Alegrias, a Traditional Mexican Treat

Amaranth

Amaranth or amaranto in Spanish is an ancient grain.  For the Aztec/Mexica people, it was a staple along with corn and beans.  Some amaranth species are considered to have a 30% higher protein value than cereals like rice, wheat flour and oats.

This nutritious food was actually outlawed by the Spanish during the conquest of Mexico so I take great pleasure in eating it just on principle.  Don’t get me started on the Conquista…but the people were absolutely forbidden to cultivate it or consume it.  It is reported to contain between 75% and 87% of total human nutritional requirements!  The Mexica were so cognizant of its high nutritional value that The Mendocino Codez indicates that over 4,000 tons of it arrived every year in the captial city of Tenochitlan.

The grain isn’t the only good part of the Amaranth plant.  The leaves are spinach-like and absolutely delicious.  In Ancient Mexico, they were often a part of tamales and still are to this day in certain parts of Mexico.  I use them in tamales, salads, cook them like spinach and have even used them in a quiche, that’s how versatile they are.

I find whole amaranth stalks at Mexican markets, the grain I find in the bulk section at Whole Foods Market.  I’m also working on growing it in raised beds for next summer.  We moved into the Camellia house too late to start a summer garden, but I’m determined to have a full veggie/herb garden by next year.

Amaranth is an essential part of my pantry and I’m always looking for new ways to cook it.  I make sure to always feed it to the grandkids when they are here just so they get that high nutritional content.  I mean seriously this grain is a POWERHOUSE.  It has protein, vitamins like A, B, C, B1, B2, B3, minerals like calcium, phosphorus and iron.  It has a high amino acid content as well.

Dating back from Aztec times is the ubiquitous (in Mexico) Alegria candy.  Alegria means happiness and I know these Rice Krispy-like treats make us happy here at home.  The ingredients are simple and it’s fun to make.  Toasted amaranth grain, pecans, piloncillo, lemon juice and water.  Thats all it takes to make a candy that is pleasing and fun for the kids, economical and packed with nutrition.  It beats the heck out of Rice Krispy treats that are packed with sugar and lacking in nutrition.  Oh and one more thing for my gluten-free friends, amaranth is absolutely lacking in gluten!

Alegrias

3 c. toasted amaranth grains
2 lbs, piloncillo (Mexican cane sugar cones)
4 cups of water
Juice of two lemons
Chopped pecans

Toast the amaranth grains in a heavy skillet on a medium flame until they pop.  They pop like popcorn so I recommend using a bacon grease screen.  You want them very lightly toasted, don’t let it burn.  Pour into a large heat-resistant bowl or a big pot.

In a saucepan bring the water to a boil and add in the piloncillo cones and lemon juice.  Lower the heat and simmer for about 20 minutes, stirring occasionally until thickened enough to where a little ball forms if you drip a bit of the syrup into a glass of water.   When that happens, stir a bit more then remove from the heat.

Carefully pour the hot syrup over the amaranth grain and stir it in slowly, making sure it’s completely mixed through.  Add in the chopped pecans and mix well.  I use a wooden spoon and mix it quickly as it cools fast.

Scoop into a square cake pan (in Mexico there are special squares made of wood for it) and smooth it from side to side.  Use a rolling pin with no handles or a bottle to roll across and press down to make sure it’s packed tight and even.

Cut into squares with a wet knife and let cool.  You’ll have to wet the knife after each cut to prevent sticking.  Once the alegrias are cooled, serve just like a puffed rice treat.  My grandkids love eating them with a big glass of cold milk.

Buen provecho!

*Photo by Kurt Stueber licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 3.0 License.

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