I had never cooked with amaranth leaves (also known as callaloo and Chinese spinach) until this past week. Actually, to be quite honest, I also knew very little about them. So I set about to do some research. Man, I did not know what I as getting into! Over the past couple of days, I have been diving into the suprisingly fascinating history of the amaranth plant. Here is a summary of of what I found out:
Amaranth, in addition to having leaves that can be used as a vegetable in cooking, also contains highly nutritious and protein-rich seeds that have been cultivated in the Americas for thousands of years. The seeds were a dietary staple of the ancient Aztecs, Incas and other Native American people in Mexico and were commonly used by the pre-Columbian Aztecs to prepare ritual food and drinks. Before the Spanish conquest in 1519, the seeds were associated with human sacrifice. Aztec women combined ground amaranth seeds with either honey or human blood (yikes!) and formed this mixture into idols that were eaten ceremoniously. Upon observing this ritual, the horrified Spanish responded by ordering a ban on the cultivation and consumption of amaranth, hoping that it would in turn eliminate the sacrifices. Luckily, a few remote areas of Mexico and the Andres continued to cultivate Amaranth, thus saving this plant from what otherwise might have been extinction.
Amaranth seeds are extremely nutrient dense and highly digestible, and, like buckwheat and quinoa, are a complete protein (which means they contain a complete set of amino acids). Compared to wheat, they boast three times the fiber and five times the iron. They also contains twice the amount of calcium than milk. So, needless to say, in doing this research I have become very excited about trying out recipes using amaranth seeds and will be on the lookout for them when I'm out doing my shopping. When I find them, I'll let you all know. And I'll post a recipe. (Or does anyone reading this already know where to find them in the area?)
Ok, so I know that it seems like the seeds are the historical and nutritional stars of the amaranth plant, but the leaves, which I used in this recipe, are far from disappointing. They are a very good source of vitamin A, K, B6, C, riboflavin, folate and many dietary minerals. Plus, they taste really, really good. I had read that flavor-wise they are most comparable to spinach leaves, but I found the flavor to be quite different (though I'm not sure what a better comparison would be).
Today, Amaranth leaves are popular in many parts of the world including Asia, India, Africa and Europe. I have seen recipes that call for boiling the leaves and then serving them with lemon juice and olive oil (a traditional Greek preparation), to frying the leaves with chilies and onions (an Indian dish called Khada saga). For this recipe, however, I took a cue from a Caribbean preparation. In the Caribbean, where the plant is commonly referred to as callaloo, a popular method of preparation is to simmer the leaves with a host of other ingredients and seasonings until it develops a stew-like consistency. Another popular preparation is callaloo soup, which is what inspired this recipe.
Now I do want to include a disclaimer that this recipe is simply inspired by the traditional Caribbean dish and is most likely far from a traditional version. Although I can make no claims regarding its authenticity, I can however make the not-so-modest claim that it is delicious. My husband will back up that claim too. :)
I found these amaranth leaves (which were labeled as callaloo) at the Union Square farmers market. They were grown on a farm in New Jersey. Apparently, more and more farmers are beginning to cultivate the plants, so ask around for them the next time you visit the green market. If you can't find them anywhere, try substituting the amaranth for spinach or chard leaves.
Amaranth Leaf Soup
1 tablespoon butter
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 medium onion, diced
3 garlic cloves, minced
4 slices bacon, diced
1 big bunch (about 1 pound) amaranth leaves, stems removed and roughly chopped
1/4 cup parsley
2-3 cups chicken stock
1/2 cup creme fraiche, plus extra for garnishing
squeeze of lemon juice
salt & pepper to taste
Melt the butter in olive oil in a large pot or dutch oven over medium heat. Add the onion and cook about 5 minutes until softened. Add the garlic and cook for another minute. Add the bacon and continue to cook another 5 minutes or so until the fat has rendered. Add the amaranth leaves and parsley and cook, stirring frequently, until greens are wilted and tender.
Add 2 cups of stock to start (you can always add more later) and bring to a boil. Lower the heat and simmer for about 10 minutes. Transfer to a blender and puree until smooth (since the liquid is hot, puree in batches and hold down the top of the blender with a kitchen towel). Return to pot and add more stock if it needs to be thinned out a little. Stir in 1/2 cup creme fraiche and the squeeze of lemon juice. Taste and adjust seasoning.
Ladle into bowls and top with an extra dollop of creme fraiche.