Amaranths

Amaranths


The Amaranth family (Amaranthaceae) has been reorganized under APG II to include Chenopodioideae (Goosefoot subfamily) and is a member of order Caryophyllales (Carnations) This family provides us with a broad range of roots, greens, herbs and seeds. Amaranths grow well at high altitudes, in cold and uncertain climates, and on difficult land.

The Incas depended on amaranths for survival in their harsh, high altitude lands but they have been important in other parts of the world as well, particularly in the Slavic countries (beets in particular). Many species of the Amaranthoideae subfamily are also grown for their highly decorative flowers.



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Amaranth Greens   -   [subfamily Amaranthoideae]


Amaranth Greens   -   [Red Spinach (Asian markets); Chinese spinach; Hinn Choy, Hen Choy, Yin Tsoi (China), Amaranthus. dubius, A. tricolor   |   Quelite Quintonil (Mexico); Common Amaranth, Red-root Amaranth, Redroot Pigweed; Amaranthus retroflexus]
Fresh Asian Amaranth Leaves

Amaranthus is a worldwide genus of leafy herbs. There were once distinct American and Asian species, but some Asian species and some American species are now worldwide food crops. African species are not as widely dispersed. Amaranth greens are similar to spinach in use but not as fragile so tolerate rougher handling and longer cooking times. They are less tart than spinach and tend to be slightly mucilaginous, so they have a thickening effect in soups.   Details and Cooking.

Amaranth - Seeds   -   [Kiwicha (Inca), Amaranthus cruentis, A. hypochondriaca, A. caudatus]
Amaranth seeds

Amaranth was of great importance to the Incas because it grew well in the high mountainous regions of Peru and was highly nutritious. It has more recently become of some importance in the Himalaya region of Asia for similar reasons. Spanish conquerors of Peru were highly disturbed by its use in a ritual too close to Christian communion for comfort, and banned its cultivation. The crop has recently gone back into production because of its nutritional attributes and it is now widely available. It is slowly escaping from the "health food" market into the mainstream, though not as quickly as Quinoa.

Amaranth is high in protein and that protein is nearly perfectly balanced for human consumption. Wheat, rice and corn must be accompanied by beans to balance the protein content but that isn't necessary with amaranth. Amaranth is also gluten free and can be freely eaten by people with a gluten intolerance (celiacs).   Details and Cooking.

Celosia   -   [Lagos Spinach, Quail Grass, Soko Yokoto (Nigeria); Celosia argentea]
Celosia Flowers and Leaves

While its African origin is disputed, this plant, very similar to Amaranth, is much used in West and Central Africa as greens. Young flower heads are also often incorporated with the leaves. It is also eaten as greens in Southeast Asia, South America and the West Indies.   Photo by Quadell distributed under license Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike v3.0.


Beets   -   [genus Beta of subfamily Chenopodioideae]


Beet - Red   -   [Beta vulgaris]
Red Beets with Greens A cultivated variety developed for edible roots, red beets are particularly appreciated in the Slavic countries but also throughout Europe and North America. The color comes from a purple pigment, betacyanin, and a yellow pigment, betaxanthin, which are acid stable so beets can be pickled. Beets are high in boron, a mineral important to production of human sex hormones, and have had an aphrodisiac reputation since Roman times. Beets are very sweet with a sugar content that can reach 10%. The photo specimens were typically 3-1/2 inches in diameter, weighed 11 ounces each, and provided an additional 7 ounces of edible greens and stems. Details and Cooking.

Beet - Golden   -   [Beta vulgaris]
Golden Beets with Greens This cultivar is useful when you need to avoid the red pigments of regular beets getting all over everything. I find them a little less sweet and having a little less beet flavor than red beets so I'd use them only when the color is important..

Beet - Chioggia   -   [Beta vulgaris]
Chioggia Striped Beets

This Italian beet, named for a town near Venice, is sweeter than any but the sugar beet. From the outside it looks like a red beet but internally it has alternating layers of red and white giving it a candy stripe appearance. The colors run together a bit when cooked.

