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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Shhhhh….Super Secret Valentine’s Gift Experiment

As much as an experiment that I’m posting about on a public blog and which is fermenting odiferously away in our pantry/wine cellar/storage closet, whiffing more and more garlic and chile fumes into the apartment by the hour can BE super secret, I am making a pair of sriracha sauces for my Valentine.

We are the sort of family that has a significant percentage of refrigerator door shelf space allocated to bottles and bottles of hot sauce because each one has a specific and non transferable purpose and we really really need all of them. From classic Tabasco and Caribbean scotch bonnet sauce for black beans to earthy harissa that I use in a lot of my braised sauces and smoky hot chipotle in adobo, amarillo paste from Peru to the green-capped Rooster brand sriracha sauce, we keep adding to our collection.

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Garlicky sriracha is a favorite. It goes so well on so many things and I’ve been wanting to try to make some at home for a while. So I used the impetus of upcoming Valentine’s Day to go ahead and make it. It seems like gifts that can be consumed are a sure hit, particularly since we don’t really like accumulating a lot of stuff.

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I used two recipe sources: this write-up on Serious Eats  and another on Viet World Kitchen by Andrea Nguyen. Both compared fresh sauce vs. fermented and had used several different types of chiles. While I’m not trying to duplicate the Huy Fong “Rooster” sauce, I wanted to be along the same lines so I decided to use the red jalapeños and fermentation method they use for the first red sauce. I had bought green jalapeños intending to try to ripen them before I ran across the red ones at Manhattan Fruit Exchange so I used those for a green sriracha with a little ginger addition.

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Yesterday I did the first step, processing the chiles and garlic and then putting them in loosely covered jars in the closet to get the sauce to ferment.

When I checked them this afternoon, some of yesterday’s vivid color had begun to soften and I could smell a mellower garlic and chile fragrance. The puree had separated from the liquid a little and started to bubble and expand. I had expected it to take a couple of days to start fermenting but with it being so cold here, the radiators have been on a lot which makes the apartment a little warmer than normal. Warmth quickens dough fermentation so I’m pretty sure that’s why they’re so active. I stirred and re-covered them and put them back in the closet but I may put them beside a window tonight to cool them down a little. I don’t want to get them too cold and put the bacteria to sleep so I’ll have to keep an eye on it- maybe do a condensation cooler like we do to regulate the temperature of our beer while it ferments.

Here’s a picture of the fermenting sauce:

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So, y’all just keep this surprise between us until Friday and I’ll keep you posted on how it goes and write up the process I used, including the recipes and variations.

Have a “super bowl” of Vegetable Bean Chili

As far as I’m concerned, football season was over on January 6 when my Auburn Tigers played (and sadly lost) for the national championship, but we here in northern New Jersey are hosting another big football game this weekend. Like I said in this gumbo post a couple of years ago, I usually pick a team based on the city with the most interesting food, but this year, I can’t dispute that chili is one of the most iconic Super Bowl party foods. I love rich spicy chili con carne, but this year I’m making my just-as-rich but less heavy vegetable bean chili.

To me, a key in making any dish interesting is thinking a lot about texture. Either a single consistent texture (smooth and creamy for example) or a thoughtful combination of  contrasting textures make a dish as much as flavor makes a dish. This challenge has been even more apparent to me when cooking vegetarian dishes without the ability to fall back on the chewy resistance of meat. Finding the right mix of contrasting textures without straying too far from the classic flavors of a bean chili was my challenge- and I really love what I finally came up with; the sweet pop of a corn kernel between your teeth, the silky collapse of eggplant over the tongue, the creamy interior of beans yielding into smooth spicy chili gravy- these take what can be a mushy stew  from utilitarian to sensorily engaging and delicious.

I’ve been working on this chili for a long time and in fact, wasn’t able to decide which chili method I preferred. I’ve done the dry toasting and then grinding to chili powder method and the soak, blend and sieve chili method (the same that I do for chili salsa) and while both were a great way to get that rich chili baseline I want in chili, the trade-off of smooth, skinless chili texture that comes with the extra step of sieving wasn’t absolutely compelling. And I know a lot of people will want the ability to make this with a (very fresh and flavorful I hope) ground chili powder, so I wrote this recipe up with those instructions. I encourage you to try the soaking method- it’s such a great way to make smooth enchilada sauce, chili salsas, and chili based soups and is really worth learning the technique.

