heat. Called “the golden grain of the gods” by the Aztecs, it was a dietary staple widely grown in what is now Mexico, Central America and the southern areas of our nation. The seeds contain 26 grams of protein per cup and are high in the amino acid lysine. They are also an excellent source of calcium, magnesium, iron, zinc and vitamins B and E.

In pre-Columbian times, amaranth was used as a cereal, ground into flour, popped, sprouted, toasted and made into beer. The foliage can be eaten raw when young or cooked when mature. These leaves contain three times more calcium and niacin than spinach and are a good source of carotene, iron and vitamin C.

This plant sounds like a major contender in the fight to end world hunger. Why is it so unknown? The Conquistadors wiped out all the amaranth fields they could find and outlawed growing it. What?! Why? For one of their religious rituals, the Aztecs mixed the seeds with honey and sculpted an image of the god being worshipped. The attendees each broke off a bit of the image and ate it. Part of the Spanish mission was to convert the indigenous people to Christianity. Pagan ways had to go.

I have tried cooking with amaranth. A basic batch of cooked cereal was tasteless and had the consistency of glue and a sandy texture. Undeterred, I whipped up a loaf of date-nut bread from a recipe on the package. It was chock-full of healthful ingredients, smelled and tasted wonderful, but had a gritty texture. I am not a baker, but I suspect my experience explains why one sees amaranth in processed foods rather than on the grocery store shelf!

Master gardener Ann Bartlett never lets lack of familiarity with an ancient grain stop her from turning it into a tasteless gruel with a sandy texture and the consistency of glue.

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