Five hundred years ago, growing amaranth in Mexico was a crime punishable by death: the Spanish invaders had outlawed cultivating or even possessing the staple crop. Key to both the diet and religion of the Aztecs, amaranth seeds were mixed with honey and human blood, formed into cakes shaped like the gods, and then eaten in religious ceremonies—a practice with which the conquistadors took issue. But despite the ban, enough amaranth continued to grow in the wild that it never died out, and today throughout the continent there's increased interest in the high-protein, gluten-free seeds (while it's often called a grain, technically amaranth is a pseudocereal, like quinoa and buckwheat).
So when Sarah Jordan of Johnny's Grill challenged Rachel Dow, chef at the Betty, to create a dish with amaranth, Dow had no trouble finding it. Working with it was another matter. "It kind of tastes like dirt," she says. "Definitely extremely earthy. I probably wouldn't choose to eat it very often." Amaranth can be ground into flour, boiled like rice, or popped like popcorn. Dow tried preparing it a couple of ways, and found that popping it was harder than she expected—"If the pan is too hot it burns [the seeds] before they pop; if it's too cold nothing happens."
Instead, she focused on the boiling method, which produces a result that Dow describes as "porridgey," with a texture like fig seeds that pop between your teeth. Inspired by polenta fries, she made amaranth fries by cooking the tiny seeds in chicken broth with fresh corn kernels, garlic, parsley, and cheese, then cooling the mixture and cutting it into squares, which she coated in cornstarch before deep-frying them.
That formed the base for a take on shrimp and grits: the amaranth cakes stood in for grits, and Dow made a sauce with prosciutto, shallots, celery, piquillo peppers, and shrimp stock in which to cook the shrimp. After plating the amaranth cakes she arranged the cooked shrimp on top, poured sauce over them, and garnished the dish with scallions and Fresno chiles.
"If you put enough stuff with [amaranth] you can make it delicious," Dow says. "But in and of itself, it's kind of dirtlike." Still, there's a good chance she'll use it again: she's got nearly five pounds left over.
Dow has challenged Ryan Pfeiffer, chef de cuisine at Blackbird, to cook with Branston Pickle, a pickled chutney that's popular in England. "It's brown and gravylike, with square pickled vegetables in it," Dow says. "It kind of looks like puke."