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 Vegetable Bean Chili

makes 3-4 quarts

1/2 pound dried red kidney beans

½ pound dried pink or pinto beans

water to cook beans (about 6 cups)

5 dried ancho chiles, stems and seeds removed

4 dried pasilla chiles, stems and seeds removed

4 dried Serrano chiles, stemmed (or fewer, depending on your heat tolerance)

 or about ¼ -1/3 cup total of ground chile powders

 1 teaspoon Mexican oregano

1 Tablespoon cumin powder

1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

 1 chipotle in adobo

 olive oil

1 large onion, diced

6 cloves garlic, minced

1 jalapeno, deseeded and minced (optional)

1 cup corn kernels (optional)

2 Asian eggplants, cubed

1 red bell pepper, diced

1 28 ounce can  diced tomatoes

 Sea salt to taste

Rinse the dried beans. Cover them with at least 4 cups of water in a saucepan. Cook them, either by first doing a quick soak, an overnight soak,( or if the dried beans are pretty fresh, without pre-soaking) for about an hour until tender. Keep them well covered with water; this liquid will be the broth for the chili.

 In a dry skillet over medium heat, toast all of the dried chiles in a single layer, pressing them against the hot surface with a spoon or spatula until they become soft and fragrant. After allowing them to cool, blend them all in a spice grinder or coffee grinder until they are a fine powder.

 Heat a couple tablespoons of oil in a stockpot over medium heat. Sweat the diced onion with a pinch of salt until they begin to soften; add the eggplant, garlic and peppers and another pinch of salt. Once the vegetables are soft, sprinkle the oregano, cumin and pepper into the pot and stir into the vegetables. Once they have become fragrant, push everything to the edges of the pan and add a couple more tablespoons of oil. Pour the chile powder into the oil and stir, “frying” the powder in the oil until it becomes fragrant. Stir everything so the spices are incorporated into the vegetables, scraping any that stick off the bottom of the pot. Mix in the tomatoes (including the liquid from the can) and corn kernels and then pour in the beans and their cooking liquid; stir and bring to a simmer.

 Taste for salt; I added a tablespoon (at least- more like a small palmful) of sea salt since the beans were unsalted.  Simmer everything together low for 30 minutes before serving, or better yet, let it sit overnight, reheat and serve the next day.

Spicely Organics & Pumpkin Hummus

My recipe for pumpkin hummus went up on My New Usual a couple of weeks ago, a tasty and seasonal alternative to traditional chickpea hummus. My friend Becky was hanging out in my kitchen while I was finalizing the recipe and I used her as a guinea pig to see if I could re-write my recipe to   make the ingredients a little easier for everyone to find. I started making pumpkin hummus when we lived in California and I was buying most of my spices from a San Francisco based organic spice company called Spicely Organics. Long story short, Becky and I agreed that while the simplified recipe was good, the addition of the shawarma seasoning blend made the recipe so much better.

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 I hadn’t been able to find Spicely on the east coast since we moved, and when I had looked for them online, couldn’t find a user-friendly shopping portal. I ran across their booth at the Fancy Food Show in NYC this summer and was excited to hear that they were expanding to sell more nationally and had developed their online presence a lot. After posting the recipe, my friend Kate said she had even found the shawarma spice mix at Whole Foods in Montclair NJ, so it’s become much more widely available recently.

The first thing that I loved about this spice company besides the quality and flavor of their herbs and spices is the packaging. I use a huge variety of herbs and spices in my cooking and I don’t want a load of new glass jars every time I resupply my stock. Spicely’s herbs and spices are mostly packaged in small 1 inch square cardboard boxes with a cellophane bag inside. I also like that they are sold in smaller amounts than the standard jar size. The most important factor in spices maintaining their flavor is freshness and it’s a lot easier to use up the small packages before the fragrance starts to dissipate and the flavor becomes stale, especially if it’s a spice I don’t use constantly. For those go-to spices that I use most often, they also carry cardboard or glass jars in larger sizes and a bulk jar called the “sous chef”. Another benefit to the variety of sizes is that stocking up on a few spices isn’t going to be expensive, especially if you often end up throw away the dregs of an old jar that you never get around to using.

