Chia seeds are gaining a reputation as a superfood, joining the ranks of açaí, pomegranate, goji berry and the most recent favorite, quinoa (the United Nations dubbed this year the International Year of Quinoa.) But unlike its health food brethren, which few knew of before they became ubiquitous, the ingredient once enjoyed some unusual success outside the kitchen: it gave life to Chia Pets, ceramic turtles, cows, pigs and other creatures that sprouted plant-hair and sat atop living room tables across America in the 1990s.
Chia, a flowering plant in the mint family known as Salvia hispanica, is native to central and southern Mexico and Guatemala. Domesticated in 2,600 B.C., the seed is said to have been a staple of the Aztec and Mayan diet. The Tarahumara of Mexico, famous for their incredible endurance running, consume a blend of maize and chia seeds while pounding the desert sand.
At just 65 calories per tablespoon, chia seeds are rich in protein, fiber, antioxidants and omega-3 fatty acids. The seeds transform water into a gooey, gelatin-like mixture one can drink (slowly) straight out of the glass. Their unassuming mild, nutty flavor can disappear into countless different dishes, from pancakes and mashed potatoes to barbecue sauce and Jell-O. Here are five ways to cook with chia seeds that go beyond breading and salad garnishes.
Smoothies. Chia seeds can be ground down into a fine powder in a blender. Now a nearly invisible ingredient, chia powder can be swirled around with countless combinations of fruits, veggies and syrups. This recipe pulverizes the seeds with yogurt, blueberries, mangoes and vanilla extract for a tropical shake, while this one blends them with strawberries and apple juice for a quick breakfast beverage. For a brightly colored shake that tastes better than it looks, combine baby spinach leaves, chunks of kiwi, almond milk and a frozen banana and blend till smooth. Toss a few tablespoons of seeds with peanut butter, frozen bananas, chocolate-flavored coffee creamer, cocoa powder and milk to create a rich dessert smoothie. If the mix is too thick, add milk until it thins out.
Pudding. Some drink chia seeds straight with water, but if the gooeyness minus the flavor is too much for you, try pudding. Fold chia seeds into a mixture of cocoa powder, brown sugar, instant coffee and milk and stick them in the fridge for two hours to create decadent chocolate pudding. Combine the seeds with milk, sugar and vanilla extract and refrigerate overnight for a tapioca-like treat, sprinkling it with shredded coconut. For a breakfast pudding, toss water-soaked cashews with maple syrup, vanilla extract and chia seeds until smooth. Refrigerate eight hours or all night, and or top with dried or fresh fruit.
Breads. When chia seeds absorb water, they create a gelatinous mixture that can replace eggs, oil and butter in baking. In this recipe for pumpkin bread, chia gel takes on the role of butter and oil. Blend it with sugar, eggs and pumpkin puree. In another bowl, sift together flour, cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg, baking soda, baking powder and salt. Stir the pumpkin mixture in gradually, then fold in chopped walnuts for crunchiness. Spread the batter out into a pan and bake for an hour at 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Once it’s transformed into a spongy loaf and cooled, smear with a sweet glaze of cream cheese, powdered sugar, milk and vanilla extract. Swap pumpkin puree for bananas for classic banana bread.
Burgers. For an extra protein kick at the picnic table, use chia seeds in homemade burger patties as a binding agent. Stir them in water to create a thick gel-like mixture. Saute chopped onion with olive oil in a pan until it begins to caramelize, then add minced garlic. In a bowl, combine them with ground meat, grated carrots, seasonings and the chia seed mixture. Using a large spoon or glove hands, mold the mix into 4-inch patties that are about half an inch thick and freeze them for an hour. Then, toss them on the grill, letting them sizzle for three minutes on each side.
Soups. Water-laden chia seeds can help thicken soup for a hearty comfort meal. For creamy cauliflower soup, boil chopped onion, cauliflower and vegetable stock. Ladle out half of the broth and stir in ground chia seeds. Return the mix to the pot and continue cooking. Garnish the soup with chopped parsley and black pepper, and serve with a crunchy slice of bread.