I grew up on the western slope of the Colorado Rockies, where tumbleweeds were a constant in my small-town landscape – rolling across the sagebrush desert and down the roads, piled up against every fence. When I was six and we lived in the country, my fantasy play involved using tumbleweeds as umbrellas (rain was an important part of fantasy in that high dry climate, there being very little of it). And of course I grew up hearing – every morning on KRAI country radio, it seemed – Tumbling Tumbleweeds by The Sons of the Pioneers. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_UiSMyyj-Ac)
I hadn’t thought much about tumbleweeds until recently, when I began to write this blog and discovered they are in the same family as the gorgeous quinoa and amaranth growing in the field behind our house. In fact, the main reason I’m writing this blog, which I think might be the last before we leave on June 24, is because I’m so in love with the view outside our windows.
Here is quinoa, at about six months. As it ripens and grows ever brighter, it turns from a sort of lavenderish pink to a pinkish red. And when the sun is setting, the reflected light inside the house seems to glow with its shades. I can’t stop photographing it. And here is Lourdes, our architect on a visit from Cuenca, standing amidst the amaranth, in the same field alongside the quinoa. Amaranth (amaranto in Spanish) might be even more beautiful and strange than quinoa.And finally, in this magical field, we have sangorache, a hybrid of amaranth. Lourdes collected the leaves and made a hot alcoholic tea, with lemon and Zhumir, that brightened our evening tremendously and impressed our guests from Puerto Rico. So, believe it or not, these three plants are all species of goosefoot, a huge genus that includes the tumbleweeds of my youth. The subspecies in our field is a chenopod, closely related to beetroots, spinach, and Swiss chard. Our particular chenopod family produces tiny edible seeds called pseudocereals, not real grains like wheat or barley because our plants not part of the true grass family.
Still with me?
The seeds of the amaranth are tiny, and you wonder how anyone figured out how to cook and eat them. Here they are in the hand of one of the agronomists who has been consulting with us and Jose Maria (our compadre who plants the field). The agronomists are part of an effort to reintroduce quinoa to this region as a cash crop, but so far Ecuador is way behind Bolivia and Peru as producers.
Quinoa (the Spanish name is derived from the Quichua, kinwa) originated in the Andean region of Ecuador, Bolivia, Colombia and Peru, where it was domesticated for human consumption 3,000 to 4,000 years ago.
Despite it’s amazing qualities (near-perfect protein source, anti-oxidant, anti-inflammatory, maybe even cholesterol-reducer) and popularity in the U.S., Michael has yet to be converted. Nor is it popular in local kitchens. Years ago, quinoa had to be washed and washed and rinsed multiple times to rid it of its bitter coating of saponins. This took time and, for households with no running water, too much trouble. Most families here prefer rice or potatoes for starch, and for their grain, barley or máchica, roasted, ground-up barley. For Michael, who loves our local potatoes, of which there are several varieties, he can”t see the appeal of quinoa. Nonetheless, at my request he has cooked it a couple of times, with so-so results. But sitting at his chess table every morning and watching the birds feast on the pseudocereals in our field, he did feel compelled to make a scarecrow.Well dear friends, I was hoping for a harvest to finish this story, but I think that won’t happen for another week or so. This means you’ll probably hear from me once more before our Cañar sojourn is over for 2014. Meanwhile, for those of you who cook with quinoa, send some recipes – let’s try to convert Michael.