Season To Taste: Going With the Grain
White rice is so over.
These days, the newest starchy superstars are whole grains, which promise as many health and digestive benefits as they do recipe possibilities. A whole grain is defined as one that hasn’t been denuded of its outer husk, bran and endosperm (the nutritive tissue in plant seeds): That’s where most of the good stuff resides. So that brown rice you’ve been ordering with your Chinese food? Good for you. That’s a whole grain—but though you may already be earning extra culinary credit for venturing beyond white pasta, there’s a pantry’s worth of potential ready for exploration.
Grains have long played a role in man’s culinary history, tracing their roots as far back as prehistoric times. Gil Marks, author of Encyclopedia of Jewish Food (Wiley), cites several biblical references to wild barley and millet, which were used for a variety of Temple offerings and rituals. Marks also mentions the five species—wheat, rye, oats, barley and emmer wheat (farro)—outlined by the Talmud as forbidden for consumption during the eight days of Passover.
Thankfully, we have unfettered access to them the rest of the year, and as we become more aware of their virtues, cookbook authors are increasingly turning their attention to highlighting these grains both as finely ground flour and served up whole in a host of preparations.
In the new cookbook, The Whole Foods Kosher Kitchen (Levana Cooks), former restaurateur-turned-kosher-food blogger Levana Kirschenbaum includes several recipes that incorporate millet, barley and quinoa as well as whole wheat and other whole grain flours, which contain far more nutrition than all-purpose white flour. “I’ve been touting their greatness for years,” says Kirschenbaum, who stirs them into soups, incorporates them into salads and makes fritters that can serve as the centerpiece of an elegant meal. She’s also not beneath a bit of guerilla tactics. “I’ve been known to put spelt or millet into a chocolate chip cookie for flavor, variety and health,” says Kirshenbaum. She says that people always inquire as to the special ingredient but rarely balk when they find out it’s actually good for them.
While most of us know that whole grains pack a fiber wallop, that’s just the beginning, says Food Network personality Ellie Krieger, an expert in healthy cooking. In addition to regulating digestion and aiding in the prevention of sugar highs and lows, they have another plus you may be less aware of: Many contain as much antioxidant power as better-known sources, such as corn, whole oats and brown rice.
Both Kirschenbaum and Krieger reject the notion that cooking with whole grains is too time-consuming for busy cooks. From main courses to soups and sides, many can be executed, start-to-finish, in under an hour. But for extra-busy kitchen citizens, Krieger encourages experimenting with quicker-cooking varieties such as whole wheat couscous (dried semolina), bulgur (quick-cooking dried, cracked wheat) and quinoa (not actually a grain at all, but behaves like one in cooking). Those grains yield softer results, but for people who favor their grains with more texture, invest the time in boiling up three whole grains with some serious al dente bite: wheatberries (whole wheat kernels), farro (an ancient hearty grain, long popular in Italy for its nutty flavor) or barley (great as a supporting player in soups, but underappreciated for its ability to anchor a main-course salad or entrée).
Prepare them in advance, making sure not to overcook, then toss with the dressing of your choice. Include a healthy splash of aggressive acid in the form of lemon or vinegar, some Dijon mustard, and use the best extra-virgin olive oil you’ve got on hand. If you’re making salads ahead of time, reserve some of the dressing to add a last-minute flavor punch, since grains tend to soak up flavors like sponges.
This recipe, from Kirschenbaum’s latest cookbook, stars millet, previously known more as birdfeed than dinner fodder. But today it is beginning to charm home cooks with its nuttiness, subtle crunch and chameleon versatility.
(Serves 6 to 8)
1 cup millet
1/3 cup canola oil
1 large onion
1 large carrot
2 celery ribs
1/2 cup flour
1/2 cup chopped nuts or seeds,
such as poppy, sesame, hemp
1 tsp dried thyme
salt and pepper to taste
1. Bring 3 cups water to a boil in a small saucepan
2. Add millet, reduce heat and simmer, covered, until tender and water is absorbed, 20-22 minutes
3. While millet is cooking, heat oil in a large skillet
4. Transfer millet to a mixing bowl
5. Grate carrot, onion and celery and add to millet with remaining ingredients
6. Using wet hands, form into 2-inch patties and pan-fry until golden, 2 minutes per side
7. Drain on paper towels and serve in a sandwich with the vegetables of your choice
To make a loaf instead of patties,
stir the 1/3 cup oil into the mixture instead of heating in skillet.
Transfer to a greased, 6-cup loaf pan and bake in a 350° oven until golden, 1 hour.