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25 Jan 2010 - 16:25
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amaranth with rose, fig & fennel

alegrías de amaranto con rosas, higos, y anís

Friday, 13 Nov 2009 | recipe inside
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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.