Ensconced in a weekend house in the Pennsylvania countryside, I had invited friends who lived in a neighboring town for a casual meal. It was the kind of lazy day when the first true sun of spring warms the air and normal cooking hours are suspended in favor of a long, relaxed afternoon in which lunch might roll right into dinner. Happily, I had planned a gastronomic adventure to please palate, body, and soul.
In large, shallow bowls I had heaped five different cooked whole grains: barley, farro, quinoa, dried corn, and rye. The quinoa (pronounced "keen-wa") looked light and fluffy and delicate. The farro's brown and tan coloring hinted at its hearty and chewy texture. Whole solar-dried corn kernels, stewed in water, had retained their firm texture and the warm yellow tone of freshly shucked cobs.
When my guests were assembled, everyone placed a spoonful of each grain on a plate. We tasted them one by one, attentive to their distinctive textures and flavors. After the initial tasting I brought out a platter of mixers: sautéed greens, crumbled feta and cubed fontina, cured green and black olives, sliced jalapeno peppers, toasted walnuts and pine nuts, grape tomatoes, stir-fried baby carrots and green beans, a mélange of chopped dried fruits (apricots, currants, and cranberries), lemon wedges, red wine vinegar, olive oil, a jar of Pike County honey from a local beekeeper, and some plain yogurt.
I thought the hot peppers, grape tomatoes, and creamy, robust fontina enhanced the corn's dense, slightly sweet flavor. My sister, Nancy, liked the Mediterranean combo of barley blended with green beans, olives, and feta. My husband, Randy, created a quinoa dish that featured greens, carrots, and walnuts, adding the vinegar and olive oil as a simple dressing. Our friends mixed farro and rye together, then added dried fruits, carrots, greens, pine nuts, and lemon juice for a wildly nutritious and multitextured pilaf with a savory Middle Eastern edge.
I could have included even more grains in my tasting party. According to the Whole Grains Council, there are 14 unique varieties, including heirloom selections brought back from near extinction, such as the buttery-tasting, high-protein kamut, farro (an ancient form of wheat grown primarily in Umbria and Tuscany), amaranth, buckwheat, sorghum, and spelt. Of course, there are more familiar varieties, too, like wild rice, barley, corn, oats, and wheat. Steamed rye, something we rarely eat in this country, has a naturally smoky flavor that holds its own with other bold flavors, such as strong cheeses and bitter greens. Of course, native peoples relied on grains as a primary food source—and given the choices we've got today, there's no reason we shouldn't, too.
Cooking whole grains is surprisingly novel for many of us, even those who already eat a grain-based diet. So often we get into the rut of bread, cereal, pasta, and pizza. And, while it's true you can find versions of those foods made from whole-grain flours, cooked whole grains are far more nutritious than baked goods made from grains that have been processed into fine flours.
Dr. Andrew Weil, the director of the Program in Integrative Medicine at the University of Arizona in Tucson and an authority on well-being, health, and aging, says whole grains are an integral part of a low-glycemic diet, which many nutritionists believe promotes healthy aging and reduces the risk factors for heart disease and type 2 diabetes. The reason is simple: Whole grains, like all whole (unprocessed) foods, are more slowly digested than refined carbs, such as finely textured breads and most commercial cereals.
When you eat whole foods, you feel full longer, are satisfied with smaller portions, and avoid the highs and lows you get from eating simple sugars and refined carbs. Weil's book, Healthy Aging: A Lifelong Guide to Your Physical and Spiritual Well-Being, explains how the glycemic-load (GL) scale accurately measures the amount of carbs consumed in a portion of any given food. The higher the load, the greater the number of "empty calories." Examples of foods high on the GL scale are bread (even whole wheat), candy, and potato chips. Whole grains fall on the low end of the GL scale.
"There's a big difference between whole grains and whole-grain flour. It's a major misconception in our culture," Weil says. "People think they're getting the benefits of whole grain when they eat foods made with pulverized whole grains." Unfortunately, bread or cereal made with whole-grain flour acts pretty much like bread and cereal made with white flour once it hits your stomach, converting to sugar just as quickly. And processing reduces some of the nutritional punch of whole grains, which are high in soluble fiber, protein, calcium, and phytochemicals. (Breads made from sprouted grains rather than flour are a more nutritious choice.)
In addition to the health benefits, whole grains are a wonderful way to show off other flavors and foods, as my grain-tasting party proved. The simplest preparations can be sublime. For instance, a bowl of any kind of steaming grain drizzled with organic honey and a few toasted nuts makes a comforting, energy-packed breakfast that even children have been known to gobble up with gusto. The addition of dried cherries and a splash of cream makes it into a yummy dessert. Rice pudding, move over!
Weil likes sautéing carrots, onions, celery, and exotic mushrooms, then adding the mixture to a cooked grain like buckwheat groats, wild rice, or barley. "It's very satisfying. With some added herbs, garlic, dry sherry, and some dried cranberries, it's a festive dish," he says.
And grains are easy to cook. Some, like cracked wheat and quinoa, are true convenience foods, going from fridge to table in minutes. Others need a long soak overnight, but cook up in an hour or less on a conventional stovetop, and even faster in a pressure cooker. Plus, you can cook a double or triple batch of grains on the weekend and keep them refrigerated for a week in a tightly sealed container. Use them to make a variety of dishes with sweet or savory mixers. Cooked grains mixed with chopped raw veggies, oil, and vinegar make a nice lunch salad. Or reheat them (warm over a low flame in a covered pot with a bit of vegetable stock) and serve underneath a helping of roasted root vegetables. You can even make a wholesome "fried rice" by pan-frying veggies and tofu with leftover grains and adding soy sauce or other seasonings.
When cooking grain, be ready for varying results. Lorna Sass, Ph.D., a culinary historian and the author of several vegetarian cookbooks as well as a forthcoming essential guide to whole-grain cooking, says no two batches of grains cook alike. "As a consumer you have no idea how much moisture is in the grain you buy," she says. Tasting at various stages in the cooking process is the only way to determine when the grain is done.
There are a few basic guidelines for buying and storing grains. First, it's best to buy them in small quantities. Since whole grains are rich with natural oils, they can go rancid. Keep grains in the refrigerator or even the freezer (no need to defrost before preparing). It's also wise to buy grains from an organic or whole-food store with a rapid turnover, so you know the grains have not been sitting around for a long time. Ordering directly from producers is a great idea too: Freshness is a guarantee.
Toasting some grains before cooking helps develop their flavor complexity. Heat a small bit of olive oil or butter in a pan and coat the grains with the fat. Let them warm over a medium flame until their aroma comes up and some of the grains begin to brown slightly. Add boiling broth or water and cook as directed. You'll notice a tasty difference.
Paula Wolfert, the contessa of Mediterranean cooking, devotes many recipes to grains, and she's passionate about them. "All the countries in the Mediterranean have fabulous grain dishes, especially Turkey and Tunisia. Both do amazing things with barley," she says. Wolfert says pilafs are the best way to start incorporating grains into your diet. "They're so wonderful and earthy and easy to put together." One of her favorites combines prepared coarse bulgur with any gently sautéed greens, topped with a dollop of yogurt. "It's so simple and so divine," she says. Moreover, she adds, "My son and I never looked better than when we were testing recipes for Mediterranean Grains and Greens."
Good taste, good health, good looks—three good reasons to have another tasting party soon, next time with more friends and more grains.