My Whole Grain Classics

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My friend Annie and I had lunch this week to catch up and hash out life’s big issues over salad. It has been a long winter for all of us, but she had just changed jobs, travels all over the world, is dealing with a family health crisis and is feeling the effects of stress. She told me she had been consulting with a nutritionist to try to give herself a physical boost, to try to make some healthy adjustments to her diet so that she’s better equipped to face everything she has to deal with. She joked that she was eating nothing but quinoa and kale and was feeling good but a little culinarily one-note.

 I love kale and I can take or leave quinoa, but boredom with your diet is a good way to end up at the bottom of a bag of Cheetos so I always keep a (some might say excessive) variety of whole grains in my kitchen. They each have such different flavors and textures and characteristics that it keeps me interested. The problem is, as Annie said, if you’ve never tried a grain, you don’t know if you like it until you’ve bought that 20 ounce bag that you try once, and then it sits moldering in the back of the cabinet until it gets rancid and you end up throwing it out.

 I decided to put together a little sampler of some of the grains I have at home for her, enough for a serving or so for her to try out before she buys whole bags of them and thought I’d share it with all of you too. I’ve done several recipe posts for whole grain salads but haven’t really put together my “Classics” list for a post. So here are a few of my favorite grains.

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Farro: “Caesar marched his army to the sea on farro” our innkeeper in Italy told us. Emmer farro is an ancient Roman grain variety that is nutty, earthy, chewy, with a similar texture to but not as sweet as barley. It cooks in a lot of water and keeps separate grains so it’s great to toss with other things for a hearty whole meal salad. I especially love farro with sautéed mushrooms. Cook it at a 4:1 ratio of salted water to grain for 20-25 minutes, or until it is as tender as you like it,  in a covered pot. Drain any leftover water. It can also cook much more quickly if it is soaked in hot water for at least a couple of hours before cooking. Low in gluten, high in complex carbs, with protein, fiber, lignans, and antioxidants, it can form the basis for a hearty, healthy vegetarian meal.

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Millet: Millet is a quick-cooking, fluffy grain with a toasty, corny flavor. It is probably one of the most widely cultivated ancient staple grains in the world, a drought resistant crop, but most of us tend to think of it as birdseed. I like it in just about any dish where cous cous would be appropriate. It is gluten free and alkaline which can help balance the body’s tendency toward acidity. I toast it in a pan with a little olive oil, coconut oil, or other fat, add 2:1 ratio of boiling water to grain. Cover the pot and cook for about 15- 20 minutes over low heat until it is fluffy and dry. This is the same technique I would use for a long grain rice. Use a fork to fluff the grains apart.

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Frikkeh: Also spelled “freekeh” “frikeh” and “farik”, frikkeh is a green wheat grain that is toasted and (usually) cracked like bulgher wheat. It has a subtle hint of toasty smokiness and one of the most intriguing delicious grain flavors I’ve run across. It is used a lot in Levantine and North African cuisines, seasoned with cinnamon and coriander in pilafs with toasted pine nuts, as a stuffing, and with lamb. I even love it plain, just salted and buttered, instead of rice. It is especially high in fiber and has a lot of selenium, potassium, and magnesium. Cook it with a little more than 2:1 water to grain ratio for 15-20 minutes for the cracked grain version.

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Wild Rice: I included wild rice because it is actually a grass seed from the Zizania palustris species rather than true rice. In some part of North America, Native American people harvest it by hand from canoes and the specific method of harvest is proscribed by tribal law. Wild rice has a tough outer sheath covering the inner grain that “pops” as it cooks. Second only to oats in protein, it contains b vitamins, lots of dietary fiber and is gluten-free. It has an earthy, spicy, irony flavor, which subtly hints that it was grown in water; it reminds me slightly of kombu or kelp. I pre-soak wild rice for a couple of hours before cooking it in at least 6:1 ratio of salted boiling water for 30 minutes until the kernels have popped and blossomed. Drain and toss with an intense dressing – I’ve gotten raves over the wild rice and Brussels spouts with mustard dressing I posted in December. It is also good with something tangy and sweet like cranberry (another native North American food).

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Pearled Barley: I feel like I almost take pearled barley for granted it has been a part of my diet for so long. For me, pearled barley goes in vegetable (or vegetable beef) soup. The pop of the grain adds textural contrast, the sweetness balances flavors, and the soluble fiber (same as in oats) thickens and enriches the soup’s broth. Although it is pearled which means that some of the hull has been buffed off, (meaning it isn’t technically a whole grain) it is much quicker cooking and still has lots of healthy fiber. This sweetness and fiber also makes it great (and filling) for breakfast with fruit and a little brown sugar. I usually just throw it into soup without measuring the ratio, but about 4:1 and a 15 minute simmer works for breakfast barley.