Beet - Sugar   -   [Beta vulgaris]
Sugar Beets

While it was long known sugar could be obtained from beets, beet sugar production didn't really start until the Napoleonic wars when the British cut off cane sugar deliveries to Europe. Sugar beets produce sucrose, nearly identical to sugar from cane, and have a sugar content as high as 20%. I say "nearly identical" because beet sugar has been shown not to work as well for Crème Brûlée.   Photo USDA = Public Domain

Chard   -   [Swiss Chard, Silverbeet, Spinach Beet; Beta vulgaris var. cicla]
Chard Leaves on Stems

This is a variety of beet greens developed for edible leaves, and is a vegetable deserving of wider appreciation. It is available in several colors, some of which are shown in the photo, but red and white are most common in markets. Leaves are cooked similar to spinach and the stems similar to asparagus. The photo specimens were about 15 inches long, but they can exceed 18 inches. There are varieties with thinner, more tender stems, but those marketed in North America are uniformly of the wide stemmed varieties.

Although never much grown in Switzerland, these greens were called "Swiss Chard" after a Swiss botanist, to differentiate them from Cardoons, which were also called "Chard". Cardoons are no longer called Chard so the "Swiss" part is now redundant. Details and Cooking.

Palak   -   [Indian Spinach; Beta vulgaris var benghalensis]
Growing Palak Plants

This is what Indian recipes mean by "spinach". Popular varieties are Pusa All Green and Pusa Jyoti. Über-expert Julie Sahni recommends using the closely related Chard in any Indian recipe calling for spinach. If you can't get Perpetual Spinach Chard (see below) use a white stemmed version of regular chard for correct color. If you don't have chard Julie recommends chopping in one small green bell pepper per pound of regular spinach to improve the flavor, but chard is very common in North American markets now.   Photo by Rameshng distributed under license Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike v3.0 Unported.

Perpetual Spinach Chard   -   [Beta vulgaris var. cicla]
Perpetual Spinach Leaves on Stems

It isn't spinach, and it's not perpetual, but it's probably the ideal substitute for Indian Palak (see above). Milder than regular spinach, it's of particular value in warmer climates because it's far slower to bolt in warm weather. Large lower leaves can be harvested frequently - in warmer climates even through the winter. It will definitely bolt (send up a flower stalk and stop producing large leaves) in the second year. It is not common, even in farmer's markets here in Southern California, but seeds are easily available for gardeners.

Sea Beet   -   [Beta vulgaris subspecies maritima]
Growing Sea Beet Plants

A leathery leafed wild beet native to the coasts of Europe and the British Isles. Some say this is the plant from which domesticated beets were derived, but others say it was another wild beet, beta vulgaris vulgaris. In the Spring, young leaves and shoots are eaten both raw and cooked but become unpalatable later in the season.   Photo by H.Zell distributed under license Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike v3.0.


Goosefoots   -   [genus Chenopodia of subfamily Chenopodioideae]
The Chenopodia are a large and diverse family of often weedy plants some of which have significant culinary importance.


Epazote   -   [Wormseed, Jesuit's Tea, Mexican Tea, Herba Sancti Mariæ, Chenopodium ambrosioides]
Live Epazote Plant

A common weed in southern Mexico, Central and South America, Epazota is now grown in the warmer parts of North America and sometimes becomes an invasive weed here. Its main culinary use is for flavoring black beans and to a lesser extent other recipes from southern Mexico and Central America. It is reputed to prevent flatulence from eating beans and to relieve a number of medical conditions. An oil extracted from the seeds kills intestinal worms and is also an antispasmodic and abortifacient.

The smell of epazote is quite strong but extremely difficult to describe. Leading spice expert Gernot Katzer says it smells to him like epazote. Details and Cooking.

