Amaranth & Pie
Updated: Apr 17, 2020
We were first introduced to Red Amaranth in a microgreen grow kit. After a shoddy job harvesting them, we were left with a couple of strays that just kept growing. Until finally they got so big and tall we decided to transplant them to our vegetable patch.
Amaranth, colloquially known as bayam to many of us, is a herbaceous plant that comes in many shapes, sizes, and colours. At home, we grow a red and green variety – I’m sure they have proper scientific names but I like to keep things simple. Their leaves, which are commonly eaten as leafy greens, can be round or lance shaped. Their flowers, which produce the amaranth grain, are showy tassels of richly saturated red or green hues. Plants can grow up to 2m tall and usually require staking to help them stand upright as they become top-heavy with maturing seed clusters.
Whether in the ground or in pots, amaranths love warm weather and full sun, steady moisture, and a rich soil – especially one that has plenty of nitrogen to promote healthy and abundant leaf growth. Once established, they need little care. They are very hardy and seem more tolerant of drought conditions than other leafy greens. It is perhaps this trait that has helped them thrive in this lazy gardener’s veggie patch.
Amaranths have an endearing habit of self-seeding and so far, we haven’t had to intentionally sow their seeds – not since our microgreen endeavour anyway. Quite the opposite, we get them popping up all over our garden these days. We have more amaranth growing than we need at this point, but that’s totally fine because grasshoppers LOVE them. In fact, grasshoppers love them so much that we appoint some of our plants ‘sacrificial lambs’ and just let the grasshoppers go to town with them. And go to town the grasshoppers sure do, but if that keeps them away from our other precious crops (and it does!) then that’s something we can live with.
Amaranth leaves are nutritionally similar to beets, Swiss chard, and spinach, but are actually superior; as is usually the case when you compare “wild” plants to highly bred commercial varieties. For example, amaranth leaves contain three times more calcium and niacin (vitamin B3) than spinach leaves.
We harvest leaves as and when they are needed in the kitchen (aka anytime) because they don’t tend to keep well, but definitely try to get them before your plants flower. Buds and flowers are edible but the leaves will not be as tender and tasty once flowering has begun. To harvest, we top our plants to encourage them to bush out. Younger leaves have milder flavour and are good to use in salads, while mature leaves are better cooked like spinach.
Since we are spending a lot more time at home these coming weeks and cooking at least two to three meals each day, we thought we’d get a little creative with how we eat our amaranth. Here’s a quick pie we put together with some other goodies we already had in the kitchen. Think Spanakopita but with a variety of vegetables and no flaky phyllo pastry.
Ingredients (makes 1 pie, feeds 3 people)
Pumpkin, steamed and cubed (If you’re not fussy about texture you can substitute with almost any root or squash eg: sweet potato, yam, carrots, parsnips. Or go wild and try something like pear and celery!)
2 eggs, hard boiled and cubed
1 egg, raw and lightly beaten
1 large onion, chopped
100g cheese, crumbled (We usually use Blue Stilton for that extra oomph but Feta is another great option if you prefer something milder. Or just use any cheese, really. We used a White Stilton this time around and it was still yum city.)
Amaranth (Any leafy green that doesn’t have a strong or distinct taste will work.)
1 sheet of puff pastry (Making pastry in this heat and humidity is such a nightmare so I just use Borg’s. Five stars; would definitely recommend.)
3 tablespoons olive oil
1. Preheat oven to 180 degrees C.
2. Heat olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Sauté onions until lightly browned. Stir in amaranth and continue to sauté until amaranth goes limp, about 2 minutes. Remove from heat and set aside.
3. In a medium bowl, combine pumpkin, eggs, cheese, and sautéd amaranth. I usually mix with a spoon but Scott insists on using his bare hands to mix stuff all the time. Season with salt and pepper.
4. Get a sheet of puff pastry out from the freezer and place it on a flat countertop – marble ideally. You can wrap your pie any way you fancy but we like to do a braid.
5. Mentally divide the sheet into thirds and make cuts on both sides of your pastry leaving the middle bit (about 5 cm) of the sheet untouched. Try to work quickly as melting dough spoils all the fun.
6. Spread your pumpkin mixture down the centre and then fold the strips of dough over the filling, alternating sides until all loaf is braided.
7. Brush the braid with the beaten egg and sprinkle some salt on top.
8. Bake for 30 minutes, or until puffed and golden brown.
We had ours with some tangy beetroot chutney we got from Scott’s village shop back in the UK. YUM!
Another fun amaranth activity is harvesting its seeds, which are a good gluten-free source of protein, iron, and magnesium. It’s estimated the plant was domesticated more than 6,000 years ago and is believed to be one of the ancient grains that helped sustain Aztec civilization. Talk about giving your kids a history lesson in the garden, amirite?
The colour of its flowers will change from a vibrant tone to a more yellow shade – a sign that it is drying.
1. To check when the head is ready, rub it gently between your fingers and if seeds start to fall out, it’s game time!
2. Finish drying seed heads off the plant unless you want an abundance of self-seeding amaranths in your garden. We’ve found drying the heads on a dish in the sun for a couple of days to be the most efficient method.
3. Slowly pull along the seed stalks to release the seeds. You’ll end up with a mixture of seed (tiny pale-yellow dots in the picture) and chaff (dry seed casings).
4. Use a strainer to remove the bigger pieces of chaff from the seeds.
5. To remove the remaining chaff, blow lightly on the surface.
Continual harvest is best. One plant will give many flower heads, which will dry at varying times. Frankly, harvesting and cleaning enough grain to make it worthwhile is a lot of work. I can’t see us getting into the habit of grinding our own amaranth flour or popping seeds for cereals and snacks. However, just one plant produces thousands of seeds, which makes growing microgreens a lot more cost effective. (One of the things that really irked me about growing microgreens was constantly having to buy bags of seeds.)