Remember that animal-shaped terracotta pottery from the ’80s that you had to smear wet seeds on which would later sprout “hair” (grass)? Who knew that you could, A. actually eat those slimy seeds, and B. over 20 years later they’d be revealed as a healthy addition to your diet? Yep, I’m referring to the Chia Pet and those little chia seeds that adorned them.
Formally known as Salvia hispanica, the flowering chia plant is native to Mexico. Its seeds have been cultivated for food since the age of the Aztecs, being as important a crop to them as maize (corn). When soaked in a liquid, chia seeds puff up — absorbing about 12 times their weight — and form a gelatinous outer shell (chia “gel”). Aztec warriors would use them as a portable food staple during battles, supposedly being able to be sustained for a whole day after consuming just one tablespoon of chia gel.
What is it about the chia seed that’s got the health food community going ga-ga for them, you ask? They’ve got a ton of nutrients packed into their tiny shells: the USDA claims that one ounce of chia seeds contains 9 grams of fat, 11 grams of dietary fiber, 4 grams of protein, and provide 18% of the recommended daily intake of calcium. They’re chock full of antioxidants and omega-3 fatty acids (read: the good fats), too.
While a tablespoon of chia seeds can simply be mixed into your morning cup of juice or smoothie, there are many more creative ways to get your chia fix, like the recipe for chia “pudding” below. They can also be used as a vegan substitute for eggs in baking (after being ground), a base for gluten-/grain-free crackers, and as a thickener for soups and gravies. If allowed to grow into sprouts — just like on those old Chia pets — they’re great tossed in a salad or used as a cold sandwich topping.
For a delicious and versatile raw, vegan breakfast or dessert treat, try this simple recipe for chia seed pudding. If the look of the gooey seeds turn you off, finely grind them in a spice grinder before using.
Cherry-Coconut Chia Seed Pudding with Pistachios
Makes about 1 serving
1 cup plain or vanilla milk or dairy-free milk of your choice
1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 tablespoons honey or agave nectar (or to taste)
3 tablespoons chia seeds
2 tablespoons dried cherries
1 tablespoon dried, unsweetened coconut flakes
1 tablespoon pistachios (whole or chopped)
In a medium bowl with a whisk or in a blender, mix together the milk, vanilla and sweetener. Stir or blend in the chia seeds to combine. Let the seeds soak for a few minutes before stirring them up again, making sure to scrape up all of the seeds stuck to the bottom of the bowl. (You can repeat the stirring a few more times after that or just proceed with the next step.) Stir in the dried cherries and coconut flakes.
Pour mixture into a glass or food-safe plastic container with a tight-fitting lid. Vigorously shake the container, then allow it to chill in the refrigerator for one hour or up to several; overnight in the fridge is just fine, too.
When ready to eat, stir up the mixture again and eat right out of the container topped with pistachios and some more coconut and dried cherries.
Tip: Make a larger batch ahead of time and store in individual plastic food-safe containers or cute little mason jars.
Here’s a list of ingredients that can be mixed and matched into the base recipe to create many tasty flavor combinations:
Sweeteners: honey, maple syrup, agave nectar, brown/white sugar, coconut palm sugar, stevia
Nuts and seeds: almonds, walnuts, pecans, pistachios, sunflower seeds
Fresh fruit: blueberries, sliced strawberries, chopped apples, cherries, bananas, pears, figs
Dried fruit: cherries, raisins, chopped dates, apricots, currants, goji berries
Citrus zest: lemon, orange, grapefruit
Spices: cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger
Chocolate: Cocoa powder, Cacao nibs (raw, unprocessed chocolate)
Yogurt: Replace half of the liquid with yogurt for a thicker, creamier texture