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Relearning ancient grains

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Millet, farro, amaranth, quinoa, barley, rye, buckwheat and oats — amazing variety offer great taste and nutrition
Still life of different grains, from left, amaranth, chia, millet, quinoa and teff. (Bill Hogan/Chicago Tribune/TNS)
Orange-Scented Amaranth Porridge with Apricots and Pine Nuts. (Juli Leonard/Raleigh News & Observer/TNS)
Kale Salad with Farro, Dried Fruit and Blue Cheese. (Ricardo DeAratanha/Los Angeles Times/TNS)
Quinoa-Turkey Patties in Pita. (Mark DuFrene/Contra Costa Times/TNS)

Relearning the wisdom of “ancient grains” is my wish for the older generation.

Millet, farro and amaranth all elicited an elderly relative’s blank expression. She’d heard of the superfood quinoa, along with barley, rye, buckwheat and oats. But their preparation, except for oatmeal, was beyond her frame of reference.

Immune-compromised, my elder had a compelling need to restore her gastrointestinal health. Probiotics supplements and fermented foods, I said, aren’t the magic bullet. They work best alongside lots of dietary fiber, which feeds beneficial bacteria. So don’t just choose whole-grain products. Eat the entire grain itself.

Anyone confused on this point can envision a grain of rice — about the only grain that large numbers of Americans encounter in its whole form. Now imagine brown rice, which retains the fibrous bran and germ.

Separated from the inedible plant parts surrounding it, a whole grain retains its natural shape when cooked. It should be obvious that the gamut of grains resembles rice in appearance rather than bread, pasta or any other food made from milled grains.

Wrapped in whole grains’ package of fiber are high levels of amino acids, along with essential vitamins and minerals that refining strips away. Some of the highest amino acid profiles are seen in such “pseudograins” as quinoa and amaranth, which are more accurately seeds.

Grain-free and low-carbohydrate diets overgeneralize in aiming to eliminate foods full of flour and other refined grain products, such as cornstarch. Not all whole grains are created equal, but I believe there’s at least one for everybody.

Competing health claims, of course, distract from the simple truth that the most wholesome edibles are natural — not in food-labeling parlance but in nourishment of humanity from time out of mind. The term “ancient grain” doesn’t reference history so much as the wide nutritional gulf between foods that haven’t changed much in millennia and those that have been selected, hybridized and engineered for modern-day cultivation and processing into food-like substances.

If those arguments aren’t convincing enough, choose ancient grains to diversify your diet in 2022 and expand your mealtime repertoire. Whole grains’ distinctive flavors and textures perk up the palate. They’re also budget-friendly extenders of meat, produce and other more costly ingredients.

Grocers’ bulk sections often offer the lowest prices on whole grains. But the Bob’s Red Mill brand sells an almost mind-boggling array, which also can be purchased online.

In the kitchen, the most straightforward starting point is simply substituting an ancient grain for cooked rice. Serve with stir-fry or curry or fold in other fresh and cooked ingredients for pilaf. Make fried millet, quinoa or wild rice.

Porridge is another easy approach. Tiny amaranth cooks up slightly sticky, a texture that suggests enriching with yogurt for a hot breakfast cereal or with cheese for a savory side dish akin to polenta. I also love combining rolled barley and rolled oats for muesli.

Experiment by incorporating whole grains into soups and salads. Wrap them in burritos or layer them in casseroles. Use them to stretch burgers, meatballs or meatloaf.

Set yourself up for success by verifying cooking times for different whole grains, which can vary from 10 minutes to an hour. An Instant Pot or other multicooker is helpful for denser grains, such as farro. Cooking a couple of grain types together that require different water ratios can yield a gluey mess. So if using more than one variety in the same dish, it pays to cook grains separately.

Because grains typically double in size during cooking, it’s easy to cook too much for the quantity of other ingredients in a dish. “Think of the grains as the canvas,” says cookbook author Ghillie James, “and add a colorful variety of things to it.”

Here is the template for James’ five-step grain salad from “Amazing Grains: From Classic to Contemporary, Wholesome Recipes for Every Day.”

To cooked whole grains, add fruit and/or vegetables (cucumber, scallions, radish, celery, peppers, tomato, corn, asparagus, apple, avocado, grapes, grated carrot, dried apricots, green beans, snow peas).

Throw in some crumbled feta, drained canned tuna, crispy bacon, leftover roast meat or sausages, cooked shrimp, goat cheese, white beans or chickpeas.

Sprinkle on some nuts and seeds (pumpkin, chia seeds, toasted almonds, pine nuts).

Drizzle with olive oil and lemon juice. Season well.

Grains Glossary

Amaranth: So tiny, it resembles mustard seeds. Try toasting, then cooking as a breakfast cereal or side dish like polenta.

Barley: The perennial soup ingredient is fiber-rich and heart-healthy.

Buckwheat: The flour is known in pancakes, but the whole toasted groats, known as kasha, are popular for breakfast or in pilafs.

Corn: Whole grain corn can take the form of grits, hominy and cornmeal, cooked into polenta or baked into cornbread or muffins.

Millet: Also known as sorghum and teff, there isn’t a single millet, but rather a family of cereal grains that can thrive in inhospitable environments. When toasted, it’s great for breakfast cereal and salads and as a rice substitute.

Oats: Perhaps the best-known breakfast grain, rolled oats are full of antioxidants, and are as heart-healthy as you can get. Try oat groats or steel-cut oats for a chewier texture.

