For those who think out of the refined-food box, ancient grain means more than just Grandma’s sturdy oatmeal. For chefs especially, the global market of old-world grains now represents an abundance of toothsome, cost-effective, and texture-perfect accompaniments that can be dressed up or down to suit any cuisine or concept.
Rediscovering the Real Thing
Wild and whole grains have been vital staples since the time of hunter-gatherer cultures, but the integrity of the category suffered much with the advent of the industrial revolution more than a century ago. Spurred by the development of machines that refined grain and improved packaging, this food—and its aesthetic—entered a new age, one that esteemed processing and the deconstruction of whole grains into bland, branless kernels that served as little more than gastronomic bulk. Marlene Anne Bumgarner, author of The New Book of Whole Grains(St. Martin’s Press, 1997), points out that, “While people in poorer nations continued to eat whole grains for several decades, even they eventually succumbed to refined products. Refined grains can be stored for a nearly unlimited period, meaning food as aid could be sent to these nations, and it could get to those in need before spoiling.” So the trend toward processing grain ultimately spread around the world.
But grains in their ancient, unprocessed form never went away completely. Health-food advocates, naturalists, and others from the incense- and peace-sign coterie have kept them quietly alive throughout the years. Now, trends within the restaurant community show that classic grains are beginning to strut out of the bohemian pantry—and in full bravado.
Old Is New
Michael Holleman, corporate chef for Indian Harvest Specialtifoods in Bemidji, Minnesota, attributes the resurgence of ancient grains to a growing interest in anything ethnic. “Consumers are searching out ethnic cuisines, and in response chefs are looking for traditional ingredients,” he claims. “The current popularity of heirloom produce and organic food fits well with the whole-grain trend, and movements like Slow Food also fuel the interest.” In addition, exotic grains have the appeal, Holleman says, of allowing chefs “to create unique signature dishes that give them an edge on their competition.”
But so far, chefs have barely skimmed the surface of possibilities. Products such as black barley, red rice, amaranth, quinoa, millet, and numerous other varieties, not to mention multiblends, give professional kitchens a vast new category for experimenting and creating. These grains add color, nuance, aroma, and texture to menu items, and they adapt easily to almost all flavors.
Dennis Gilliam, a partner and vice president of sales for Bob's Red Mill Natural Foods in Milwaukie, Oregon, suggests taking a good look at other uncommon grains. “Sorghum was traditionally used as an animal grain, but it is perfectly edible and quite delicious. Attention to it is growing, partially because it is gluten free, and so it’s harmless to people with wheat allergies. And it has the most wheatlike flavor profile of any nongluten grain.”
Kamut is another worthy ingredient. Gilliam reports that it is the largest of all whole grains, and when cooked it has an inherent sweetness that is strongly appealing. “[Kamut] is also plump and showy, and when used in a salad or pilaf, it is always an eye-catcher,” he adds.
Multipurpose Menu Item
Restaurants can also benefit from the healthy implications of natural grains on the plate. Restaurants can also benefit from the healthy implications of natural grains on the plate. “People are very health and nutrient conscious,” claims Kevin Reilly, executive chef at CB Kitchen and Bar in New York City, “but they’re also receptive to new flavors and textures. They want to explore ethnic cuisines, especially in their own communities.” Speaking of the whole-grain resurgence, he adds, “Chefs know enough about food today to understand that besides the nutritional loss, refined grains have had all their flavor stripped away.”
Reilly gained his penchant for using unusual grains in recipes from his colleague, Executive Chef Steven Levine of Cosmopolitan Café in San Francisco. Levine’s love of ethnic foods inspired his treatments with black rice, faro, and other grains and kick-started Reilly’s ongoing interest in grains. “Steven has created signature dishes like multigrain soup with crispy shallots and truffle oil,” Reilly remarks.
Although taste and textures vary between grains, most range from sweet to nutty, and all offer a good “chew,” especially compared to their refined counterparts. Reilly dictates lifting any mental barrier you may have regarding combining ingredients when experimenting with grains. “From wild game to a basic breast of chicken or fish filet, there are grains to compliment every protein. The category also adds tremendous interest to vegetarian dishes.”
But for meat lovers, he demonstrates how a basic protein item like chicken can be stroked to culinary perfection with his Three-Grain Macadamia Nut Stir Fry and Spicy Vinaigrette, The vinaigrette dressing adds a bright twist to the nutty flavor and texture of specialty rice and nuts in the recipe.
Taste of Tradition
The current interest in revitalizing heirloom dishes from around the world has also been a boon for grain cuisine. Although some of the classic cooking methods, kitchenware, and even ingredients are much different today, many modern chefs are doing a fine job of curating and crafting ancient recipes in a close-to-authentic state.
Doris Platt, co-owner of Andina restaurant in Portland, Oregon, collaborates with her executive chef, Emmanuel Piqueras Villeran, on traditional Peruvian dishes. One of the duo’s more ambitious projects was to recreate the ancient dish “Pachamanca” for their menu. “Historically, Pachamanca is a complete meal cooked over hot stones in the ground,” Platt explains. “It originated in the Peruvian highlands thousands of years ago. Pachamanca, which means ‘Mother Earth’, traditionally represented a ritual of honor to the earth’s bounty.” The ethnic roots of the dish are connected to indigenous Peruvian ingredients, including the native grain quinoa (pronounced keen-wah), which is a tiny, disc-shaped seed, rich in high-quality protein.
