Home / Lounge / Features /  Opinion | Red amaranth: superfood and showpiece

I signed up recently for a fresh flower subscription. A box of freshly cut flowers and foliage is sent home every week. One week, the contents included what looked like red amaranth leaves and flowers, the latter cascading into pretty red tassels from the straight stems, making quite a statement in a flower vase. This is one of the rare vegetables that performs the role of showpiece and superfood with equal panache.

Red amaranth is a fine example of root to stem cooking. The stalks, leaves, stems, flowers and seeds are all edible, and packed with nutrition at that. The amaranth seeds are a grain substitute, similar to quinoa. Both these gluten-free pseudo grains are thought to share origins in Peru, and both were similarly domesticated, around 5,000-7,000 years ago.

Red amaranth is one of the greens that grows very well in hot and humid weather. Growing this in my kitchen garden, I have noticed that when the weather gets very hot, the plant is prone to bolting (i.e. producing flowers and seeds), making the leaves overly mature and somewhat bitter.

Amaranth in general takes much longer to cook than spinach because of its tougher leaves and stems. For most dishes, I cook the amaranth leaves in boiling water for 3-4 minutes and then plunge them into cold water. During this process, red amaranth loses most of its red colour and turns green. I usually pick out the tender young leaves to toss into salads to show off the red colour.

Last summer, I posted a photograph on Instagram of the veggie shopping bag full of summer greens and asked my readers if they used red amaranth in their cooking. The overwhelming response included over 30 ways to cook with this green.

Validating to my root-to-stem claim, Saras Rajendran uses the leaves for a Kerala-style stir-fry and keeps the thicker stalks aside to use in a dal. “Chop it into smaller bits and cook with tur dal. Make a paste of coconut, cumin seeds and red chillies and add to the dal mixture. That’s lunch menu for two days sorted using one bunch of amaranth leaves," she wrote.

Antara Boruah shared an Assamese recipe in which red amaranth leaves are sautéed with garlic and onion. “When the leaves are almost 80% cooked, whisked eggs are added to the mix and stirred until scrambled along with the greens," she shared in her comment.

Bhadra Nair shared her Cheera Avial recipe, in which red amaranth is chopped and boiled with turmeric, green chillies and raw mango pieces. Once cooked, a paste of coconut and cumin seeds is added to the mix. Nair wrote that a touch of yogurt adds some tanginess if you prefer that.

My food blogger friend Anita Tikoo has a thriving terrace garden in Delhi. “ I love red amaranth and I use it a lot since my terrace garden yields bucketloads all through summer. I cook it in Andhra-style dal, Kashmiri style with tart karonde, and in the UP style with garlic and green chillies—every which way it shines! Also, raw in salads," she wrote.

I do make the usual dal, parathas, Tamil- and Kerala-style dry curries using red amaranth. But here, I have a couple of new takes on these summer greens. Turning them into a chutney or pesto leads to quick summer meals, whether mixing them into rice or pasta or eating them as an accompaniment to salads or rotis. A bottle of this red amaranth pesto in the fridge helps you serve dinner in just the time it takes to cook pasta.

RED AMARANTH PESTO

Half-cup

Ingredients

3 cups red amaranth leaves

10-12 cashew nuts

2 cloves garlic

1 tbsp extra virgin olive oil

1/3 tsp salt

1 green chilli (optional)

Method

Blanche the leaves in boiling water for 4 minutes and refresh in a bowl of iced water.

Gently squeeze out all excess water, chop roughly and keep aside.

Toast the cashew nuts until golden brown either in a pan on stove top or in the microwave (1-2 minutes).

In a food processor, blend together the chopped greens, cashews, garlic, olive oil, salt and green chilli.

Note:

* To serve, toss 1 cup cooked pasta in 2 tbsp of pesto, topping with some lemon zest and parmesan. For a quick breakfast, spread this pesto over toast and top with a sliced boiled egg.

* Omit the nuts and olive oil and substitute with grated coconut to make a south Indian style chutney. Temper with mustard, urad dal, curry leaves and eat it with hot rice and ghee.

RED AMARANTH SALAD

Serves 2

In summer, when fresh salad greens are tough to come by, use this seasonal green leafy vegetable to prepare nutrition-packed salads.

Ingredients

3 cups red amaranth leaves

1/2 cup sweet-corn kernels

1 small raw mango, peeled and diced

1 medium cucumber, peeled and diced

2 tsp groundnut oil

4-5 cloves garlic, finely chopped

2 green chillies, finely chopped

3/4 tsp salt, divided

2 tbsp roasted, crushed peanuts

Method

Blanche in boiling water for 4 minutes and refresh in a bowl of iced water. Drain well, chop roughly and keep aside.

Place the corn in a microwave-safe glass bowl. Cover with water, mix in K tsp salt and loosely cover with a lid. Microwave for 3 minutes. Drain and keep aside.

If the raw mango is very tart, microwave it for a minute in a glass bowl with a splash of water. Drain and combine with amaranth leaves, corn and diced cucumber in a mixing bowl.

Heat the oil in a small pan. Fry garlic and green chillies on a medium flame, taking care not to brown the garlic. Transfer this to the mixing bowl. Add N tsp salt and combine well.

Top with crushed peanuts and serve immediately.

Double Tested is a fortnightly column on vegetarian cooking, highlighting a single ingredient prepared two ways. Nandita Iyer is the author of The Everyday Healthy Vegetarian.

She tweets at @saffrontrail

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