Amazing Grains: Part II

In Shell Point’s Health Connections series, I recently spoke to a group of Shell Point residents about the amazing benefits of grains. I discussed the health benefits of whole grains in Part I. Here, I review a variety of new grains to try incorporating into your diet.

Most people grew up eating whole grains that are grown in the United States: wheat, corn, rice, and oats. But alternative or “ancient” grains are becoming more and more popular with people interested in adding more variety to their diets.  With a distinctive taste and more flavor than most traditional grains, alternative grains are often a richer source of nutrients.  Consider trying some of these ancient grains – you may find a new favorite!

Amaranth was a staple of the Aztecs—it goes back 8,000 years.  It‘s a tiny grain, actually a seed; and has a lively, peppery taste that is a little like corn and has a high-level complete protein.  Good in polenta, breakfast “porridge” and quick breads. A bonus? It contains no gluten.

Barley is one of the oldest cultivated grains and is highly adaptable for growing.  It has a tough hull, difficult to remove without losing some bran. Pearl barley is technically not a whole grain, but is full of fiber and healthier than fully-refined grain.  You can buy it in most stores.

Buckwheat is technically not a grain, but its nutrients, appearance and nutty flavor fit in with the grain family. An important part of diets in Asia and Europe, it has a high level of protein and is good in main dishes, hot porridge, soups, and salads. It contains no gluten.

Farro, or “emmer,” is an ancient strain of wheat eaten by the Roman legions.  It was gradually abandoned in favor of durum wheat, which is easier to hull and usually used to make pasta.   Farro made a comeback in Italy where it is used in soups, side dishes, and pastas.  It has a nutty flavor like barley and is popular now with chefs in the United States.

Freekeh (free-kah) is a cereal food made from cracked roasted green wheat. It is an ancient middle Eastern dish especially popular in the Arabian peninsula, Palestinian, and Egyptian cuisine. It is often prepared as a side dish by adding broth and seasonings, and it is also a good source of fiber and protein.

Kamut is a traditional grain of Eqypt. It is a rich, buttery-tasting wheat grain made into over 450 whole grain products throughout the world. Used most often in crackers, cereal, and pasta, kamut is not gluten-free.

Millet is usually found in bird seed! But it is the leading staple grain in India, and it is also commonly eaten in China, South America, and Russia. It’s a very tiny grain, has a mild flavor and is often mixed with other grains or toasted before cooking.  Great for puddings, pilafs and stuffings, millet adds flavor and texture to breads.

Quinoa (keen-wah), which comes to us from the Incas, is not a “true” grain – it’s a relative of Swiss chard and beets. It is a small dried seed that is available in light-colored grain, as well as red, purple, and black. Quinoa has been called a superfood by many because it is an excellent source of protein, fiber, phosphorus, magnesium, iron, and calcium.  Be sure to rinse it before cooking to remove any bitter residue that might be remaining from its outer coating. Try cooking it with broth and adding garlic, herbs, and olive oil – it only takes 20 minutes. Quinoa is good as a side dish, in casseroles, pilafs, and salads.

Spelt is a wheat variety widely grown until the use of fertilizers and mechanical equipment left it behind. It was farmed throughout the Middle Ages and called the “traditional grain of Germany.”  Its chewy texture and sweet, nutlike flavor make it a good choice for hot cereal, pilafs, soup, or cold salads. It takes a long time to cook, up to an hour or so, but it digests easily.

Teff is estimated to be the principle source of nutrition for over 2/3 of Ethiopians, who usually make it into a flatbread. Teff grains are minute – 1/150 the size of wheat kernels. With a sweet molasses-like flavor, it can be added to baked goods, porridge, or “teff polenta.”  It has lots of iron and calcium, but no gluten.

Whole grains should generally be rinsed in cold water just prior to cooking.  Remove any dirt or debris just as you would with legumes. They are usually cooked by adding to boiling water, bringing water back to boil, then simmering. Using broth instead of water adds more flavor if desired. Test your whole grains for doneness just like pasta, and fluff them up with a fork before serving.