Ancient Grains for Modern Meals: The Easy Way to Get More Whole Grains on Your Plate

Exec. Prod. of Franchises & Series. He previously reported for HuffPost, L.A. Daily Journal, and Biloxi Sun-Herald.
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(Photo: Ten Speed Press).

We're all trying to incorporate more whole grains into our diets. But even kitchen pros might not be sure what to do with ingredients that are unfamiliar to most of us. That's where Maria Speck comes in. Her new book, Ancient Grains For Modern Meals: Mediterranean Whole Grain Recipes for Barley, Farro, Kamut, Polenta, Wheat Berries and More (Ten Speed Press, 2011), takes the guess work out of cooking whole grains.

Maria delves into the rich history of these ingredients, which have been staples of various diets for centuries. With more than 100 recipes, Maria takes readers on a culinary journey from the South of France to Lebanon, with stops in Italy, Greece and Turkey.

She spoke to TakePart about just how simple it is to incorporate whole grains into breakfast, lunch and dinner—and even shared a favorite recipe, which you'll find at the bottom. 

TakePart: For the uninitiated, what are we talking about when we say "ancient grains?" What are they, and what makes them ancient?

Maria Speck: Grains have been a staple of our diet for thousands of years, and that's why I call them ancient. The book has recipes for barley, farro, kamut, polenta, wheat berries, and much more. And these are grains traditionally eaten across cultures, before we started to refine and process them into white rice, into pasta, and into all-purpose flour, and we removed all the nutrients and their distinct flavors and character. With this book, I want to bring their amazing flavors, rich textures, and stunning colors back to our tables.

TP: Why is it healthier to eat whole grains?

MS: Whole grains are nutritional powerhouses, and as the name says, whole grains means that they are just that: they're "whole." So it's the whole kernel, with the outer bran and the germ, and all the nutritional benefits left inside. Which means they contain vitamins, minerals, fiber and even protein. And whole grains keep you full longer, which is great if you want to lose a few pounds, and you can eat them all day long, for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and even for dessert. 

TP: If they're so great, why don't we eat them more often? Are they difficult to cook with?

MS: Well I think there's a lot of confusion about whole grains—and that's why I wrote a book about them. People want to know what they are, how to cook them, and what to eat them with. And even more important, they're looking for delicious recipes. My recipes are inspired by the rich flavors and the simplicity of the Mediterranean cuisine, because I was raised by a Greek mom. And I learned to cook from her.

As for your second question, are they hard to cook with? No. They're as easy to cook as pasta. Whole grains are amazingly versatile: they're suited for breakfast, salads, soups, main dishes, and as I said earlier, desserts, which is actually surprising to a lot of people. And whether you're vegan, vegetarian, a meat lover or a seafood lover, whole grains are really for everyone, and you can bring many of them onto your table in minutes. 

TP: Are their grains that you would recommend for someone who is pressed for time? And are there others that take a little bit more care?

MS: Because we're all so hard-pressed for time I've decided to separate whole grains into quick-cooking and slow-cooking whole grains.

Quick-cooking whole grains are great for weeknights when dinner has to be on the table fast. They cook up in 15 to 20 minutes. Those include quinoa, mildly-textured bulgar, polenta, comforting golden millet—which I love—buckwheat, and whole wheat couscous, which just steams in a few minutes.

And then slow-cooking whole grains, which are supremely chewy and delicious, they just need a bit of thinking ahead. They're not difficult to make; it's nothing complicated. It's the same as cooking beans from scratch. So you typically soak them overnight, and then you simmer them, depending on the grain, for about an hour. Those slow-cooking whole grains are whole wheat, with its beautifully nutty flavor, slightly tangy rye berries, whole grain barley—which is called hulled barley is a very aromatic grain. Spelt, which is milder. And then kamut, which is a buttery tasting whole grain. And then also whole oat berries, which I think are very under-rated and have a beautiful natural sweetness which I want people to enjoy more often.

TP: Is there a favorite recipe in the book you'd like to share.

MS: One thing that I find people are often very surprised by is that you can prepare desserts with whole grains. Making desserts with whole grains is a testament to their versatility. One of my favorite desserts is the Wheat Berry Fools with Grand Marnier Figs. It's basically as easy as it is delicious.

The Fools are made by combining thick Greek yogurt with a bit of softly whipped heavy cream, and you add a handful of cooked wheat berries for a nice chew. And then finely chopped dried figs, ideally from Greece or Turkey, which are very tasty. And then you macerate those in good quality orange liqueur like Grand Marnier, and then you add a little bit of orange zest. And then voila! You have an irresistible, lusty  dessert. 

TP: We polled our Food, Inc. Facebook followers to find out what they want to ask you. Janet, in San Diego, would like to know which of these grains are gluten-free?

MS: This is not a gluten-free cookbook. But there a lot of grains you can eat if you are on a gluten-free diet. Some of them are quinoa, millet, polenta, buckwheat, amaranth, and rice. 

TP: Charlotte is wondering if you can use a rice cooker with grains. Or do they have to be made on the stovetop?

I know that a lot of people use them and have them at home. I don't have experience with this. I know that grains cook beautifully in a pressure cooker, because they cook up very fast. 

TP: Colleen in New York would like to know if you have advice for parents looking to introduce more whole grains to their kids.

One thing that I am passionate about is, first of all, never tell your family to eat whole grains because they're healthy. That's something I feel very strongly about because, of course, we all know that. But I want people to really experience whole grains for what they are, for the texture they bring to the table and their flavors. I would much rather put something out and say "try this," rather than "try this because it's healthy," because then it's almost like it has a reprimand built in.

One of the recipes that I think work really well with kids is creamy breakfast farro with honey-roasted grapes—farro being the ancient grain coming to us largely from Italy. The farro is flavored with anise seed and cinnamon and then tossed with oven-roasted grapes, and a bit of half-and-half or cream, and then drizzled with honey. It's an irresistible breakfast dish. And I think everyone in the family would be excited to eat that.

Another dish would be the Lamb Burgers with Bulgar and Mint. Basically a portion of the lamb is replaced with bulgar, which is a grain that is widely used across the eastern Mediterranean. I like to call it "ancient fast food." It's boiled wheat that's been dried and cracked and then sorted by size. It's great because it cooks up in 10 minutes. You can either simmer it in 10 minutes or it can be rehydrated so you don't have to cook it at all. And that's how I use it in the lamb burgers—with lots of spices and fresh herbs. 

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Recipe courtesy Maria Speck


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