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The Garden Gate: Healthy fig, amaranth ideas date back to ancient times

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By Ellen Probert Williamson

Figs, amazingly enough, are really flowers and grow on soft-wood, large-leaved branches of fig trees. They grow everywhere in the Mediterranean area, as they have for hundreds of years.

Hezekiah was one of the most outstanding kings of Judah, which he ruled from 727-698 B.C. Herod, the famous Greek historian, wrote that Hezekiah fell ill with a large and severe sore. It endangered his life, and physicians could not cure it. In desperation, the king followed the advice of Isiah the prophet, who said, “Prepare a mass of figs and put it on your sore.”

In the biblical account of this, it is reported that the poultice healed him, and King Hezekiah ruled for many more years.

The famous Greek botanist and physician Dioscorides wrote, “Figs, when mashed, cooked and used as a poultice, will heal pustules and abscess and any kinds of sores and wounds.”

Now — 2,700 years later — the advice of the Prophet Isiah is still good. And many other therapeutic uses for this ancient tree have been discovered.

Figs are rich in natural sugars and contain a small amount of protein and fat. They also have minerals and vitamins A, B1, B2 and C.

The sap of a fig tree is white. It contains several enzymes that will curdle milk and can be used as a meat tenderizer.

Mithridates, king of the ancient Greek city of Pontius, ordered his subjects to eat figs every day.

American figs come mostly from California. Turkey, Greece, Portugal and Spain are also among the top fig producers.

Fig Newton cookies were the first commercially baked fig products. They were actually copied from a biblical description and were known to be among Cleopatra’s favorite snacks. In fact, the asp that killed her had been hidden in a basket of figs.

There are various references to figs and their uses in the Bible. Many ways that figs are useful in our daily lives reflect references in the Bible of their ancient uses.

Have you ever heard of a grain called amaranth? Some of the facts we continue to learn about the ancient Aztecs relates to the food they ate. One of them was amaranth, which was widely known then but was nearly obliterated when European conquerors made growing it a crime.

The ancient Greeks thought amaranth was a symbol of immortality. It has begun to be noticed over the last 50 years as people are seeking more healthy whole grains in their food choices.

Amaranth is actually not a grain. It is a broadleafed plant with pretty, bright flowers and edible seeds. Amaranth greens add color and nutrition to salads, and the seeds are good cooked with cereal or used in baking.

Amaranth is rich in a number of minerals, including manganese, magnesium, phosphorous and iron. It has a lot of vitamin B as well.

For a long time, amaranth was considered to be a weed or of no value. But it produced many small, black seeds which the Indians valued so much that they carefully cultivated them in Arizona and parched the seeds to grind into flour.

They also used the stems and leaves to cook as greens, much like spinach. This hardy plant grows very well under many conditions. The stems and flowers may be purple, orange, red or golden. The wild varieties with dark seeds make nice ornamentals and potted plants, However, varieties with pale seeds are better sources of the edible grain.

Amaranth contains about 9 percent oil, which one study has found to lower total cholesterol, LDL and triglycerides in people who ate it every day for three weeks. It is believed that the oil’s squalene and phytosterols keep cholesterol from begin absorbed into the intestines.

If you want more amaranth oil than you get in the grain, look for bottled oil in a natural food store and use it on salads or in place of other oils in recipes.

Amaranth has more protein than other grains, and what it has is a more complete source of the essential amino acids your body needs.

That means you can substitute it for some of the meat in your diet, giving you the benefits of muscle-building protein without any saturated fat. A bowl of amaranth flakes cereal for breakfast will give you 6 grams of protein.

The jumbo serving of magnesium in amaranth makes it good for your heart muscle. It has 149 grams in just 2 ounces of seeds, more than a third of the amount you need every day.

Magnesium helps with more than 300 processes in your body, including keeping your heartbeat regular and helping muscles and nerves work properly.

We seem to be constantly discovering what we think are new ideas about nutrition and healthful eating, only to realize that all these facts have been around for hundreds of years, and we are merely recycling them.
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Ellen Probert Williamson lives in Kingston. Her column appears regularly in the Roane County News.