They also have a  tremendous variety of  spices in their line. I’ve bought sumac and mace and nigella seeds, black and green cardamom, whole anise, ground turmeric and juniper berries as well as more everyday spices like Italian and Mexican oregano, cumin, thyme, and smoked paprika. The seasoning blends skew toward more exotic, less standard “steakhouse seasoning”, like the shawarma blend, which I use for chicken and vegetables, not just hummus. There was a curry blend that I didn’t love and I prefer a Cajun blend from Louisiana, but I love the unique Ras El Hanout, the harissa blend, and the za’atar seasoning. They list the ingredients of the blends on the package so you can get a sense of the flavor before buying; I got a lot of inspiration from their blends, new ideas for how to combine flavors. I noticed on their website that they now have tea and spice infused chocolate in their product line, none of which I have tried.

The icing on the cake is that all of their products are organic, non GMO, and fair trade certified. My opinion is that if an organic product doesn’t taste good or isn’t well made, I’m not eating it. I also realize that there are a lot of great foods that are grown or made very naturally that aren’t organic or certified. But if food that I use can taste great and is also organic, I’m happy about it.  The Fair trade certification means that the company sources its spices from producers who do not use forced or child labor, have unsafe working conditions or substandard wages. I don’t want my food to come at the expense of anyone’s health or well-being and I want their work to provide them with a livelihood, so fair trade certification is something that I look for when possible, particularly in categories that have a history of abuse. Going to a little more trouble (or expense) for more carefully sourced food isn’t everyone’s prerogative, but it is important to me. I explained my position in this comment about why Rancho Gordo beans, whose farmers are able to make a living growing the beans, are (to me) worth the higher price:

I grew up eating lots of beans, so I too was a little skeptical when I saw the prices of RG beans. Then I tried them. Their flavor and texture is far, far better than the .69 per pound bags of black beans I’ve always eaten. And while I realize that there is still a big price difference, $5 divided by 6-8 servings is not particularly expensive. 
The real test for me however was when my mom ate RG beans for the first time. She is the one who taught me to use beans as an inexpensive meal. She hasn’t had the extra money to spend on frivolous “gourmet” products, and yet she is sold on RG beans. 
Normally, beans are farmed as a commodity product that has to be produced in bulk for the farmer to make any profit. Steve’s approach is completely different. Smaller yields of more costly beans mean a better profit margin for these farmers. While everyone may not be in a position to buy their food at a higher price in support of smaller farmers, I think it is certainly worthwhile for those who can. It begins to change the food supply system, making it possible for small farmers to support themselves growing better quality produce, enabling more food to be grown locally, and creating a more diverse agricultural polyculture.
If you are a new cook who wants to stock your spice basics or an adventurous experimental one looking for spice inspiration, I think you’ll find something to love about Spicely Organics. I wrote this without any “swag” or payment of any kind to motivate my opinion; I am just really happy that they are now more widely available and wanted to spread the word about something I like and use.
Once you track down that shawarma blend, try this pumpkin hummus recipe:
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Pumpkin Hummus

makes about 2 cups

1 ½ cups pureed roasted pumpkin

3 tablespoons tahini

3 cloves roasted garlic

1 clove raw garlic, crushed or grated on a microplane

½ teaspoon ground cumin

1 teaspoon Spicely organic shawarma seasoning (or ¼ teaspoon each of ground bay leaves, cinnamon, coriander, and thyme)

2 teaspoon to 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice

1 tablespoon olive oil plus more to serve.

Sumac (optional)

In the bowl of a food processor, combine the pumpkin, tahini, garlic, and spices. Process until smooth. Mix about half of the lemon juice and olive oil in , check for taste and consistency (you don’t want the hummus to be too liquid) and then add the rest to taste.