Chia Seeds — Off the Beaten Aisle

By: J.M. Hirsch

Photo by: unknown

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The trouble with this week’s underappreciated ingredient is that for the next few days you’re going to have its only-available-on-TV jingle stuck in your head.

Ch-ch-ch-chia!

That’s right, we’ve wandered into the Chia Pet aisle. Because the same seeds used to grow fluffy green pets also happen to be delicious and nutritious.

First, the basics.

Chia seeds — which are a relative of sage — resemble poppy seeds, but have a nuttier, less assertive flavor. They have gobs of fiber and a fair amount of protein.

The seeds were a staple of the Aztecs, who roasted and ground the seeds, then mixed them with water to form a porridge or a meal for making cakes.

Chia seeds’ reputation for providing sustained energy — as well as plenty of nutrients — more recently have turned them into the darling of the fitness world.

They also have shown up in a growing number of products in natural foods shops, from protein bars and baked goods to drinks such as kombucha.

That last one deserves special attention.

When mixed with water (as well as some other liquids), chia seeds plump up and develop a pleasantly tender, gelatinous quality, similar to cooked tapioca pearls.

Drinks to which chia seeds have been added resemble Japanese bubble tea (teas and juices to which tapioca pearls have been added), thick and studded with slightly chewy rounds.

To make your own, soak a tablespoon or two of the seeds in ¼ cup of water until thick and tender. Then mix in the fruit juice (even some hard stuff) and drink.

That thickening power also can be harnessed in smoothies. Blending in a tablespoon or two is a great way to add fiber and body to your fruity yogurt drink.

Because the seeds don’t need to be ground before eating, they also can be tossed into baked goods, such as cookies, bars and multi-grain breads.

Why would you? In addition to adding protein, fiber and calcium, the seeds add a deliciously crunchy-nutty flavor without overwhelming.

If you’re the type who likes making yogurt at home (admittedly, we are few in number), chia seeds are a great addition there, too.

You’ll need a yogurt maker (basically, a device that holds the milk at a set temperature so the live cultures can do their job), but it’s unbelivably simple.

Combine 1½ tablespoons of chia seeds with 2 cups of milk and 1 tablespoon of yogurt (make sure it is labeled as having live culture). Then let it sit a few hours in the yogurt maker and you’re done. And it’s delicious.

Even easier? Make a tapioca-like pudding. All you need to do is mix and refrigerate overnight. My 7-year-old son loves this stuff.

Chia-Almond Pudding

Top this pudding with whipped cream and a sprinkle of chia seeds. Or drizzle it with a bit of honey or agave syrup.

Start to finish: Overnight (5 minutes active)
Servings: 4
2 cups vanilla almond milk
1½ tablespoons chia seeds
Zest of 1 lemon
½ teaspoon cinnamon
Pinch of salt

In a medium bowl, combine all ingredients. Stir well. Leave the bowl on the counter and stir once a minute for about 10 minutes. This prevents the seeds from clumping as they absorb liquid.

Cover and refrigerate the bowl for at least 6 hours, or ideally overnight.

When you think of it, give the pudding a stir.

J.M. Hirsch is the national food editor for The Associated Press. He is the author of the recent cookbook High Flavor, Low Labor: Reinventing Weeknight Cooking . He also blogs at LunchBoxBlues.com.

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