Farro and Quinoa Are Just the Beginning of 'Ancient Grains'
“I’d love to work more good-for-you whole grains into my family’s diet, but they’re a tough sell at mealtime. Plus, they are time-consuming to deal with. Any tips or tricks?”
The phrase “good for you” has a lot to answer for, especially when it comes to whole grains, a food group that has had trouble shaking its reputation (at least in the United States) for being not just dull but difficult. Fortunately, though, it’s never been easier than it is today to connect with grains both familiar and exotic and prepare them in accessible, delicious ways.
One person on a mission to win hearts and minds is Maria Speck, author of 2011’s award-winning Ancient Grains for Modern Meals and the recently published Simply Ancient Grains: Fresh and Flavorful Whole Grain Recipes for Living Well. The last two words of the latter book’s subtitle aren’t a euphemism for the “food as medicine” mantra so common today but instead a clue to Speck’s philosophical approach. Equal parts Greek and German, she grew up in those two cultures, which view whole grains not as a building block of a virtuous food pyramid but as a building block of a really good meal.
Speck’s background and mind-set free her up to combine vibrant Mediterranean ingredients, including lavish amounts of greens and fresh herbs, with northern Europe’s time-honored grains tradition. (Botanically speaking, amaranth, buckwheat, and quinoa are seeds, but they’re included with true grains because they have a similar nutritional profile and are prepared and eaten like grains.) Treat your family to Lemon Pancakes With Millet and Amaranth, served with ricotta and a drizzle of honey, for instance, Mediterranean Meat Loaf (made with cooked bulgur), or Spring Salad With Asparagus Coins, Kamut, and Lemon Vinaigrette, and my guess is that you’re not going to have much pushback. The whole grains on the table will likely go unnoticed, especially if you resist the urge to tell everyone how you fooled them. That will only raise their hackles, and they’ll be highly suspicious of whatever you put on their plates in the future. Which is not what you want at all.
The newfound fascination with humankind’s oldest staple, Speck writes in her introduction to Simply Ancient Grains, is twofold. “There has been a huge increase in the number of people with celiac disease or gluten sensitivities who are looking for alternatives to gluten-containing grains such as wheat, rye, and barley,” she explains. (In a handy grain glossary as well as the recipes, it’s easy to tell at a glance what is gluten-free and what is not.) At the same time, “consumers are seeking out good carbohydrates to reduce the amounts of ‘empty starches,’ such as those from refined grains and pasta, in their diets.”
Speck also understands that it’s one thing to want to eat ancient grains but another thing entirely to make them part of your everyday culinary routine, given how pressed for time most of us are. So she shares a number of strategies for streamlining the process.
The easiest approach is to cook up a large amount of a grain on a weekend or while cooking another meal. A cooked whole grain can be refrigerated for up to seven days (and reheats beautifully) or frozen in portion-size freezer bags for three months or so. Speck includes helpful tables that separate quick-cooking grains (such as fine bulgur, quinoa, semi-pearled einkorn and emmer, and cracked freekeh) from slow-cooking ones (such as barley, Kamut, and spelt). Many grains are interchangeable in recipes, and a “Pick Your Grains” table makes weekly menu planning a snap. Cook up a big batch (two cups raw grain generally gives you five to six cups cooked) of whole-grain emmer (a.k.a. farro medio), for example, and you’ll have it at the ready to combine with fruit and yogurt for breakfast, use as a base for a main-course salad or a quick side, or add to a soup or stew.
Speck’s Two-Step Method for cooking grains such as steel-cut oats, amaranth, and black rice, which speeds up the process by kick-starting things the night before, takes just minutes yet provides a huge payoff. “Of course, I don’t claim ownership of this idea,” she writes with refreshing candor. “Ingenious grain cooks have always done this or similar things, but I have tested the method with certain grains—it doesn’t work consistently for all of them—to help you succeed.” In general, Speck’s evening prep consists of nothing more complicated than pouring boiling water over a grain (one and a half cups water to one cup grain), stirring once, then covering the pot and letting it sit at room temperature overnight or in the fridge up to two days. That done, you can finish the cooking in practically no time. In other words, if you can think far enough ahead to marinate ribs or a flank steak, you can get a handle on whole grains.
Another trick, for slow-cooking grains such as spelt and Kamut, is to soak them overnight, which encourages them to cook faster and more evenly, and also tends to make them easier to digest. (Quick-cooking grains do not need to be soaked first.) Forget to soak? All is not lost. You can quick-soak a whole grain, as you would dried beans. Simply cover it with at least two inches of water, bring to a boil, and cook two minutes. Remove from the heat, cover, and let sit for an hour, then drain and cook as directed. Easy as pie…or perhaps Spelt Dutch Baby With Blackberries.
One last thing: Speck is tireless when it comes to connecting grain lovers with local farmers and millers across the country, and she has started listing them on her website. So if you have a favorite source that you can’t find there, be sure to let her know.