Goosefoot, White   -   [Lamb's Quarters, Fat Hen; Bathua or Bathuwa (Hindi); Vastuccira (Malayalam); Paruppukkirai (Tamil); Chenopodium album ]
Growing White Goosefoot Plant

Native to Europe and Asia, this is now a common weed all over North America (and much of the rest of the world), particularly on disturbed ground. It is a food crop in India, particularly in the north, and also in parts of Africa where it has been introduced. It is easily recognized by the leaf shape and the white powdery underside of the leaves, which repel water. The leaves and young shoots are used in soups and curries, similarly to spinach, but the flavor is different and the leaves are tougher. It produces copious seeds, which are high in quality protein, vitamin A, calcium, phosphorus, and potassium. The seeds are harvested in parts of India and Africa.

Huauzontle   -   [Chenopodium nuttalliae]
Unripe Huauzontle Seed Heads

Native to Mexico, this close relative of Quinoa was once a major food crop in the region, but largely displaced by corn. Today its immature seed heads are most commonly cooked as a vegetable, but the seeds are still harvested in parts of Mexico and ground into flour. They don't have the coating of bitter saponins that must be removed from Quinoa before cooking, but that makes them vulnerable to birds, further incentive to harvest at the vegetable stage. One popular recipe uses Huauzontle bound with flour and molded around a bar of Mexican cheese, then coated in a fluffy egg batter, fried and served over tomato sauce, just as are Chilis Rellenos.   Details and Cooking.

Kañiwa   -   [Kañahua, Kañagua, Quitacañigua, Ayar, Cuchiquinua (Quechua); Cañiwa; (Spanish); Chenopodium pallidicaule]
Growing Plants

Native to southern Peru and Bolivia, this is an incompletely domesticated relative of Quinoa. It lacks the annoying bitter saponins but it doesn't ripen evenly so is difficult to harvest, and could benefit from some selective breeding. It is, non the less, important to the people of the high plain of the Andes, as it grows well at high altitudes, and is drought and cold tolerant. It is high in protein and that protein is well balanced for human nutrition. It is also high in calcium, zinc, iron, antioxidants and phenolics. It is brightly colored through most of its growing season.   Photo from Crops for the Future distributed under license Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike v3.0 Unported.

Quinoa   -   [(from Quechua "kinwa"); Chenopodium quinoa]
Tricolor Quinoa Seeds

Pronounced "keenwa", this plant is native to the Andean region of South America. It is grown mostly in Peru and Bolivia but some production has been started in North America because of its reputation as a health food. While the greens are edible, they are rarely available and the seeds are the part generally used. There are many varieties with differences in coloration, including seed coloration. Most sold in North America is white, but the tricolor in the photo is also sold here.

Quinoa is high in protein (12% to 18%) but its most outstanding feature is that the protein is nearly completely balanced for human needs. Wheat, rice and corn must be accompanied by beans to balance the protein content but quinoa can stand alone. Quinoa is also gluten free for people with a gluten intolerance.

Quinoa seeds are tiny, as seen in the photo comparing them to our standard red kidney bean, but the plant is a prolific producer. As harvested, the seeds are coated with bitter saponins making them inedible. A couple of soakings and rinsings in water are needed to remove the bitterness. Quinoa sold boxed or bagged in the North America has generally already been processed to remove saponins. High yield low saponin varieties were developed. They were not successful because birds ate the entire crop before it could be harvested.


Spinach   -   [subfamily Chenopodioideae]
Quite a few very unrelated plants are called "Spinach" in culinary circles - here we list only those that really are "Spinach".


Spinach   -   [Spinacia oleracea]
Spinach Stems with Leaves

A native of Southwest Asia, spinach is delightful, if properly handled and cooked, but is easily abused. Many people know it only as a stringy lump of overcooked mush. Cultivars are Savoy, the most common fresh spinach, Smooth Leaf, used for frozen and processed spinach (easier to wash) and Semi-savoy, a sort of all-purpose spinach. Baby Spinach is sold in plastic bags and boxes for the yuppie salad trade. Just about all the leaves are the flavorless oval form.

