Amaranth-A Great Gluten Free Grain

Posted: 8/13/2012

Posted Aug 13, 2012

One of the tricks I use to make sure I get enough grains in my diet is to make a big batch of something on a Sunday, then build dinners around it throughout the week. Lately, I've been in a rut with brown basmati rice. The long, nutty grains are the perfect foundation for everything from simple steamed vegetables and cooked beans to elaborately spiced curries and Mexican sautes.

Recipe included with this story: Amaranth Risotto With Portobello and Peas.

But there are all sorts of other grains out there, and this summer I'm determined to make quinoa, wheat berries, bulgur and couscous more often, pushing brown rice to the sidelines. And I want to experiment with grains I've never tried cooking with at all, such as amaranth.

Amaranth is one of the tiniest grains (actually, it's a seed), and looks like a cream-colored version of poppy seed. But don't let the small size fool you: It's one of the most nutritionally dense grains, loaded with minerals such as calcium and iron. Like quinoa, it contains all of the essential amino acids, so it's a complete source of protein. And it's gluten-free, too.

Amaranth also has a rich history. Its cultivation in Central and South America dates back 8,000 years, and it was a dietary staple of the ancient Incan, Mayan and Aztec civilizations. Like many foods, its use spread in the post-Colombian era, and now it can be found around the world.

I once thought amaranth was for the birds -- literally. It's sometimes used in birdseed blends, and when I'd had it in baked goods, it retained such a seedy texture that it seemed more appropriate for backyard finches than humans.

But amaranth can also be prepared like rice for both sweet and savory dishes. In the morning, add a tablespoon of brown sugar and a few dashes of cinnamon as it cooks, and you've got a creamy, porridgelike breakfast cereal that can be enjoyed with a splash of rice or almond milk.

For an earthy grain that goes well with lentils or curried garbanzo beans, prepare it like rice, using 1 1/2 cups water for each cup of amaranth. But it really shines when it's cooked with rich vegetable broth and other vegetables, with the grains absorbing their flavors as well as the liquid.

Roland Foods, one of the leading manufacturers of amaranth, has a basic mushroom risotto recipe on the side of the package. The recipe looks solid, but it calls for dried wild mushrooms, which seems criminal when you consider that at this time of year there are wonderful wild mushrooms at the farmers markets. And there are always fresh portobellos at the grocery store. Whenever possible, I'll take fresh over dried.

To add some visual appeal and a touch of natural sweetness in each bite, I added a cup of peas. This improved the dish's vitamin C profile, and stretched the number of servings from four to six.

Italians might not recognize this atypical risotto, nor would long-ago residents of Machu Picchu probably recognize it as one of their amaranth dishes. But it's a modern twist on an ancient grain that will keep me out of my basmati rut.

-- Grant Butler Follow @grantbutler

©2012 The Oregonian (Portland, Ore.)

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