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Embracing Great Grains
Embracing Great Grains
Whole grains, especially the more obscure ones like spelt and faro and bulgur, can be source of puzzlement. They look different, taste extraordinarily chewy and seem to take ages to cook. The injunction to eat more of them often comes across as cruel punishment. “But to me it is a joy,” says Maria Speck, author of Ancient Grains for Modern Meals (Ten Speed Press, 2011). “It does whole grains a disservice to see them only in terms of their health benefits. Of course, they have valuable nutrients like vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and fiber. But I love whole grains for their amazing textures, their subtle but distinct flavors and the stunning colors they bring to our plate.”
The real deal
Understanding whole grains starts with their definition. Whole grains are comprised of the bran, the germ and the endosperm, with most of the nutrients residing in the bran and germ. With refined grains, such as white bread and rice, the milling process removes the bran and most of the germ, leaving behind the denuded endosperm, and takes with it as much as 75 percent of the nutrients. Hence University of California, Berkeley professor and food writer Michael Pollan’s famously succinct call to action: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” Food, in Pollan’s sense, means whole foods, as processed food is a pale imitation of food left in its more intact state.
Whether you want to expand your cooking repertoire or you’re in it for the health perks—studies have shown that eating more whole grains can significantly reduce the risk of heart disease, cancer and diabetes—you can have your (whole-grain) cake and eat it too. Speck and other experts on grains agree that not only are unprocessed grains healthier, but they are also tastier and more filling. Another bonus perk—many don’t contain gluten. As for the quibble about cooking time, Speck says there are short cuts. Soaking the grain overnight or in hot water reduces cooking time, and freezing the grains once cooked makes for added convenience. Many grains actually cook up quite speedily. For easy reference, Speck divides grain into fast and slow cooking categories. Examples of quick cooking grains are quinoa, millet, bulgur, couscous and oats.
Go with the grain
“The biggest mistake people make with whole grains,” says Speck, “is not using specific recipes designed to showcase their strengths.” Don’t merely replace the pasta in your favorite dinner recipe with whole-grain pasta. Instead, look for recipes with ingredients that will enhance the distinct flavors of each grain. Quick-cooking grains can be a great place to begin. Keep experimenting with them until you find a recipe or a grain that you enjoy. Here are three versatile whole grains:
Millet. Not just for birds, millet’s a good starter grain, with a buttery flavor that tastes similar to white rice and cooks in less than half an hour. High in magnesium and easy to digest, a couple of tablespoons of millet can also be added to baked goods for a satisfying crunch.
Quinoa. A complete protein containing all eight essential amino acids, quinoa boasts a legendary reputation—the Incas cultivated it for its endurance- and strength-boosting properties. Light, fluffy and slightly nutty, quinoa is technically made up of tiny seeds, not grain. A boon for the busy, this deceptively hearty grain cooks up in roughly 15 minutes.
Bulgur. If wheat is your grain of choice, explore permutations that don’t stray too far from the source. Bulgur, or quick-cooking wheat that has been parboiled and cracked, is surprisingly nutrient dense. And with more keep-you-full fiber than quinoa, oats and millet, bulgur can be especially helpful for weight loss. Known primarily as the base ingredient for tabouleh, bulgur is versatile enough to replace pasta, rice and even oatmeal, and cooks in a mere 15 minutes.
Kamut Salad with Carrots and Pomegranate
Serves 4 to 6
1 cup water
1/2 cup Kamut berries, soaked overnight and drained
21/2 cups shredded carrots (about 3 medium)
1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons golden raisins
3 tablespoons freshly squeezed orange juice
1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 teaspoon honey
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon fine sea salt
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1/4 cup toasted, chopped walnuts
1/4 cup pomegranate seeds, for garnish
1. Bring the water and the Kamut berries to a boil in a small, heavy-bottomed saucepan. Decrease the heat to maintain a simmer, cover, and cook until the Kamut berries are tender but still slightly chewy, 50 to 60 minutes. Remove from the heat and, if you have time, let the mixture sit, covered, for 10 to 15 minutes. Drain any remaining liquid and transfer to a large serving bowl to cool.
2. Add the carrots and golden raisins to the serving bowl.
3. In a small bowl, whisk together the orange and lemon juices, honey, cinnamon, and salt until smooth. Gradually whisk in the olive oil in a thin stream.
4. Pour the dressing over the salad, and toss to combine. Taste and adjust for salt. Let sit at room temperature for 15 minutes to allow the flavors to come together. Toss again before serving; sprinkle with the walnuts and garnish with the pomegranate seeds.
To get a head start: Make the Kamut berries ahead. The salad (without the walnuts and pomegranate seeds) can also be prepared four to six hours ahead. Chill, covered. Bring to room temperature before serving.
To vary it: You can use about 1 1/2 cups cooked farro, spelt, or hard or soft wheat berries if Kamut is hard to find.
Reprinted with permission from Ancient Grains for Modern Meals by Maria Speck, copyright © 2011. Published by Ten Speed Press, a division of Random House, Inc.
Kamut salad photo featured at the top taken by Sara Remington © 2011
Elizabeth is an award-winning journalist who has written about everything from agave syrup to placebos to zero waste. She writes for the magazines Natural Health, Backpacker and FitPregnancy, among others, as well as a handful of websites, including Gaiam and Natural Medicine Journal. She also has coauthored a 52-card oracle deck with guidebook called The Mother’s Wisdom Deck (Sterling Publishers).
February 3rd, 2012