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Hominy Grits: You know I can’t make a list of grains without talking about grits! As a southerner, grits are essential for my mental, physical, and emotional well-being. Nothing soothes the ruffles feathers of my soul like a warm bowl of buttered grits; it was the first meal I cooked when I moved here to New Jersey. Hominy grits are made from dent corn, which has been treated with an alkali (with masa harina it is called “nixmatalization”), a process that makes more of the corn’s nutrition accessible during digestion. In contrast, corn polenta is usually made with flint corn which is not treated with alkali. I like white, organic, stone ground grits, and keep them in the refrigerator to prevent rancidity since I usually have to mail order them in larger amounts than I can use up quickly. 4:1 salted water to grits cooked with butter is the classic bowl of grits. Top it with a poached egg and some sautéed greens and you have a comfort in a bowl.

Honorable mention: Although I don’t use them in the same way I use the other grains, both chia and flax seeds are a regular part of our diet. Both are high in omega 3 vitamins and cholesterol controlling fiber. I treat them more as additions too, rather than main elements of, meals, added to smoothies, yogurts, and granola.

The fiber in all of these grains is important for maintaining healthy cholesterol levels, healthy blood sugar levels (instead of the peaks and valleys caused by simple carbs) and healthy intestinal bacteria which is critical for digestion and a healthy immune system.

Additional resources:

Wild rice: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wild_rice

Farro: http://www.takepart.com/article/2013/03/20/jane-says-farro

I buy my grain from these sources:

Bob’s Red Mill

Arrowhead Mills

Kalustyan’s

Adluh Mills

Anson Mills

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Millet Spinach Salad with Pepitas and Cranberries

There is always that sense of ravenous desperation in the spring that sends us on long hunts for the first asparagus, nettles, rhubarb, salad greens, or radishes of the season, the hope against hope that there will be something crisp and juicy and fresh and alive at the farmers market despite my still being wrapped in down and wool. This year that hunger was particularly sharp.  With PATH out of commission from October into January, Hurricane Sandy stranded me on a small island on the far side of the Hudson from the trucked-in variety to be found in Manhattan markets; our own supermarket was flooded with damage that took 15 weeks to repair. Our little greengrocers re-opened sooner but have very edited produce departments. And, honestly, there were other more important things than produce to worry about during this past dark winter.

But spring has finally arrived and the burgeoning farmers markets and longer days have inspired us. So long story short, a few weeks ago we thought it would be fun to be mostly vegetarian for a while to see how many ways we could cram vegetables into our diet, like a tonic to our systems. I appreciate the luxury to have so many things available to cook and I’ve been enjoying the challenge to my creativity. Instead of trying to replicate the meat-and-three-sides meal, I’m looking to more vegetarian (or at least less meat-centric) food cultures for inspiration with vegetable curry, my sriracha soba noodle salad, my beloved pizza with “salad” on top, or black bean and corn chiles rellenos. I’ve been using a variety of whole grains, enjoying their uniqueness when they are the feature rather than the side dish.

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Millet is a staple food in parts of Africa and India but is most commonly seen in bags of bird seed in North America. It is a tiny grain, about the size of a seed bead, and cooks to a similar texture as couscous at the 1:2 grain to water proportion but with a cornier, nuttier flavor (which the toasting or frying I describe in the millet technique section enhances). I’ve used it in a multigrain bread where it adds a little texture to the loaf. I wanted to cover all the bases of texture and flavor in this salad: crunchy toasted pepitas and creamy fresh goat cheese, tangy sweet cranberries and earthy spinach and crisp savory red onion to tie it all together. We ate this with an avocado salad last night.

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Millet Spinach Salad

the millet technique:

1 cup millet

2 cups water

olive oil

salt

Pour a tablespoon or so of olive oil into a heavy bottomed sauce pan, stir in the millet over medium heat. Toast the millet, stirring frequently, until it smells lightly nutty. Raise the heat to med/high and pour  water over the millet. Stir to break up any clumps, add a couple pinches of salt and bring to a boil. When the water boils, reduce the heat to low, cover with a tight-fitting lid and simmer for 20 minutes until the water is absorbed. Turn off the heat and leave the millet covered for another 20-30 minutes until it is cool enough to handle. The millet will be fluffy and all the water should be absorbed.

the salad:

olive oil

½ red onion, thinly sliced

1/3 cup raw pepitas/pumpkin seeds

3 cups spinach leaves (stemmed and roughly chopped if the leaves are big)

¼ cup dried cranberries

white wine vinegar

salt and pepper

fresh goat cheese

In a large skillet or sauté pan, heat 2-3 tablespoons of olive oil and stir the pumpkin seeds into the oil over medium heat. Stir constantly until the pumpkins seeds are golden brown and toasted. Turn off the heat and stir the sliced onion in, it should wilt slightly in the residual heat of the pan, infusing the oil with flavor. Pour the millet into the sauté pan. It will probably be in large clumps like couscous; gently break it up into individual grains with your fingers. Drizzle the wine vinegar over the millet. Toss in the spinach and cranberries and mix into the millet. Salt and pepper to taste. Dollop chunks of fresh goat cheese over the top and serve at room temperature.