Ancient grains, modern recipes

I love the variety of grains — each has its own qualities, taste and combination of nutrients. Right now I’m going through an amaranth phase.

A great source of protein, iron, even vitamin C, amaranth accounted for 80 percent of the pre-Columbian Aztec diet. The Aztecs also mixed it with honey and sacrificial blood to create large sculptures of their gods, then they’d break off pieces to feed the people. This pagan communion horrified the Spanish conquerors, who punished anyone who grew and harvested amaranth.

But the tiny grain survived in remote areas and over time became an ingredient in traditional Mexican cuisine. A few years ago National Geographic reported that amaranth could help fight Mexico’s malnutrition and obesity problems; it also reported that NASA recommended amaranth be included as a food during space missions.

If you’re interested in learning more about ancient grains, a new cookbook covers them all: “Everyday Whole Grains: 175 New Recipes From Amaranth to Wild Rice” by Ann Taylor Pittman, the executive editor of Cooking Light. Here are two easy recipes featuring amaranth:

CRUNCHY ZUCCHINI CHIPS

1/3 cup whole-wheat panko (Japanese breadcrumbs; such as Kikkoman)

1 ounce Parmesan cheese, finely grated (about ¼ cup)

3 tablespoons uncooked amaranth

½ teaspoon garlic powder

¼ teaspoon kosher salt

¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

12 ounces zucchini, cut into (1/4-inch-thick) slices

1 tablespoon olive oil

Cooking spray

1. Preheat oven to 425 degrees Fahrenheit.

2. Combine first 6 ingredients in a shallow dish. Combine zucchini and oil in a large bowl; toss well to coat. Dredge zucchini in panko mixture, pressing gently to adhere. Place coated slices on an ovenproof wire rack coated with cooking spray; place rack on a baking sheet or jell-roll pan. Bake at 425 degrees Fahrenheit for 26 minutes or until browned and crisp. Serve immediately.

Our assessment: Without the uncooked amaranth, the zucchini chips wouldn’t be so crunchy. The grain adds a pleasant texture. If you have any leftover zuke chips, you’ll want to warm them up in the oven. They’ll be limp and soggy if you try to microwave them.

POPPED AMARANTH AND SESAME CANDIES

½ cup packed dark brown sugar

½ cup honey

3/8 teaspoon salt

½ cup sesame seeds, toasted

½ cup black sesame seeds, toasted

1 1/3 Popped Amaranth (see below)

Cooking spray

1. Combine first three ingredients in a medium, heavy saucepan; bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Reduce heat to medium, and cook 2 minutes. Remove from heat; stir in sesame seeds and Popped Amaranth; toss well to combine. Spoon mixture into a 9-inch square metal baking pan coated with cooking spray; press into an even layer. Cool 15 minutes.

2. Invert warm sesame mixture onto a large cutting board. Cut mixture into 4 (9 x 2 1/4-inch)strips; cut each strip into 10 pieces to yield 40 (2 ¼ x about 3/4-inch) pieces. Cool completely. Store in an airtight container.

Our assessment: A cross between Rice Krispies Treats and itty-bitty granola bars, these candies are very similar to a traditional Mexican treat called “Alegria,” meaning “happy.” I didn’t have any black sesame seeds, so I used golden ones.

POPPED AMARANTH

6½ tablespoons uncooked amaranth

Heat a large heavy Dutch oven over high heat at least 5 minutes. Spoon 1 tablespoon amaranth into pan, and check to see that seeds almost immediately start popping. If they don’t and they instead sit in the pan and burn, the pan isn’t hot enough, and you’ll need to start over. If they do, cover the pan (popped seeds will fly everywhere) and shake it back and forth on or just over the burner until you hear the seeds stop popping. Immediately pour popped amaranth into a bowl; repeat procedure with remaining amaranth, 1 tablespoon at a time.

Our assessment: A large Dutch oven is clumsy, so I tried a small heavy saucepan and had great success. Be quick with putting a lid on the pan because those seeds will start popping all over the place. I shook the pan across the burner and the seeds popped within a matter of seconds.

From the book: “Everyday Whole Grains: 175 New Recipes from Amaranth to Wild Rice” by Ann Taylor Pittman, executive editor of Cooking Light; 352 pages, $24.95. Published by Oxmoor House, 2016.

What you get: This collection of recipes includes all ancient grains. Plus, the introduction covers all the basics for using and storing these grains.

In her own words: “Every recipe here should be so good, so convincing, that you want to work it into your everyday life.”

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