Healthy grains don't have to taste like "health food"
Grains that aren’t wheat suffer from an image problem. Detractors call them “bird food” or, perhaps worse, “hippie food.” The reason is obvious: Buckwheat, millet, quinoa and other whole cereals are inexpensive and easy to cook in their most basic forms — which are also tasteless. But, prepared with a careful hand, plain grains don’t have to be boring.
I’ve been obsessed with cooking those out-of-the-mainstream grains for several years. Though I usually describe my culinary style as “meatnormous and fruitsational,” few projects have seized my mind like making some of humanity’s oldest foods taste as good to the modern palate as they presumably did to people thousands of years ago.
Little by little, I’m seeing my personal interest reflected in the broader culture. Suddenly, quinoa is cool and regularly featured on restaurant menus. (Pistou in Burlington is even putting it on sandwiches.) As gluten-free diets gain in popularity, flaxseed waffles, amaranth breakfast cereal and buckwheat noodles have appeared on grocery shelves.
According to Cynthia Belliveau, a University of Vermont nutritionist and dean of Continuing Education, high-protein grains fell out of favor as people became able to afford to eat even higher-protein meat with more regularity. “We have so much food — we have an abundance of food,” she says.
Meat may be more available these days, but fresh vegetables are at a premium in the winter, especially in Vermont. In these agriculturally slow months, it just makes sense to dress up plates with uncommon cereals, which readily soak up flavor. Given their rock-bottom prices, especially when purchased from bulk bins, they’re a great value year-round. With the exception of wheat products, they’re gluten free, too. A primer on how and why to eat these great grains follows.
OK, so it’s not really a grain. A pseudo-cereal, these seeds resemble tiny UFOs but are actually members of the Chenopodioideae subfamily, counting spinach as a relative.
Grown in the Andes, quinoa was a favorite of the Incas, who referred to it as “mother of all grains” and farmed it using golden implements.
According to Belliveau, quinoa probably owed its sacred status to the disease-preventing powers of its dense nutritional makeup, including a highly balanced combination of amino acids. She’s recently seen it being farmed heavily again in Mexico, along with amaranth, to prevent rickets in Mexican children.
Japanese Ginger Quinoa
With its high protein and fiber counts, quinoa is already considered a superfood. How to make it even more heroic? Add green tea for its antioxidant effects, which can foster heart and brain health, mitigate arthritis, and even aid in weight loss. Ginger, too, can soothe joint aches and lower cholesterol. The sake might sound like it’s just for fun, but, in fact, studies have shown it may prevent osteoporosis and even help kill cancer cells.
- 1 tablespoon grated ginger
- 1 cup quinoa
- ½ cup sake
- 1 cup chicken or vegetable stock
- 2 bags green tea
- 1 teaspoon salt
Sauté ginger on medium-low heat in heavy saucepan. Once ginger begins to soften, after about three minutes, add quinoa. Lightly toast, then pour in sake. When you can smell sake reducing, add stock, submerge tea bags and throw in salt. Cook covered until quinoa has absorbed all liquid, about 15 minutes. Serve with duck confit or stir-fried veggies. Makes a hearty side dish for four people.
Never heard of freekeh? This lesser-known version of wheat may be new to the scene in Vermont, but its roots are ancient.
Freekeh can be traced back to nomadic peoples of North Africa and the Middle East who couldn’t wait to grow wheat to adulthood. Instead, they dried green wheat to use it before moving on to a new home.
Lower in protein than adult wheat, freekeh is nonetheless an effective probiotic, and its healthy doses of lutein and zeaxathin contribute to ocular health.
Turkish American Freekeh
This recipe is loosely based on one from 13th-century Iraq. The bold flavors have aged well, but I’ve substituted ingredients to make the dish more cost effective in 21st-century Vermont. Beef short ribs replace a leg of lamb. I also use walnuts in place of pine nuts, both for ease of purchase and health benefits that include cancer prevention. Since most of us don’t have baharat spice mix at hand, I broke it down into its components.
For the beef:
- 1/2 teaspoon allspice
- 1/2 teaspoon coriander
- 1/2 teaspoon cumin
- 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
- A pinch each of salt and pepper
- 1 cup beef stock
- 4 beef short ribs
Combine the first six ingredients and rub the mixture on the short ribs. Let the meat rest for half an hour. Heat oven to 300 degrees. On the stovetop, heat a deep skillet or Dutch oven to high and sear beef until brown on all sides. Remove ribs and deglaze pan with beef stock. Reduce slightly, then replace beef and cover. Braise in oven for about four hours, or until fork tender.