Über-expert Julie Sahni recommends using Chard instead of spinach in Indian recipes asking for "spinach" because it's closer to Indian spinach than our spinach is. I recommend Perpetual Spinach Chard if you can get it, or lacking that, the white stemmed version for correct color.

Spinach's reputation for very high iron content was due to an analyst slipping a decimal point in 1870, not corrected until 1937. It still has a higher iron content than most vegetables but not by so spectacular a measure. Spinach is also high in calcium but a high oxalate content inhibits absorption of both calcium and iron into the body. On the other hand it is high in Vitamins A, C and E, folic acid and antioxidants. Details & Cooking.

Taiwan Spinach   -   [presumably Spinacia oleracea]
Taiwan Spinach Stems with Leaves

This spinach is very much like our regular spinach, but a lot larger and considerably milder. The photo specimens were 22 inches long, but a few leaves were more than 24 inches. Taiwan spinach is stemmy - but the stems are the most flavorful part and should always be included in the recipe. It is a very fine vegetable for use in stir fries and soups, and can be used in place of regular spinach.

This spinach is often available in Asian markets here in Los Angeles. The photo specimens were from 168 Market on Valley Blvd. in Alhambra. Do not confuse this spinach with Water Spinach (Swamp Cabbage) often called "Chinese Spinach" by recipe writers. That is a very different plant, in the morning glory family. Details & Cooking.


Saltworts   -   [subfamilies Salsoloideae, Salicornioideae and Camphorosmoideae]
These are very salt tolerant plants. Genera of subfamily Camphorosmoideae were formerly in subfamily Salsoloideae but have been broken out as a separate subfamily.   Note: All Saltworts are not in this group, there are also the two species of Batis which are related to cabbages.


Agretti   -   [Barba di frate, Liscari sativa, Lischi, Lischeri, Agretti (Italy); Opposite-leaved saltwort, Oppositeleaf Russian thistle, Barilla plant (English); Salsola soda of subfamily Salsoloideae]
Agretti Plants, harvested

This succulent shrub, native to the Mediterranean Basin, grows to about 2-1/4 feet high, and is so salt tolerant it can be irrigated with seawater. It was once very important to the production of glass, but is now of only culinary value, particularly in Italy. It can be eaten raw, but is more commonly simmered until it is crisp tender, sometimes with bacon and onions. It is said to taste much like spinach, but more interesting. It is also used as a companion plant for tomatoes and peppers when they are grown in salty soil, as it desalinizes the soil. Photo by Stefan Proud distributed under license Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike v3.0 Unported.

Okahijiki   -   [(Japan) Salsola komarovii of subfamily Salsoloideae]
Okahijiki Plant

This salt tolerant plant is native to Japan, Korea, China and Eastern Russia. from it's salty taste, the Japanese name means "land seaweed". Leaves and young shoots are cooked as a vegetable. Photo by Aomorikuma distributed under license Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike v3.0 Unported.

Samphire   -   [Marsh Samphire, Common Glasswort, Salicornia europaea of subfamily Salicornioideae]
Samphire Plant

A salt tolerant plant that grows near the sea, samphire has long been gathered and eaten in salads or pickled, particularly in England. It is usually steamed or simmered, then the flesh is pulled off the fibrous core. Dressed with butter or olive oil, it is said to taste similar to young spinach stems or asparagus. It is very salty, so cooked without salt. It is not to be confused with Rock samphire (Crithmum maritimum) mentioned by Shakespeare - while used similarly that one is not an amaranth. Photo by Liné1 (cropped) distributed under license Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike v3.0 Unported.

