What’s that? You’ve never heard of amaranth?

Well, I hadn’t either before I was forced to start exploring gluten-free grains to replace the couscous, pasta, bread and bulgur in my life . And it’s a crying shame, since amaranth is one of the most nutritious ‘grains’ on the planet–second only to quinoa and teff in my book. Like quinoa, amaranth hails from South America, is a seed that behaves like a cereal grain, and is very high in protein and fiber. It also has a more complete protein profile than most other grains, containing certain essential amino acids that are not commonly found in other grains. Amaranth has twice the iron as wheat does; though vegetarian sources of iron are generally difficult to absorb. (But eating iron-rich plant foods like amaranth with vitamin-C rich foods, like fruit, can help with absorption.)

1/4 cup of raw amaranth, which will pop up to 1 cup “puffed” in the recipe below, contains 179 calories, 31g of carbohydrate (of which 3.2g is fiber), 77 mg of calcium (a non-trivial 8% of the daily value), 10% of the daily value of folate, and a surprising 3.7 mg of iron! (That’s almost 50% of the daily value for men, but remember it’s not likely to be very well absorbed unless you eat it along with some vitamin C.

Cooked amaranth is delicious and nutritious as well, but be warned that the texture will be gooey/gummy and pasty rather than fluffy and grainy; in fact, it is often used as thickening agent for soups and stews. I’d think about using cooked amaranth as a more nutritious substitute for savory grits or polenta rather than as a substitute for rice. Perhaps I’ll even come up with a recipe that features it in the not-too-distant future.

Finally, amaranth leaves are also edible and ridiculously nutritious. If you live in a neighborhood with a large Jamaican population, you may have seen them sold as callaloo, but they’re also used widely in East Asian, Southeast Asian and African cuisines under different names. (Other Caribbean cultures call Taro leaves–rather than amaranth leaves– “callaloo,” so it may be hard to know which plant your callaloo really comes from unless you know what amaranth leaves look like.) But I digress: if you happen to find it in your neck of the woods, don’t be afraid to give it a try! You can use it in place of spinach in any recipe. 1 cup of cooked amaranth leaves/callaloo contains only 30 calories and almost a full day’s worth of Vitamin C and Vitamin A, 20% of the daily value for folate, and 30% of the daily value for calcium, making it an excellent non-dairy source of that elusive bone-building mineral.

Making alegria

The trick to making alegria at home is in puffing your own amaranth. And the trick to puffing your own amaranth is a super-hot non-stick wok with a tight-fitting lid. (Of course, if you live near a well-stocked health food store that actually sells puffed amaranth cereal, then this recipe will be an absolute breeze.) It took me a few attempts to get this right, which is why I’d recommend having a little extra amaranth on hand in case the first few batches don’t quite puff as you want them to.

Raw amaranth (left) and popped (right)

Basically, get the wok nice and piping hot. And then get it even hotter. When you think the wok is hot enough, try adding 1 TBSP of the amaranth and close the lid immediately. If it doesn’t start popping like crazy, your wok wasn’t hot enough. (It took me a few failed TBSPs before my wok was hot enough, which is why I’d recommend having about 1/4 cup extra, just in case.) Within a minute of adding the amaranth, your crazy popping will slow down; using oven mitts if necessary, swirl the covered wok around a little as if you were popping popcorn; this should give the popping action a brief second wind before it grinds to a halt. Once the popping dies down for good, remove the puffed amaranth from heat and repeat this process until all of your amaranth is puffed. With each progressive batch, your puffing will improve since the wok will be hotter and hotter. But don’t be tempted to add more than 1 TBSP at a time to speed things up, or you’ll end up with too many unpopped kernels.

Recipe: North of the Border Alegria

North of the border alegria: Maple-y and muy delicioso!

1/2 cup raw amaranth grain, puffed to about 2 cups per the instructions above (or, if you’re lucky enough to find puffed amaranth cereal in your area, you can just use 2 cups of it)

1/2 cup pure maple syrup (this is the part that makes it North of the Border. Don’t use an adulterated “pancake syrup” like Aunt Jemima for these!)

1/4 cup dried fruit pieces (I used Vitamin C-rich dried cranberries)

1/4 cup toasted pumpkin seeds (pepitas)

Directions: In a saucepan, bring the maple syrup to a boil, and boil for at least 7 minutes to cook off some of the water so that your alegria bars won’t be too moist and fall apart. (Ideally, if you have a candy thermometer, boil the syrup to about 240 degrees). Then, add the amaranth and stir with a spatula to combine. Add the dried fruit and pumpkin seeds and stir until well combined. Pour mixture into a 9″x9″ baking dish lined with parchment paper and let cool. Cut into 8 bars.

Nutrition info per bar (assumes recipe above makes 8 bars): 145 calories, 25g carbohydrate (of which 1g is fiber), 4g protein, 4g fat and 2 mg (25% of the daily value) of iron.

Take that, Rice Krispie treats!

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