For the freekeh:
- 3 ½ cups beef stock
- 2 cups freekeh
- 1/4 teaspoon dried mint
- 1/2 teaspoon cumin
- 1/8 teaspoon nutmeg
- 1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
- 1/2 cup walnuts
- A glug of olive oil
- 1 cup fresh or frozen peas
In a heavy saucepan, bring stock to a boil. Add freekeh and herbs and spices, then set temperature to low. Cook covered until freekeh has absorbed all liquid, about 20 minutes. In a separate pan, toast walnuts in olive oil. Remove walnuts from the pan and add peas; cook until tender. Add the walnuts and peas to finished freekeh, top with beef, and serve. Serves four.
Fans of Ethiopian food may recognize teff as the source of the flour that goes into sour injera flatbread. But injera gets its tartness from fermentation of the batter. Teff itself is mild and nutty tasting.
Ancient Greeks considered the plant erotic; hence its official name, Eragrostis tef, which means “grass of love.” Belliveau notes that, though high in fiber, iron and calcium, it’s surprisingly low in protein. Eat it with a nice piece of meat.
Creamy Teff Polenta
Despite teff’s spartan African roots, I was surprised to find that it cooks into a luxuriously creamy dish. The tiny grains pop like caviar as you bite into them. On the whole, I preferred it to my usual corn polenta. However, if you’re accustomed to instant polenta, take a seat. The larger grains of teff take three times longer to absorb the liquid.
- 2 cups water
- 2 cups milk
- 1 cup heavy cream
- 1 cup teff
- 1 tablespoon salt
Bring water, milk and cream to a boil. Slowly stir in teff with a whisk. Reduce heat to medium. Continue to whisk teff until it is somewhat resistant to stirring, about 25 minutes, add salt and let thicken for about five minutes more, stirring occasionally. Remove from heat. Let rest about 10 minutes before serving; it will thicken a bit more. Serves four.
Wheat doesn’t get any more whole than this. The wheat berry comprises everything but the hull of grain.
What’s the difference between wheat berries and farro? Location. The latter is made from breeds of wheat grown in warmer climates, while wheat berries thrive in colder areas.
“It’s what America was founded on,” says Belliveau of the chewy grain.
Superfruit Wheat Berry Salad
For years, I loved making a farro salad with balsamic dressing, until Nina Lesser-Goldsmith of Healthy Living Market taught me a version using pomegranate molasses. With even more protein and fiber, cold-weather wheat berries are a healthier alternative to farro, just as pomegranate molasses has a superfruit advantage over grape-based balsamic. (It’s used in ayurvedic medicine to treat the heart.) To complete the highly nutritious picture, I added dried cranberries and fresh blueberries for a vitamin-rich combination.
- 1 cup wheat berries
- 2 cups water
- 3 tablespoons olive oil
- 2 tablespoons pomegranate molasses
- 1/2 cup walnuts
- 1 ½ cup fresh baby spinach
- 1/2 cup dried cranberries
- 3/4 cup fresh blueberries
In a large saucepan, toast wheat berries for a nutty flavor. Add water. Boil over high heat, then lower temperature to medium and cover. Unlike other grains, the wheat berry does not absorb liquid. Cook until each kernel is chewy but yielding. When they’re ready, pour the wheat berries into a colander and shock them with cold water.
In a large bowl, slowly whisk the olive oil into the pomegranate molasses. Add wheat berries, walnuts, spinach, blueberries and cranberries. Toss until all are coated with pomegranate dressing. Enjoy warm or chilled. Serves four as a meal, six to eight as a side.
Not only is buckwheat — also called kasha — not related to wheat, it’s not even a grain. Like quinoa, it’s a pseudo-cereal. This grass is closer kin to rhubarb.
Buckwheat has thrived in the colder climates of Europe, Japan and China for at least 6000 years and is grown in Vermont at Randolph’s Bulrush Farm.
Japanese scientists have found buckwheat can suppress blood cholesterol. It also strengthens capillary walls. Early Americans thrived on it, along with wheat.
Bacon-Cheddar Kasha Risotto
Grain recipes don’t all have to be wholesome. Full of bacon fat and cheddar, this one certainly isn’t. Think of it as having a leg up on macaroni and cheese. After all, buckwheat concentrate has been found to reduce glucose in diabetic rats.
Can you eat fatty food while fighting diabetes? Hopefully, the indulgence and the benefits will balance out.
- 4 slices bacon
- 1 cup buckwheat
- 2 cups beef stock
- 1/2 cup extra-sharp cheddar cheese, grated
In a deep frying pan, fry bacon until crisp. Set it aside and toast the buckwheat in the bacon fat. When excess fat is absorbed, add the beef stock, reduce heat to medium-low and cover. Cook until the buckwheat has soaked up all the stock but still appears moist (about 20 minutes). Remove from heat, then stir in cheese until melted and fully incorporated. Crush bacon and stir that in, too. Serves two as a main course, four as a side.