Today, numerous versions of the stewlike dish are prepared throughout the Andes, depending on available ingredients. But whatever the variations, one staple of the Pachamanca is an accompaniment of quinoa bread.
The challenge for Villeran and Platt, of course, was to prepare the dish without digging a huge pit in the middle of their restaurant. “Emmanuel has added his own special touch. He bakes Pachamanca in a clay pot, wrapping the seal between the pot and lid with a ring of quinoa dough. His technique insures that the juices are sealed inside to produce the same result as when it is cooked on hot rocks. At the same time, it provides the side of quinoa bread that is traditionally suited to the dish.” An ample serving of Pachamanca at Andina is $21.
Except for very special types, Reilly says ancient varieties of whole grains are economical, averaging between 11 and 15 cents per serving. “And they store well,” he maintains. “Kept in airtight storage containers, grains will last for months. Cooked, they will last for two to three days.”
Michael Orlando, chief executive officer of Sunnyland Mills in San Diego, a whole-grain producer, suggests cooking bulk amounts and storing them frozen.
“They last up to a year, and pulling a portion out of the freezer when it’s needed is a real timesaver in restaurant kitchens.”
Orlando admits that it’s not yet easy for chefs to find unusual grain varieties from wholesale purveyors today. “Whole grains are growing in popularity, but until all the unique varieties are readily available, chefs may have to continue to buy them in smaller quantities from Middle Eastern and other specialty retail stores.” Some companies offer whole grains over the Internet, and in bulk packaging, while certain regional food distributors are beginning to add more varieties to their product lists. Holleman reports that single-variety grain sales are definitely up but that the bulk of his business to the trade is in grain blends and mixtures of grains and legumes. “We’ve calculated compatible cooking times for the ingredients, so these mixtures are really practical and time-saving for chefs.”
How to Handle
Cooking grains, according to Naushab Ahmed, manager of Bridge Kitchenware in New York City, “requires only heavy-duty pots and cooking spoons in the appropriate sizes, though commercial-quality grain mills are available for those who want to mill their own,” he says. “Another option is a couscoussier (a traditional curved, two-tier steaming pot) for preparing couscous, or a pressure cooker for rice. “
Reilly adds that a large sheet pan is also helpful for cooling grains in a single layer after they’ve been cooked, or for roasting them to alter their texture.
Above all, he advocates research and testing. “Chefs should read through cookbooks, even very old ones,” he instructs. “Talk to grain purveyors for preparation suggestions and learn about ancient cultures. . . . But experimenting is most important. There is no limit to how many ways ancient grains can be used in recipes or as side dishes. Using your imagination is what makes this category interesting and creative.”
Quinoa Bread for Pachamanca
By Chef Emmanuel Piqueras Villeran of Andina restaurant, Portland, Oregon
Quinoa, uncooked 1 cup
Active-dry instant yeast 1 pkg
Evaporated milk, at room temperature 1 cup
Eggs 2 whole
Unsalted butter, softened 4 oz
Sugar 2 Tbsp
Salt 1 Tbsp
All-purpose flour 5 cups
1. Fill a two-quart saucepan halfway with water and heat to boiling. Add quinoa and cook, uncovered, for ten minutes. Drain quinoa, and set aside to cool.
2. In large bowl, dissolve yeast in evaporated milk. Add eggs and butter. Add the cooked quinoa and mix until blended. Add the sugar and salt.
3. Add four cups of flour, and knead until fully incorporated. Add remaining cup of flour as needed to make a soft, slightly sticky dough.
4. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap. Set aside until doubled in bulk.
5. For Pachamanca, divide dough into four portions; roll dough into four long, slender loaves and wrap one around each pot to seal lid to pot. Otherwise, quinoa bread can be placed in a loaf or sheet pan. Brush dough with melted butter. Bake at 400°F for 20 to 25 minutes.
Farro Salad with Grilled Asparagus and Bell Peppers
By Chef Michael Holleman, Indian Harvest Specialtifoods, Inc.
Uncooked farro 2 lbs.
Asparagus 1 lb.
Bell peppers (2 red, 2 yellow) 4
Onion, diced 1
Balsamic vinegar ½ cup
Extra-virgin olive oil 1 cup
Salt, pepper and sugar to taste
1. Cook farro according to package directions and chill immediately.
2. Lightly coat asparagus and bell peppers with olive oil, salt, and pepper. Grill asparagus and bell peppers until tender and chill.
3. Heat 1 tablespoon olive oil and sauté onion until transparent. Transfer onion to medium bowl and cool to room temperature. Add balsamic vinegar to onions and slowly whisk in remaining olive oil. Season with salt and pepper (and sugar if desired) to taste and mix well with farro. Remove stems and seeds from peppers, cut into 1-inch strips. Cut asparagus into 1-inch pieces. Gently stir bell peppers and asparagus into faro mixture and chill for at least one hour before service.