From Plant to Pot
Botanically, grains are the seeds and fruits of various cereal grasses. Many so-called grains, such as amaranth, quinoa, and wild rice don’t belong, strictly speaking, to the category, as they come from other plant species, but for practical purposes they are considered to be in the grain family. Here’s a list of some of the more underutilized, old-world varieties*:
Amaranth:Strong wild flavor that lends a distinctive peppery-spicy taste to dishes; tiny grains cook easily and quickly and can be used whole, popped like corn, or steamed and flattened into a flake, or ground for flour.
Barley: Whole barley is difficult to find, as most barley is sold “pearled,” meaning processed, to remove the grain’s two outer, inedible layers, as well as a nutrient-rich inner layer. Mild, sweet flavor and chewy texture; great for thickening soups and stews.
Buckwheat Groats: European buckwheat has a milder taste than the American-grown varieties, which can have a strong musky, earthy taste. Groats are the split inner kernels of the plant. Sold raw or roasted, the latter works best for culinary use in side dishes, stuffings, and pilafs.
Farro:Farro is a type of wheat that was among the first plants to be domesticated in the Middle East. It is low yielding and has been largely replaced over the centuries by other crops, but it remains as a relict species in mountainous areas of Europe and Asia. Farro grows in wild and cultivated varieties, and it is still a popular food in some areas of the world, notably Italy.
Job’s Tears: From the millet family, this large pearled barley look-alike has a light, refreshing, almost-sweet taste. Less sticky than either rice or barley, it should be soaked prior to use to reduce lengthy cooking time.
Kamut: An ancient relative of modern durum wheat, with a rich, almost buttery flavor. Can be prepared as ordinary wheat is, either ground into flour or whole in salads, grain mixtures, stews, and fillings. Consumer experience indicates that many with wheat allergies tolerate kamut products well.
Millet: Available in several forms, this tiny, round, yellowish seed has a bland to slightly nutty flavor. In cooking it swells to a fluffy texture (toasting beforehand in oil enhances the flavor and prevents clumping). Has a fragile shelf life compared to other grains.
Quinoa: A tiny grain that puffs up to four times its dry volume in cooking, becoming slightly translucent and fluffy; flavor is mildly nutty with a little crunch in texture.
Rye: Robust, old-world flavor reminiscent of caraway. Available in whole, cracked, flaked, and flour forms, the grain is very versatile. Rye berries add more dimension to grain mixtures; especially compatible with wheat and oats.
Sorghum: The grain sorghums grown in the US are classified into seven groups, the best of which are kafir, milo, and durra. Seeds have a lightly pungent, wheatlike flavor that can be used in place of rice or ground for bread or porridge.
Spelt: A wonderfully nutritious and ancient grain with a deep nutlike flavor, spelt is a cousin to wheat that is recently receiving renewed recognition. Spelt is an ancient grain that traces its heritage back long before many wheat hybrids. Many of its benefits come from the fact that it offers a broader spectrum of nutrients compared to many of its more inbred cousins in the wheat family. It can be used in many of the same ways as wheat including bread and pasta making.
Teff: Very tiny grain available in white, red, or brown; each type has its own distinctive flavor, with the white being the mildest. Darker teff tastes almost like hazelnuts.
Wheat Berry: Extremely chewy whole grains of wheat. Cracked wheat berries are more user-friendly, with a mild grain taste and slight crunchiness. (Bulgur is cracked wheat that has been precooked before packaging.)
*Adapted from [ital]Whole Foods Companion[ital], by Diane Onstad (Chelsea Green Publishing; 2004 revised edition).
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