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amaranth with rose, fig & fennel

alegrías de amaranto con rosas, higos, y anís

Friday, 13 Nov 2009
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We celebrated the Day of the Dead on November 1 in Mexico.  It's a beautiful celebration-- where those who have passed are welcomed back home to hang out with their buddies and loved ones, and where as the guest of honor they are treated to a night of gluttony and debauchery and encouraged to feast on their favorite dishes, drinks, and vices.  On the evening of November 1st we visited the village of Ocotepec, Morelos, just a few minutes and an underpass away from Cuernavaca, about an hour south of Mexico City.  The town breathes with tradition, not having yet allowed the imported Halloween motifs to usurp traditional celebration.  In Ocotepec, elaborate shrines, known as ofrendas nuevas, are set up in homes where a loved one passed away in the preceding year. 

No expense is spared in welcoming the departed back home; families spend weeks preparing the shrine and cooking up a luxurious battery of the departed's most beloved dishes. Homes are opened to the public, villagers and tourists alike, to pay their respects and partake of the bounty.  Visitors bring candles and prayers, and the hosts offer a drink-- usually coffee, sometimes mezcal-- and a bite to eat-- usually bread, if you're lucky tamales.

A delicious bread is baked around the country at this time of the year. Known as Pan de Muertos, or Bread of the Dead, these yeasty-eggy loaves are delicately flavored and sweet.  Most recipes include anise extract and orange flower water, but my grandmother taught me a variation with rose water instead. It's sublime.

I wanted to come up with a treat that incorporated these flavors but that was a touch more healthful.  Perhaps you have tried alegrías: the amaranth sweets sold in the streets and markets of Mexico.  Alegría is also the word for joy.  They are a traditional sweet made of amaranth and piloncillo, an unrefined sugar product that you should be able to find at any Latin food store.  The alegrías are shaped into small bars to be eaten as snacks and can be found everywhere, from street vendors at busy intersections in Mexico City to in-flight snacks on Mexico's airlines.  It's Mexico's traditional granola bar- easy, tasty, and full of protein!  Amaranth is an ancient grain that was a key nutritional component of Mexico's pre-Hispanic diet, and much like quinoa, it's a grain that has been neglected in modern times to our detriment.  It's a good source of protein, containing the full chain of amino acids, the iron I'm always looking for, and is also gluten-free.

In Mexico, it's almost impossible to find raw, untouched amaranth grains.  The grains you can get come air-popped like popcorn, but without oil.  Amaranth is almost weightless and doesn't have a pronounced flavor, so it can be a versatile and wholesome addition to your kitchen.   In the US and elsewhere, it's easier to find the raw grain, but you'll have to air-pop it yourself in order assemble this snack.

amaranth with rose, fig & fennel

250g popped amaranth
250g piloncillo 
1 c of water
2 tablespoons fennel seeds
10 juicy dried figs
rose water
dash of salt

I use mini piloncillos, about golf ball size. If yours are larger, I suggest chopping into smaller pieces so they melt more quickly.  Put the piloncillo, fennel seeds, salt, and water in a pot over medium heat.  Cover and let the piloncillo dissolve completely.  Once the piloncillo has dissolved, turn off the heat and let the mixture sit for about 10 minutes to further infuse with fennel.  Strain the syrup to remove the fennel seeds.  Rose water is notorious for its variable quality, so test yours to see how strong it is.  I used about 1 teaspoon.  If yours is very potent, use just a tiny amount; you don't want it to overpower the other delicate flavors.  Add the rose water to the syrup.   

If you are starting with the raw amaranth grain, you'll need to pop it.  This is a bit of a process, so prepare yourself psychologically and give yourself some time-- or get your hands on some pre-popped amaranth.  You can probably find it at a Latin food store as well, though I can't promise because I've never looked for it outside of Mexico.  Still want to pop it yourself?  Ok.  First, soak the amaranth grains for about six hours.  Drain well, and lay out to fully dry (overnight or perhaps longer if humid).  When you're ready to pop, pull out a heavy pan with a tight-fitting lid. A wok is perfect.  Get the pan hot- you'll want a temp between 200°F-300°F.   Add 1-2 tablespoons of seeds, or about 5 grams (err on the side of less to prevent burning), and close the lid. Shake shake shake and then shake shake shake until the popping stops. Be vigilant-- this only takes 10-15 seconds and you don't want to burn the amaranth!  Some will fully pop, others will simply puff. Both are good.  Empty your wok and repeat with the remaining amaranth.  Yes, it's much easier to use the amaranth that's already been popped for you!

Dice the figs into small pieces.

Pour the popped amaranth into a deep bowl.  Disperse the fig throughout.  Pour the syrup into the bowl and m ix it all up using your hands.  Just mix and mush until every little bubble of amaranth is coated with syrup.

Find a recipient about 1.5-2" deep and around 9" in diameter (cake pan, pyrex, spring form pan, whatever).  Pour the whole mess into this pan and then using your palm, knuckles, or a rolling pin compact the mixture as much as possible.  Once you think you can't possibly push any more, push a little more. You want these guys to be completely suffocated, as tightly packed as you can possibly muster.  When you're done compacting, wet the blade of a serrated knife and cut the amaranth into cubes.  I recommend wiping the blade clean and rewetting after each cut so the knife glides with ease and disturbs your creation as little as possible.  Once the pieces have been cut, put the pan into the refrigerator or a similarly cold and dehydrating environment.  Leave the pan to set overnight.  When you wake up in the morning, it will be full of joy!

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Hungry Burro - amaranth with rose, fig & fennel

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