Real Food Right Now and How to Cook It: Chia Seeds

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Ch - ch - ch - chia.® Who would have thought that the key ingredient in fuzzy, green, growing gag gifts would one day be recognized as an ancient "superfood"? Chia seeds, the fast-sprouting pottery coating that, for decades, have been slathered on countless iterations of the "as seen on TV" "Chia Pet® " are now popping up on every shelf in the health food aisle - from snacks and cereals to puddings and beverages and more. Turns out this easy-to-grow seed packs a lot of nutrition and, due to its unique mucilaginous quality, is pretty fun to play with in the kitchen as well. So the next time you are on the receiving end of a chia pig, puppy or presidential bust, you might forgo the opportunity to amaze your family and friends with your sculptural green pompadour and add those seeds to your smoothie instead.

A Brief History

Chia seeds, aka Salvia hispanica, were originally grown in Mexico where they have been highly valued medicinally and nutritionally for ages. Chia was one of the five staple crops of ancient Mexico, ranking just below corn and beans in its level of importance in the diet. The word "chia" means "strength" in the Mayan language. Aztec warriors ate chia seeds to give them energy and endurance. Chia grew wild and was a prized harvest used as currency to pay taxes and religious alms and to settle debts with conquering tribes. 

Chia's popularity waned with the infiltration of Spanish culture in the region but continues to play a part in modern Mexican cuisine. It is particularly appreciated for its ability to retain water and is often served in beverages to prevent against dehydration on hot days.

Chia was one of the staple foods of Native Americans as well. There is evidence of chia being grown in areas of California six hundred years ago. Today, the seed is being treated as the latest hot thing - a trendy item on a growing list of health-focused menus. But like many traditional foods and cooking practices, it's been there all along. It just took modern eaters a while to "discover" it. 

Factual Nibbles

  • Chia Fresca, a citrus-ade studded with chia seeds, is a popular drink in Central and South America.
  • Chia is being studied for its ability to stabilize blood sugar in a way that is beneficial to diabetes patients. There is a growing belief that there is a possible correlation between the high rate of the disease among Native Americans and their rapid shift away from their traditional diet, specifically the chia seed.
  • Chia is a "fire following" species, in that it grows prolifically in the path of fire damage. 

Cultivation

Chia is a grower. It's a member of the mint family - a type of sage, in fact - and grows like a large sage plant, up to five to six feet. It self-seeds and will volunteer season after season - if the seeds aren't gobbled up by wildlife first (seems humans aren't the only species to get the memo on chia's health benefits). It can also be sown directly into the soil or transplanted. It requires very little irrigation and can thrive even in poor soil. 

Chia develops purple or white elongated flower clusters toward the end of its lifecycle. Each flower cluster produces about a dozen seeds. To harvest the seeds, pick the flowers' heads after most of the petals have fallen. Dry the harvested flower heads in a well-ventilated area. Crush the dried flower heads and sieve out the seeds to separate. 

Eighty percent of the world's supply of chia comes from South America, with Argentina being the top producer. Australia has single producer, The Chia Company. The sudden and growing popularity of chia has encouraged farmers to experiment with the crop. The seed has attracted the eye of the equestrian community, which values chia as a horse feed supplement. This rapid rise in the market has encouraged some experimentation with seed varieties that are suitable for the climate in the US. 

Seasonality

Chia is picky about its light. It needs short days to encourage it to flower. That can be a tricky proposition in seasonal climates where short days equal frosty nights, a limiting requirement for the proliferation of chia outside of tropical or subtropical climates. Researchers at the University of Kentucky, however, have bred and patented a variety of chia that flowers over a much shorter season, allowing the seeds to be harvested before cold sets in. They have licensed the patented seeds to Heartland Chia, which contracts Midwestern farmers to grow the seed for them. 

Chia seeds are harvested at the end of the plant's growing cycle when days are shorter. Exact harvest time is influenced by the seed variety, climate and elevation.

Environmental Impact

Although not all chia is certified organic, it is a great candidate for such cultivation practices. It grows well in arid regions with low quality soils and requires little, if any irrigation once established. It thrives in the wild and its survival is not dependent on chemical inputs. The essential oils in chia seeds are repellant to insects, so no sprays are needed to prevent invasion. Chia is sensitive to weed killers so any weeding must be done manually. 

Characteristics

What to Look for

Chia seeds resemble tiny watermelon seeds but are a bit mottled in their coloring. They are sold as "white chia" and "black chia" but are not solidly colored, so there is some variation from seed to seed. Brown seeds are immature and won't pack as much of a nutritional punch. 

Nutrition and Effects on the Body

Chia seeds are highly nutritious and rich in fiber. Two tablespoons of chia seeds have the same amount of protein as one egg. One tablespoon of chia seeds has 64 milligrams of calcium, 40 milligrams of magnesium and the same amount of omega-3 fatty acids as a four-ounce serving of salmon.

What to Do with it and Cooking

Chia is used in animal feed. The company US Chia grows the seeds on a commercial scale as an additive to horse feed. The seeds are also pressed for their oil, which is used in the cosmetics industry. 

Chia seeds have a very mild flavor and can be added to both sweet and savory dishes. While some prefer to eat the seeds, many eaters find it best to grind or soak them to soften their texture and ensure that all of the nutrition in the chia is readily available. 

To soak, add 1 1/2 tablespoons of chia seeds to one cup of liquid such as water or juice. Let it sit for at least twenty minutes, until the liquid is absorbed. The seeds will release a gelatinous substance and the mixture will become quite thick. The resulting mixture can be stored, covered, in the refrigerator for up to three days. 

The gel of rehydrated seeds can be used as an egg replacement in vegan baked goods. 

The seeds can be ground into flour and added to baked goods such as muffins, cookies, pancakes and breads.

Storage

The seeds keep for three to four months in a cool, dry place. Freeze them in an airtight container for longer storage. 

If you choose to grind the seeds, it's best to do so right before adding them to your recipe or store them in a sealed container in the refrigerator or freezer as their rich fat content causes the resulting chia flour to go rancid rather quickly. 

Recipe

Chocolate Chia Mousse

A chocolate mousse that's full of Omega-3's? Double happiness. Unlike other chia puddings that leave the seeds whole, I've pulverized them here so that they blend more seamlessly into the dessert. You can up the sweetener, if you like, or use an alternative to sugar, such as stevia or maple syrup. 

Ingredients:

1/4 cup chia seeds

1 can unsweetened coconut milk (volumes range but are usually about 12-15 ounces)

1/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder

1/4 cup sugar or other sweetener

pinch of salt 

Method:

In a spice grinder, blender, food processor or using a mortal and pestle, grind the seeds to a find powder. Set aside. Combine the coconut milk with enough water to equal two cups and add to a small saucepan. Add the cocoa powder, sugar and salt and heat over low, whisking constantly until sugar is dissolved, about 2-3 minutes. Remove from heat and allow to cool slightly. Add the ground chia seeds and whisk to combine. Refrigerate until cool and thickened and serve.


 Sherri Brooks Vinton  wants you to have a more delicious life. Her writing, talks and hands-on workshops teach fellow eaters how to find, cook and preserve local, seasonal, farm friendly food. To find out more, visit www.sherribrooksvinton.com

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