Amazing Amaranth

amaranth headLast week our consulting agronomist came by, took a look, and said our amaranth was ready to harvest. (The birds already knew this – they’ve been busy helping themselves the past couple of weeks). A slight shake of a catkin-like head brought down a cascade of tiny seeds (the little yellow specks in the photo above). And such tiny seeds! How many plants will it take to make a pound of this gluten-free- -pseudocereal-with-eight-essential-amino-acids, I wonder? It also makes me realize why amaranth is not a popular crop here. It takes the same amount of land, watering, weeding and fumigating that a crop of barley or wheat takes, with much less payoff (except nutrition-wise). Still, it has been an absolute delight these past six months to watch this beautiful plant go through its stages as we glanced out our windows, and I will certainly miss the sight of it next year, when ho-hum corn or potatoes will be back. Mike scarecrpw

So on a very cold day (about 50 degrees; the Andean winter is upon us) Jose María – who plants our field and whose harvest this is – came by and we followed the agronomist’s instructions: cut off the catkin-heads and put them in a sack, trying not to shake too many seeds onto the ground. Lay out the heads on a tarp for several days to dry in the sun. The three of us set to work with clippers, but we kept stopping to show off the most spectacular plants, and take photos. JM w headThat’s quinoa behind Jose Maria, which won’t be ready for a couple of weeks, if the birds leave anything. Too bad we’ll miss it. For that harvest the agronomist said he will bring a threshing machine. The amaranth was not enough to warrant a machine, and in fact, in only took us about an hour to finish the harvest.closeup harvest


Here’s what’s left of the field, with quinoa on the left and sangorache, another form of amaranth, on the right, still waiting for harvest.field stripped

While the seed heads await their shaking/threshing.

amaranth I promised Michael’s recipe for quinoa, but all I can say at this point is that he made paella (without measuring a thing) the famous Spanish dish, using quinoa instead of the usual arborio rice. The result was tasty, but not as good, I think, as with rice. But we’ll keep trying! Thanks again for all who sent recipes.paellaToday is our last day in Cañar for 2014. It takes about three non-stop days to strip the interior of the house of its character and color – hangings, throws, pillows, rugs, blankets, bedding – wash and store everything in trunks and bags and big plastic containers in a storeroom. That’s my job, along with many trips into town to take care of last details, such as submitting a formal request to the phone company to reduce my Internet service for six months. (Didn’t get it right the first time; was sent home to compose another.) On the last day, I cover the bookcases, kitchen shelves, dining table and living room with cloths- old sheets and the like. Michael’s job is to shut down the mechanics of the house – pumps, gas, water, hot water heaters, espresso machine – and to put up the shutters that cover every window and door. The house grows dark, the only light from the interior patio. It’s time to leave.

laundry patioP1060151

And some final farewells, one from Mama Michi and her daughter Mariana, one of our scholarship women who graduated yesterday from the University of Riobamba in public health.P1060157

Our final act is rather ignominious: we call a taxi to take us to the Pan American, where we stand beside the road with our bags, waiting for bus to Guayaquil to pass by. Others are waiting too, and it’s sometimes a scramble to get on and find seats. If there are none, we scramble off and wait for the next bus. And if there are no buses, as happened one Sunday, we hire a taxi at the last minute. We’ve developed a technique: I jump on fast and grab the seats while Michael stays to see the bags stashed underneath by the driver’s assistant. Only then can we relax into the four-hour ride to Guayaquil, where we’ll get a midnight plane to Miami, then another to Chicago, then finally arriving in Portland 18 hours later.

It’s been extremely cold and windy in Cañar these past couple of weeks, and we can’t wait for a Portland summer. Regards to all, until next January (unless I get inspired to write about Portland). In the meantime, I invite all to stay in touch.

Guayaquil airport, 8:10 PM, June 24, 2014.




While awaiting the harvest (and our departure)…


Dear Friends: Thanks to all who sent recipes for quinoa following my last post (“Tumbleweeds of my youth, back as quinoa in Cañar”). I have read them out to Michael, who listens seriously and promises to try some. He claims, however, to have a secret quinoa recipe of his own up his sleeve, which he will reveal after a trial run in the kitchen. Meanwhile, while we are waiting for our harvest, and counting down the days until we leave Ecuador on June 24, I came across some photos I’d taken years ago (circa 2000?) when I barely knew what quinoa was. Antonio harvest quinoaNicolas

MichiAntonio Guamán (in photo #1) was one of my first photography students, when he was a bright 20-year old, married to Edelina, with two darling girls. After that, with more children, the tragic death of Edelina, a second marriage and yet more children, Antonio lived and died as a subsistence farmer, alternately poisoned by alcohol and herbicides. Before he died in 2012, we became godparents to his son, Nicolas (second photo), at the behest of Antonio’s sister, Mercedes (third photo). But I’m afraid we have failed to benefit Nicolas in any way. Last I heard, he is now 14 and has left school to work at the coast. The two “darling girls” are grown young women, both living in the U.S. with their husband as undocumented migrants, one working in a nail salon in New Jersey. They’ve left behind in Cañar a total of three or four children to be raised by grandmothers. Another family fractured by poverty and migration.

*  *  *  *


Tumbleweeds of my youth, back as quinoa in Cañar

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. ( 1

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. view quinoa

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. quinoa closeAnd here is Lourdes, our architect on a visit from Cuenca, standing amidst the amaranth, in the same field alongside the quinoa. lourdes amaranthAmaranth (amaranto in Spanish) might be even more beautiful and strange than quinoa.amaranth close upAnd 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. SangurachiSo, 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.amaranth grains

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.scarecrowMike scarecrpwWell 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.