Exploring The Wonderful World of Grains
Most of us have heard of quinoa. Gluten free and available in a rainbow of colors, you’ve probably tried quinoa in either a recipe you created in your home kitchen or in a dish at a favorite restaurant. In my mind, quinoa has opened the grain door to many a cook.
Often referred to as a super food, quinoa is actually an edible seed originating in the Andean region of Chile and Peru. A true protein, quinoa contains all nine essential amino acids. Light and fluffy when cooked with a slight nutty flavor, it is one of the oldest grains around.
Nothing against quinoa. It should serve as a staple in everyone’s cupboard. But it’s time to step out of your grain comfort zone. We are in the midst of a grain revival where everything old is new again. Grains with ancient roots like kamut, farro and amaranth are increasingly accessible. And winter provides the perfect time to partake in some grain experimentation.
With all the grain choices available, you may ask “where do I begin?” To get you started, here’s a brief grain primer.
A grain is a small edible fruit that is hard on the outside and has three edible parts: the bran, the germ and the endosperm all protected by an inedible husk that protects the kernel. Most grains stem from the grass family. There is also a “group” which are often referred to as grains but which technically are not. Most of these come from seeds or from a non-grass family. Common examples include: buckwheat, amaranth, quinoa and chia seeds.
Ancient grains have been around for centuries. Most originated in the Fertile Crescent of western Asia. Some, like quinoa and amaranth, originated over 5,000 years ago in Central America.
There are so many grains to work with it’s difficult to narrow down the list. A good place to start is trying the ones that are most accessible to a home cook as well as those you may have tasted in a local restaurant dish.
Farro is an ancient strain of hard wheat originating in western Asia. A favorite in Italian cooking, farro, with its chewy and nutty flavor, is inching its way to star billing in the grain world. Rich in vitamins A, B, C and E it is also high in fiber and protein. Farro makes a terrific substitution for rice and is often found in Italian risotto recipes that trade the traditional Arborio rice for this ancient grain.
Another grain to consider is wheat berry. Composed of the entire wheat kernel (except the hull), wheat berries add extra protein and chewiness to a dish. Since it is composed of the whole kernel, wheat berries take longer to cook and benefit from being soaked in water prior to final cooking.
Then there is kamut, a grain that has a mysterious history all in itself. Dating back to ancient Egypt, these large, bronze-colored kernels have been traced to the Khorasan wheat variety. Small samples of the grain have even been found in the pyramids.
The story of how kamut came to America begins with a single airman. Stationed in Egypt, it is said that the serviceman took a mere 36 kernels of the grain back with him to his Montana home. Myth or not, kamut has been growing in Montana for over 60 years though only recently has started to gain mainstream popularity. High in protein and minerals, kamut has a buttery nut flavor and is a terrific addition to many recipes.
DON’T FORGET RICE
Rice has been a staple in the world’s diet for centuries. Go beyond white and brown rice and try an unusual variety like red Himalayan, purple Thai or Chinese black rice. These unfamiliar varieties are more nutritious that the more common white rice and can add new flavors and textures to your recipes.
Then there’s wild rice. This highly nutritious grain is not actually rice, but an annual watergrass seed. Naturally abundant in the cold rivers and lakes of Minnesota and Canada, wild rice was a staple in the diet of the Chippewa and Sioux Indians native to the region.
Though more expensive than some grains, wild rice gives you a big bang for your buck. It expands four times in size when cooked. That means a mere ¼-cup of raw wild rice will turn into 1 cup of the cooked product.
FEEL FREE TO SUBSTITUTE
Working with grains is akin to a culinary puzzle. Do you need to adhere to a glutenfree diet? Substitute quinoa or buckwheat for farro or kamut. Have some wheat berries in the cupboard but no bulgur? Do a simple grain swap-out.
To get you started on your grain culinary journey, I’ve included a brief list of some of the more common grains available along with some local sources for grain shopping.
TIPS FOR BUYING AND COOKING GRAINS
Each grain has its own cooking time so read up on what you will be working with. Seeds like quinoa and amaranth are quick cooking and are ready in less than 15 minutes. Others like kamut and buckwheat are harder grains and require a longer cook time, even benefiting from an overnight soak in cold water.
Purchase grains from a source that you are familiar with. Certain grains, especially those with germ intact, can turn rancid quickly. Purchase only the amount of grains you think you will use within 2-to-3 weeks. Store grains and grain flours in a cool dark place. In warm, humid weather, grains can be stored in the refrigerator or even the freezer.
Health food-type stores are your best source for quality grains.
HERE’S THE SHORT LIST OF MY FAVORITE GRAINS
Amaranth – gluten free
First cultivated in Central America about 5,000 years ago, amaranth was a staple in the Aztec diet. These tiny golden seeds, as small as poppy seeds, are well suited for soups, stews and puddings. The grain has a grassy scent and nutty, sweet taste when cooked.
First cultivated in the Fertile Crescent about 10,000 years ago, barley has one of the highest fiber contents of all grains as well as a low glycemic index.
Buckwheat – gluten free
Part of the rhubarb and sorrel family, buckwheat most likely originated in China. Raw buckwheat kernels are also called grouts. Toasted buckwheat is called kasha.
Bulgur is most often made from durum wheat, but other kinds of wheat can be used. Bulgur is first made by boiling the wheat, then drying, cracking and sorting it by size. It has been called the first ancient fast food because bulgur transformed slow cooking whole wheat into a quick everyday staple.
This ancient wheat has been found in the tombs of Egyptian kings and is said to have fed the Roman Legions. Italians have dined on farro for centuries. Most farro sold is “semipearled” which means it doesn’t need to be soaked overnight. Cooked farro should be slightly chewy and has a nutty flavor.
Dating back to ancient Egypt, these large, bronze-colored grain kernels have a rich, buttery flavor. The grain is high in protein and certain minerals such as selenium.
Millet – gluten free
Millet is gluten-free and high in B vitamins, iron and zinc. Although it is often used in the west as bird food, this quick cooking grain is a staple ingredient in the cuisine of Africa, India and China.
Oats – gluten free
Although gluten free, oats can become contaminated during the production process.
Check product labeling if you are looking for gluten-free oats. Choose from whole oat berries (or grouts), steel-cut (grouts cut into pieces) or rolled oats (steamed and flattened whole oats.)
Quinoa – gluten free
Revered by the Incas, quinoa is an excellent source of protein and essential amino acids. It comes in various colors including yellow, orange, red, purple and black. There are more than 100 varietals of quinoa grown in the Andes.
Rice – gluten free
Look for unusual varieties like red Himalayan, Thai purple or Chinese black rice.
Wild Rice – gluten free
The seed of an aquatic grass native to North America, wild rice has double the fiber of white rice.
Wheat berry is the entire wheat kernel (except the hull) composed of the bran, germ and endosperm. The grain is very chewy and requires a longer cook time.