Know Your Grains
Desiri Wightman, RD
Amaranth: Not really a grain, amaranth is a seed from a plant similar to the tumbleweed. It nourished the Aztec civilization until the arrival of Cortes, who banned the plant for food and religious rituals, punishable by death. Poppy-seed sized and mustard-seed yellow, amaranth contains lysine, the amino acid missing from most grains. It is also a wonderful source of iron, calcium, folacin, and magnesium. It can be simmered like rice or popped like corn in a dry frying pan. To do this, heat the skillet until very hot. Add 1 tablespoon amaranth seeds and stir with a wooden spoon until seeds pop, 10-15 seconds. Refrigerate in an airtight container or store on a shelf where the temperature stays at about 65° F.
Barley: Mostly used in beer production now, barley once was the diet staple of ancient China and later European nations. Various levels of processing affect barley's nutrient content and edibility. Hulled barley contains the most fiber and the longest cooking time, though it is rather coarse to eat. Pearl barley is scoured six times to remove the husks and bran layer covering each kernel. The most edible, pearl barley doesn't contain near the nutrients of the hulled form, but it still offers fiber and much of the original protein content. Scotch (pot) barley is only scoured three times and thus provides more fiber than the pearled form. Storage life is about 9 months in an air-tight container at room temperature, and longer if the temperature is lower.
Buckwheat: Again, not a true grain, buckwheat is the fruit of a leafy plant related to rhubarb and sorrel. Containing the eight essential amino acids the body cannot manufacture, buckwheat is as near a complete protein as any plant source can hope to be. It can be purchased in various groat forms. Unroasted buckwheat is the whole form of the grain that has dried naturally. With its delicate flavor, these hulled groats make a great alternate to rice or pasta. For a hearty breakfast, look for unroasted groats in the cream of buckwheat form. Roasted buckwheat, also known as kasha, is toasted before hitting market shelves. Darker and more nut-like in flavor than the unroasted form, these groats also come in differing textures: whole, coarse, medium, and ground.
Bulgur: Wheat berries that have been steamed, dried, and then cracked apart create the nutty, vitamin-packed, quick-cooking basis for pilafs, stews, or salads known as bulgur. Store in a dark, cool place (below 60° F), like the refrigerator or freezer, for up to 6 months to a year, respectively. You can make your own bulgur at home. Simply place whole wheat berries in a saucepan and cover with water by about 2 inches. Bring to a boil; turn off the heat; let rest for 1-2 hours. Add more water, if needed, and boil again. Turn off heat; let rest for another 1-2 hours. Drain. Place on baking sheets and bake in the oven at 200° F until dry. Once dry, crack it in a blender or grain mill or store whole.
Cornmeal: Ground from whole corn, cornmeal bakes up deliciously into cornbread, corn tortillas, and a toothsome, hearty mush. It's high oil-content (in stone-ground form) makes for a brief shelf-life, but if you own a grain-mill, store popcorn instead and grind your own meal at a moment's notice. Otherwise, store the meal airtight in the refrigerator for up to three months or the freezer for six.
Hominy: Also known as posole, lime-soaked corn swells up to form the smoky-flavored staple of Mexican cooking called hominy. When ground into flour, whole hominy is known as masa harina, the flour used for making authentic corn tortillas by hand. Hominy is available in both dried and canned form. Store unused canned hominy in its original liquid in a clean jar in the refrigerator for weeks. Don't freeze cooked whole hominy.
Millet: Gluten-free, millet is good for those with wheat allergies. Mostly grown in the United States for hay silage or birdseed, when hulled it makes an edible, nutrient-rich grain for human consumption, too. In fact, it's been around since Old Testament times and is widely consumed in Asia and Africa. For best flavor, toast millet in an ungreased heavy skillet for about 5 minutes before cooking. Store on the shelf, airtight, for about 6 months.
Oats: Want to be healthy as a horse? Then eat your oats. Traditionally demeaned as the food of animals, oats has elevated itself to be a cholesterol-fighting, energy-boosting, tummy-filling comfort food. Steel-cut (or Scotch) oats are the chewiest form of oats and are luckily hard to find, while old-fashioned oats make their debut on every grocer's shelf. Chopped, steamed, and pressed between rollers, these oats boast a cooking time of 5 minutes! Quick oats, chopped more finely before steaming (partially cooking) and pressing, steal the record, though with a smashing 1-minute cooking time. Oats easily last a year or more on the pantry shelf because they tout their own natural anti-oxidant. Store them in their original container.
Quinoa: Pronounced "keen-wah", this grain hails from the Inca societies of Peru and Bolivia. Similar to amaranth, it is the fruit of a plant instead of a cereal grain and so contains lysine, the amino acid missing in true cereal grains. Thoroughly rinse quinoa seeds until the water runs clear before using in a recipe. They are coated naturally with an acrid, foamy substance called saponin. Most of this is washed away during processing, but you might turn your nose up forever at quinoa if you taste any remaining residue. Magically, when cooked through, quinoa becomes translucent and the white crescent-shaped germ appears. Store it in an airtight clean jar, not packed too full, and add an insect deterrent like bay leaves or mint, as well. For the longest storage, keep quinoa in the refrigerator or freezer, as shelf-life is less than a month for these oil-packed seeds. Just be sure to dry them thoroughly before cooking.
Rye: In the United States, most of the rye grown is transformed into whiskey, other alcoholic drinks or animal feed. Luckily, for Reuben-sandwich lovers, some rye is ground into flour to make the robust and traditional breads of Eastern Europe. Though closely related to wheat, rye contains very little gluten. In bread, use a ratio of 30% rye flour to 70% whole wheat flour, and then knead the bread like mad!
Spelt: An ancient ancestor of wheat, spelt is low in gluten and suitable for eating by those with wheat allergies. It is available as berries, flour, or as pasta products.
Triticale: The marriage of wheat and rye produced the little-known grain of triticale. Taking the best from both parents, triticale boasts a high-protein content and double the lysine content of wheat. More similar to rye in the bread-baking arena, triticale works best in bread when combined with a high-gluten flour (bread flour), but unlike rye, it contains some gluten, so don't overwork the dough! Store it airtight for a year or more on a cool shelf (60° F.) or in the refrigerator or freezer.
Wheat: The most nurturing of all the grains, wheat has nourished populations the world over for time over. Because of its lifespan, populations have adapted it to create many of the food staples readily available in our pantries. Whole wheat and white flour, with their high gluten content, allow bread and cakes to rise to delicious heights and lightness. Cracked wheat warms our bellies on frosty mornings. Whole-wheat berries easily stand in for beans in stews or salads. Semolina, from the endosperm of durum wheat, makes our pasta and couscous. Presoaked and dried, wheat gives us the nutty crunch of bulgur. Farina comes from the milling of just the endosperm (the main portion of the kernel) into a fine meal. Lastly, pressing heated berries between rollers creates wheat flakes useful in multi-grain breakfasts. Wheat claims the advantage of an "indefinite" storage life over other grains, when stored at 65° F, a real advantage for food storage gurus!
* DVO welcomes your kitchen hints and cooking or nutrition questions! Email us and we'll post your hints and Q/A's in upcoming newsletters! *