The Hungry Engineer

In Praise of Whole Grains

19 Jun 2008

Most of us have had a bowl of oatmeal for breakfast at some point in our lives. Many of us may have even had some super-glitzy wild rice as a side dish. But not everyone has partaken of a big, steaming bowl of spelt. We haven’t all had the pleasure of tasting a delicately mushroom-flavored barley risotto. To me that is a shame.

Whole grains are easy to prepare, work well in a variety of culinary applications, and are very nutritious. And as if all that weren’t enough, they’re fairly cost effective and they store well too. Generally, may of them get treated similarly in their preparation. Rinse the grains, boil them in water till they’re appropriately tender, then perform whatever remaining steps the recipe calls for. This boiling can take anywhere from a few minutes to upwards of an hour, depending on the grain in question. I’ve read several times that soaking them overnight can reduce their cooking time substantially (not unlike dried beans), so that could be useful if time is of the essence. As for storage, I typically just put mine in the freezer in the plastic bulk-goods containers I brought them home in.

A lot of us include sort of a neutral side on our plates at dinner time. Often this serves as a delivery device, structure element, or absorbing agent for other items on the plate. Sometimes there’s rice to eat with our stir fry. Other times we have bread or a roll to sop up sauce. Mashed potatoes often get to play as the unobtrusive side because, let’s face it, gravy is good, and you need the potatoes to hold the gravy. I vote that we all try just once to substitute one of the more esoteric grains for a side dish sometime soon. Here’s a recipe that I’ve enjoyed making and that my husband Sean has enjoyed eating: Wheat Berries with Pecans. It’s chewy, nutty, and soul-warming.

I find one-pot meals to be an incredible convenience, even if they sometimes take a bit of time to prepare (I’d much rather spend my time cooking than washing dishes any day of the week). Here’s one made with quinoa (pronouced keen-wah). Quinoa is a mildly-flavored grain with, in my opinion, a very pleasing texture. It cooks relatively fast, and it’s extremely nutritious. The recipe I make fairly regularly is for Quinoa Salad with Toasted Pistachios and Dried Pineapple. It’s a wonderful combination of spicy and sweet, herbacious and rich. I haven’t tried it this way yet, but I’m guessing it would be incredibly good with shrimp substituted for the chicken. Also, it reheats really well, so I usually make enough to have leftovers.

One preparation I’ve tried most recently has been to use whole grain, this time millet, as an ingredient in muffins. Something I do a lot of is bake muffins or quickbreads and then package them up and freeze them so that I can have healthy and easily microwaved (read: quick) breakfasts in the mornings. Last weekend, I made Millet Muffins. The recipe actually has you preparing a honey-pecan butter for them as well, and I’m sure that would be really good, but I didn’t bother with it. The muffins were plenty tasty on their own. Here’s the intersting thing about these. You don’t actually boil the millet to soften it. For this recipe, you grind it a bit in a spice-grinder to kind of break it up, and then mix it into the batter dry. I love it. The muffins are mildly sweet and wonderfully moist and the millet adds a crunchy texture that I really enjoy.

I hope you try these recipes out. Look around on the almighty internet, and you’ll find dozens more if these don’t float your boat. But either way definitely consider including more of these and other whole grains in your diet. They’re good for you and they can help add some variety to the food you put on the table.

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