With the grain: buckwheat, amaranth and quinoa

Categories: Expert guidance

Chef and demo kitchen regular Jenny Chandler explores cereal grains and offers tips and recipes to get the best of them. This month: buckwheat, amaranth and quinoa—the imposters of the grain word

When shopping for buckwheat you’re most likely to look among the grains on offer—you’ll probably find it nestled next to the barley, the spelt or wild rice. Buckwheat, and similarly quinoa and the lesser-known amaranth, are treated as cereals in the kitchen; cooked and prepared in much the same way and sometimes even referred to as whole or ancient grains. In fact, this trio is not related to the seeds of the grass family, commonly known as grains—they come from a different plant species altogether.

In recent years these pseudo-cereals have been heralded as superfoods—an unequivocally irritating term. Don’t let it put you off. What’s indisputable is that buckwheat, quinoa and amaranth are all nutritional powerhouses, containing all the essential amino acids, packed with valuable fibre and loaded with nutrients, they’re all gluten-free too, a boon for coeliacs and others avoiding gluten. But they are also, most importantly, delicious.

The name’s confusing, for a start: this triangular seed comes from a plant related to sorrel and rhubarb. It’s a hardy crop that grows well at altitude or in areas with a short growing season. Originally domesticated in China, the only Asian use of buckwheat that springs to mind is for soba noodles, perfect in a chilled salad or a hot broth-y soup. Nowadays we associate buckwheat with Russia, the Baltics and eastern Europe; with blinis and kasha.

Cultivation was much more widespread across America and western Europe until the 20th century, when the use of nitrogen fertilisers (to which buckwheat does not respond) led to huge areas being turned to wheat and corn. Those glorious savoury buckwheat crêpes of Brittany, the galettes de sarrasin, hark back to a time when France was one of the world’s biggest producers. Buckwheat, or grano saraceno, is still a big player in Italian alpine cooking, used as polenta, in cakes and immortalised in the hefty, skiers’ favourite pizzoccheri (a stonking dish of buckwheat tagliatelle, potatoes and casera cheese).

I tend to buy the green buckwheat, rather than the Russian-style toasted brown kasha (the taste is quite overpowering); I do, however, develop a bit of nutty flavour by roasting the seeds for a couple of minutes in a dry pan until they smell toasty and then cook them in stock, a casserole or soup. Cooked buckwheat is fabulous for making stuffing, served as a side with lots of butter and herbs or added to a soup to make it more substantial. Buckwheat also makes a great gluten-free porridge.

One of the stars of the 21st century larder, you’d probably never have heard of it a couple of decades ago—and yet the Incas were fortifying their armies with the stuff back in the 1400s. Sensing quinoa’s religious importance to the Andean people, the Spanish conquistadors suppressed cultivation of the ‘mother of all grains’.

Thankfully quinoa continued to be grown up on the Peruvian and Bolivian altiplano as now, this member of the amaranth family, is being hailed by the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organisation as a big player in the global fight against malnutrition and poverty, with more nutrients per calorie than any other plant crop.

Nowadays you can buy British-grown quinoa—there’s even quinoa flour, flaked quinoa and puffed quinoa, like pixie popcorn, on offer too.

I tend to cook with white quinoa more than coloured, as it’s more readily available and economical, but love the red and black seeds too. The trick is always to rinse the quinoa well before preparing to get rid of any of the bitter saponins on its surface. Cooking is a cinch—just cover the quinoa with double its volume of water or stock and boil until the quinoa turns into miniature Saturns, as each kernel swells up and the germ separates into a little white ring.

Fabulous in salads, mixed into hot vegetables, thrown into a chillies and soups. Then you have flours, flakes and puffs to play with in mueslis, flapjacks and all manner of gluten-free baking.

A close relative of quinoa, amaranth hails from Mexico and also suffered at the hands of the Spanish colonialists. With cultivation banned because of its religious significance, only small pockets of amaranth continued to exist until relatively recently. Honey and popped amaranth candy bars, known as alegrías, have been enjoyed for centuries and are still typical of certain Mexican fiestas today. Amaranth, with its gluten-free and nutrient-dense profile, is enjoying its own boom, although it’s comparatively expensive and less versatile than quinoa, and so not as mainstream.

Amaranth makes a great porridge, especially cooked in almond milk, where the nutty flavours marry well. Once cooked the seeds have a rather sticky consistency, making them an ideal egg replacement in vegetable fritters and bean burgers.

The flour makes a nutritious addition to other flours in a gluten-free mix, but is rather too gritty in texture and assertively flavoured to use alone.