Adventures in Amaranth, Week Ending 11/1/2020

It’s autumn in Maryland. We had our first hard freeze a few nights ago, bringing an abrupt end to leftover summer gardening and foraging.

What a strange year it has been!

This was going to be the year of my amaranth triumph. So much of it grew this year, both cultivated and wild varieties where they should and should not have grown. (Technically there were two Mayo Indian and one Golden amaranth plants, plus four wild amaranth volunteering in one of my garden beds. Seven plants isn’t a LOT, but it’s more success than I’d had previously!)

As the stalks grew larger and the flowerheads began to droop from the weight of forming seeds, I checked them regularly for when they would be ready to harvest. I was not going to miss them this year! Rubbing the seed heads gently between thumb and forefinger will release the seeds which are already ripe, and I actually harvested a lot of seeds (and accompanying chaff) several times over the course of late summer and into early fall.

When the amaranth plants nearly fell over from the weight of the seeds, I cut off the flowerheads and allowed them to dry in a large plastic tub. I hoped the seeds would fall out more easily, increasing the amount of seed I could gather. Tip: as the amaranth dries it becomes extremely spiky and painful to handle with bare hands. When you rub the flowerheads between your palms to release the seeds, make sure you wear leather gloves!

Unfortunately, allowing the amaranth to dry first also increases the amount of chaff that ends up mixed with the seeds.

White and black amaranth seeds mixed with a lot of inedible chaff
White and black amaranth seeds mixed with a lot of inedible chaff

I still have not mastered the fine art of separating the seeds from the chaff. I used a wire sieve to remove the largest pieces of plant debris, but a lot of chaff was as small as the seeds and passed right through the holes. I tried pouring the seeds slowly from one container to another on a breezy day – a “classic” winnowing technique – but it felt like I lost as many seeds as I did chaff! I’ve read some recommendations about pouring them down corrugated cardboard on an incline because the seeds will roll down the valleys while the chaff won’t, but I haven’t actually tried this yet.

This year, I also learned that amaranth seeds contain insect eggs in them as well. It makes sense, upon reflection, because many insects and spiders cling to the branches when you harvest them. Since I harvested the seeds over such a long period of time, the eggs would hatch and small caterpillars would form sticky little webs in container. To reduce this problem, I put the seeds (and chaff) in my electric dehydrator on 135 F degrees for 24 hours, which I hoped would kill any remaining eggs left in the seeds.

At whatever point I finally have just seeds (or mostly just seeds!), I will share of few of my favorite amaranth recipes. In the photos, you will know 100% they are my own harvested/foraged seeds because they will be mostly black whereas store-bought are uniformly white!

What are you foraging (successfully or otherwise) as 2020 creeps closer to its end? Have you learned anything new and different this year?

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