Amaranth is one of those crops that starry-eyed and sunlight-deprived gardeners perusing seed catalogs in the dead of winter eagerly tack on to their seed orders, enticed by beautiful photos, alluring descriptions of edible leaves and seeds, references to ancient food traditions, and the novelty of growing grains in the garden. At least that's my experience as one of those starry-eyed gardeners.
I admit I am susceptible to seed catalog propaganda. I can't help it. I get caught up in the excitement: the possibility of growing artichokes, saffron from crocuses, and garbanzos -- I just have to try it and see if it's possible! The benefit of this eternal gardening optimism is that sometimes the long shot, novelty crop pans out. With these experimental, impulse-buy crops, I've found that cautious optimism is the way to go: investing a little attention and energy, and experimenting with small batches before going whole hog. This year, one of those experiments exceeded expectations: amaranth.
A jar of dried amaranth after threshing.
I suppose it shouldn't be surprising that amaranth grows well here - its wild cousin, pigweed, is a common weed in these parts. Still, it was amazing to me how productive amaranth was in our Western North Carolina garden. We grew a couple of small patches this year and tried several different edible varieties. The ones that did best were Golden Giant and Burgundy, both from Seed Savers Exchange. Golden Giant was particularly productive, a towering presence in the garden, true to its name.
I've grown amaranth before, but lacked the commitment and follow-through to use it for anything other than a gorgeous and dramatic ornamental in the garden. This year, though, we harvested some of the huge and seed-laden flower heads to dry and thresh for grain. We didn't harvest it all (too much else going on), but we cut enough heads to experiment with drying and threshing.
I'm excited about the possibilities of amaranth as a grain crop on a larger scale on our farm -- it's a nutritious, gluten-free "supergrain" that is high in protein and contains essential amino acids, calcium, iron, potassium, phosphorus, and vitamins A and C. Amaranth is high in fiber -- its fiber content is three times higher than wheat. More on the health benefits of amaranth here. Like all grains, it's well suited to storage, which makes it a great crop for year-round homegrown food.
Amaranth is an ancient, traditional crop from South America, and I've eaten it in the past in breads, cereals, and as a cooked whole grain - it's nutty and hearty and slightly sweet. It's great as a breakfast cereal with butter and honey or as a grain for pilafs or serving with legumes, fish, or veggies at dinner time. You can pop it, sprout it, or grind it. In other words, its a great all-purpose grain.
Amaranth is easy to grow -- just give it good soil and water and plenty of sun.
Harvesting is easy too. Just lop off the heads when they start to go to seed (and before the birds start feasting on them) and put them in a warm, dry place with good air circulation.
We laid the seed heads out under our porch roof on an old window screen on sawhorses with a sheet underneath and let it dry for about a month.
Seed heads drying
As they dried, seeds fell through the screen and collected in the sheet below. When the seed heads were totally dry, we scuffed them around on top of the screen to knock more seeds out, and then stripped the chaff and remaining seeds from the stems. It was a breezy day, so we rubbed the chaffy fronds of seeds between our hands and let them fall from a few feet above the screen, letting the wind carry off some of the chaff.
Then we just sifted the seeds a few times through a fine-mesh strainer into jars and viola! Grain on the shelf for the winter! Very exciting.
I put the seeds through this strainer three times, each time removing a bit more stem and chaff. I'm sure there is a more efficient way to do this on a large scale, but this fine-mesh kitchen strainer and a canning funnel work fine on a small scale.
Amaranth ready for storage!
Hurrah for experimentation -- next year, we'll bump up amaranth production and sock away more grain for the winter! And maybe I'll finally harvest an artichoke or some garbanzos from my garden after repeated failed attempts. But I'm not holding my breath.