Quinoa: This ancient grain, eaten by the Incas, comes in yellow and red varieties. It cooks quickly and makes a great side for any meal. With a slightly nutty flavor, it works well in salads or as a rice substitute.

Rice: For maximum dietary benefits, choose whole grain brown rice, or experiment with more exotic brown, black or red varieties.

Rye: It’s not just for whiskey or bread; rye berries cook up similarly to wheat berries for use in salads and side dishes.

Wheat: So immersed in wheat flour, we forget about the grain’s other forms. Bulgur, soaked in water to soften, is popular in Middle Eastern cuisine, while wheat berries are nutty and flavorful eaten as a breakfast grain or in salads. Emmer or farro, kamut and spelt are all forms of wheat.

Wild rice: These skinny black shoots typically seen in soups or pilafs actually are the seeds of a wild grass native to North America. Wild rice was a staple of the Native American diet.

Amaranth Porridge with Apricots and Pine Nuts

1 cup amaranth grains

3 tablespoons chopped dates

1/2 cinnamon stick

1 cup whole milk

3 tablespoons chopped soft dried apricots

Pinch of fine sea salt

1 tablespoon honey, or more as needed

1 teaspoon finely grated orange zest

2 tablespoons lightly toasted pine nuts, for garnish

The night before serving, combine in a heavy 3- to 4-quart saucepan the amaranth, dates and cinnamon stick. Pour over 1-1/2 cups boiling water, cover and allow to sit at room temperature overnight (or chill, covered, for up to 2 days.)

The next morning, finish porridge by adding the milk, apricots and salt to saucepan; cover and bring to a boil. Uncover, stir well once with a wooden spoon, decrease heat to maintain a lively bubble and cook until mixture starts to thicken, for about 8 minutes. Stir thoroughly, scraping bottom, and continue cooking at a simmer, stirring often, until amaranth is creamy, for about 2 more minutes. Grains will swell and become translucent but maintain a little crunchiness.

Remove from heat, discard cinnamon stick and stir in the honey and orange zest. Taste and adjust sweetness with a bit more honey and milk, if desired. If you have time, cover and allow to sit for 2 minutes. Spoon into bowls and serve warm, garnished with the pine nuts.

Makes 4 servings.

Recipe from “Simply Ancient Grains,” by Maria Speck (Ten Speed Press, 2015).

Quinoa-Turkey Patties in Pita with Tahini

1 garlic clove, peeled

1/4 cup tahini (sesame paste)

1/4 cup fresh lemon juice

1 cup quinoa, rinsed and drained

12 ounces ground turkey

1/4 teaspoon plus 1 pinch ground allspice

1/2 teaspoon plus 1 pinch ground cumin

Pinch of crushed red-pepper flakes

2 tablespoons finely chopped, fresh mint

2 scallions, trimmed and finely chopped

3/4 teaspoon salt

2 teaspoons canola or safflower oil, or as needed

6 lettuce leaves

1 English cucumber, thinly sliced

1 small red onion, halved, peeled and thinly sliced

6 pita breads

In a food processor, process the garlic clove, tahini and lemon juice with 1/4 cup water until smooth. Chill.

Bring 2 cups water to a boil in a saucepan. Add the quinoa, stir once, cover and reduce heat. Simmer until tender but still chewy, for about 15 minutes. Fluff with a fork; let cool.

In a clean food processor, pulse the turkey, spices, mint, scallions and salt to a smooth paste. Add cooked quinoa; process until mixture comes together around blade. Roll into 24 balls, flattening each slightly to form patties.

Heat the oil in a large skillet. Working in batches, fry patties until cooked through.

Divide the lettuce, cucumber and onion evenly among the pita breads. Top each with 4 quinoa patties and drizzle with about 1 tablespoon tahini dressing. Fold pitas over filling and serve.

Makes 6 servings.

— Recipe from “Power Foods” by the editors of Whole Living Magazine (Clarkson Potter, 384 pp., $24.99).

Kale Salad with Farro, Dried Fruit and Blue Cheese

1/4 cup farro

Salt, as needed

1/4 cup mixed dried fruit (such as sour cherries, cranberries, raisins)

1 tablespoon orange-flavored liqueur, such as Grand Marnier

1 pound kale (about 2 bunches)

1 tablespoon olive oil

1/4 cup crumbled blue cheese

2 tablespoons minced red onion

2 tablespoons chopped, toasted pecans

2 teaspoons red wine vinegar

Freshly ground pepper, to taste

In a dry, medium saucepan over medium heat, toast the farro until it smells nutty and turns golden, for about 5 minutes. Add 2 cups water and bring to a simmer. Season with 1/2 teaspoon salt and cook until farro is tender but still a little chewy, for about 45 minutes. Drain (there probably will still be some liquid left), rinse under cold, running water and gently pat dry in a kitchen towel.

In a small bowl, steep the dried fruit in the liqueur. Add just enough warm water to cover and set aside until softened, for about 15 minutes. Alternatively, microwave fruit for 30 seconds and let stand for 5 minutes.

Remove and discard stems from the kale. Chop leaves into bite-sized pieces. Place in a large mixing bowl with 1 teaspoon salt and the olive oil. Grab leaves by handfuls and massage them roughly. Don't be timid. After a minute or so, leaves will turn soft and silky and reduce in volume by about half.

Drain dried fruit and add it to kale, along with cooked farro, the blue cheese, red onion, pecans and vinegar. Toss to mix well, then season to taste with black pepper and more salt and vinegar, if necessary.

Makes 4 to 6 servings.

Reach freelance writer Sarah Lemon at thewholedish@gmail.com.