American Glasswort   -   [Sea Beans, Beach Asparagus, Pickleweed, Marsh Samphire (USA); Samphire Greens, Crow's foot Greens, Sea Asparagus, Pousse-pierre, Passe-pierre, Pousse-pied (Canada); Salicornia virginica syn Salicornia depressa of subfamily Salicornioideae]
American Glasswort

This wetlands plant is native to both Atlantic and Pacific coasts of North America from Canada to Mexico, living in salt marshes. It also lives in the alkaline flats of Utah, near salt springs in New York, and in the alkali marshes of Manitoba, Canada. It is usually just blanched for 1 minute so it is still crunchy, then dressed as a salad. It may also be used in stir fries and the like, or pickled. Photo by Franco Folini distributed under license Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike v2.0 Gemeric.

Burningbush - Tonburi   -   [Mexican Firebrush, Summer Cypress, Mock-cypress, Kochia, Belvedere; Bassia scoparia of family Camphorosmoideae ]
Red Burningbush Plant Tonburi Seeds

Native to Eurasia, this plant now appears in grasslands and desert shrub environments in North America. In Japan, it is popular in large decorative plantings for its green and red colors. In Akita Prefecture, the seeds, called "Tonburi" are specially prepared as a food garnish. It is described as "Land Caviar", "Field Caviar" and "Mountain Caviar" due to its similar texture. The seeds are dried, boiled, soaked and then hand rubbed to remove the skin.   Photo of shrub by Moonik, photo of tonburi by Morigen - both distributed under license Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike v3.0 Unported.

Tumbleweed   -   [Russian Thistle, Windwitch, Saltwort; Salsola tragus of subfamily Salsoloideae]
Live Tumbleweed

Now symbolic of empty spaces in the American West, tumbleweeds were actually brought over by Ukrainian farmers with flax seed, thus the more formal name, Russian Thistle. It took the plant only about 25 years to spread from South Dakota to the Pacific Coast. The plant is roughly spherical and in the fall it dries and breaks off the root to be driven many miles by the wind, scattering seeds the whole way. Tender leaves and shoots of freshly sprouted plants are eaten in salads, stir fries, or as pot herbs. They are safe in moderate quantity but have too much oxilate and nitrate to be a major culinary item.

Back in the late 1950s, every vacant lot in Burbank California was overgrown with tumbleweeds. People would spray paint dried ones white and stack them up to make Southern California snowmen around Christmas time. Today they have been so thoroughly eradicated I had to buy a picture of one for this page - but then, the vacant lot has also been eradicated from Burbank.   Photo © i0109

Umari Keerai   -   [Chicken Feet (Karala); Salicornia brachiata of subfamily Salicornioideae]
Live Saltwort Plants

Locally called "Chicken Feet" for obvious reasons, this salt tolerant plant is native Sri Lanka and the east cost of India north to Bengal. It is cooked and eaten as a green, and also pickled. This plant is currently under intensive study in Karala in southern India to develop solutions for South Asian farmers whose fields will be contaminated with salt water as global warming raises sea levels. In appearance, it is the same as Salicornia europaea, so we used a photo of S. Europaea as we found no suitable photos of S. brachiata.   Photo by Marco Schmidt distributed under license Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike v2.5 Generic.


Health & Nutrition

Amaranth greens all have similar health considerations differing only in degree. While they are high in iron and calcium they are also high in oxalate which partially inhibits absorption of those nutrients by the body. They are, however, also rich in vitamins A, C and E, folic acid and antioxidants which the oxalate does not inhibit.

Other than absorption, oxalate can contribute to formation of kidney stones and gout. It is only one of many contributing factors and probably not the strongest, but it's probably not a good idea to make these vegetables a major part of your diet.

Edible amaranth roots and seeds do not carry significant amounts of oxalate.

Amaranth greens are high in nitrates so it may not be wise to reheat them as leftovers. Bacteria which grow under high nitrate conditions produce enzymes that convert nitrates to nitrites. Nitrites can be dangerous to infants less than a year old and particularly less than 6 months old. Older children and adults are not bothered by small quantities of nitrites.

Nitrites can form into possibly carcinogenic nitrosamines in the stomach, but the level of risk, if any, is not established. The conversion is inhibited by vitamin C, which is strongly present in amaranth greens.

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