Eat your weeds!

my purple amaranth

my purple amaranth

The weeds are having a field day in my garden.

Crowding the kale, tomatoes and green beans are plantain, purslane, lambs-quarters and many other wild edibles, I’m sure.

This year I planted amaranth (amaranthus viridis), its oval green leaves splashed with purple, after tasting it at a produce conference dinner. It looked just like sautéed spinach but had tons more flavour. Heads went up around the table as one after another we asked: What is this?

“Vlita!” said the Greek organizer.

I’ve since learned that local farmers consider amaranth’s wild cousin, called pigweed, an unstoppable menace.

Studies warn of total crop failure in fields “infested” with pigweed, while teams of researchers are working to eradicate the pest, which produces hundreds of tiny (edible) seeds and is resistant to herbicides.

Jamie Reaume, executive director of the Holland Marsh Growers’ Association, agrees the green-leafed stalks are “a huge problem,” but notes that all our favourite vegetables, including asparagus, started out as weeds.

“I’ve seen a lot of city folks walk into a field, grab a few pigweeds and leave,” says Reaume.

“For our guys it’s a weed, for them it’s a salad.”

He says several Marsh growers are cultivating amaranth for sale in Toronto’s Chinatown and other ethnic markets here and in the U.S.

At Zephyr Organic, north of the city, sales manager Regina Blake says the farm’s Jamaican workers don’t fancy pigweed, which grows wild around the farm,  but they grow another amaranth cousin, callaloo, for their meals. Leftovers are sold to customers.

I recently bought a big bag of amaranth leaves on long stems for $1.59 a pound at a big Chinese supermarket on Gerrard. A minute later I bought another variety with smaller leaves from a street vendor for $1 a bunch. Both were equally delicious and nutritious, rich in iron, calcium and vitamins A and C.

Now if only the Holland Marsh guys could organize a summer Pigweed Fest, to complement their Oct. 4 Soupfest, growers might learn to love this prolific plant.

Worldly weed

  • With more than 60 varieties grown around the world, amaranth has many names. Try kulitis, lenga lenga, terere, chor, hinn choy, chauli, Chinese spinach, even Jamaican callaloo.

Seeds galore

  • Amaranth seeds, rich in protein and fibre, were well known by native Indians throughout North and South America.
  • The seeds are eaten raw, cooked into porridge, ground into flour, even popped like popcorn.

Buy & Store

  • Choose fresh-looking leaves and store in a plastic bag in the crisper up to a week.

Prep

  • Fill sink with water and add leaves, swishing to remove any sand. Lift up out of water so sand falls to the bottom. Repeat if necessary.
  • Remove thick stems and discard, if desired, or cook a few minutes before adding leaves.

Use

  • Mature amaranth leaves are best cooked. Sauté, steam or boil in any recipe that calls for spinach, chard or kale.
  • Cook until the water it releases evaporates.
  • Greeks boil or steam amaranth and dress it with olive oil and lemon juice.
  • Add chopped, steamed amaranth to warm grain salads or soups.
  • Mix a few fresh young leaves with other greens and herbs.
  • Braise stems and leaves in a thick vegetable stew with beans and pumpkin, or sauté with tomatoes, onions and garlic.

 

amaranth spanakopita

amaranth spanakopita

Amaranth Spanakopita

 These flavour-packed triangles are adapted from Foraged Flavor: Finding Fabulous Ingredients in Your Backyard or Farmer’s Market, by New York forager Tama Matsuoka Wong with Eddy Leroux (Clarkson Potter).

1/3 cup (80 mL) butter

1 medium onion, chopped (1.5 cups/375 mL)

2 garlic cloves, chopped

2 cups packed amaranth leaves (4 oz /120 g), roughly chopped

1/2 tsp (2 mL) salt

1 cup (250 mL) crumbled feta cheese (4 oz/120 g)

2 large eggs, lightly beaten

4 sheets frozen phyllo dough, defrosted (16 x 12-inch/40 x 30 cm)

In large skillet, melt butter on medium heat. Pour off all but 2 tbsp (30 mL) and reserve. Add onions and garlic to pan and cook, stirring, for 5 minutes or until softened. Add amaranth, salt, and 1/4 cup (50 mL) water. Cook over low heat 3 minutes, or until liquid evaporates. Remove from heat and transfer to a medium bowl. Add feta and eggs and mix to combine.

Lay a phyllo sheet on a smooth work surface. Cut in half to make two 8- by 12-inch (20- by 30-cm) rectangles. Lightly brush surface of each rectangle with reserved melted butter, then carefully fold each in half again, butter side in, to make a 4- by 12-inch (10- by 15-cm) double-layered sheet.

Divide amaranth mixture into 8 equal portions. Take one phyllo strip and place one portion on the bottom left corner, 1 inch (2.5 cm) from the edge. Fold corner up over the filling into a triangle. Press down to seal. Continue to fold up sheet like a flag. Transfer to baking sheet and repeat with remaining phyllo sheets.

Brush tops of triangles with melted butter and bake 20 minutes in a preheated 350 F (180 C) oven, or until edges are golden brown. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Makes 8 triangles.

Published  Aug. 21 2014 in the Toronto Star

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