What's The Deal With Ancient Grains?

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

If you've been cooking about in the last 2 or 3 years you've probably come across in recipes, TV, or eating out the phrase "ancient grains." It's almost as if "ancient" needs to precede whatever grain or carbohydrate or legume in a fancy restaurant to seem legitimate anymore. Sometimes I question it. Although I love Mr. Michael Chiarello, his "ancient grains polenta" has nothing ancient about it really. Like, we've been calling it just "polenta" for hundreds and thousands of years. so why all of a sudden add "ancient" to it?

That's what I mean.

However, there has been a trend going back to the basics with various carbohydrates, legumes, beans, and grains. And I'm loving every single minute of it. With the rise of diabetic and heart awareness in the last 10 years in particular, doctors and chefs alike have gone back in time to see how the ancients would eat. The simple idea of It Worked For Them, Why Wouldn't It Work For Us is a wonderful way to look at food, being healthy, and frankly exploring our own and other cultural heritages and histories. And you know I'm all about the latter, so I'm officially on the Ancient Grains Train.

But what the hell are they? There are many. The short answer is: anything but white flour. The longer answer I attempt to shed light on here...


Quinoa (pronounced "keen-wah") is a very, very old grain that is 100% deserving of the "ancient" label. Quinoa is from the same family of beets, spinach, and tumbleweeds of all things. We eat the seeds of the plant. The originate from the Andes in South America and have been cultivated by the Incas there since around 4000 years ago who held the grain to be sacred and the most important of all the grains. In fact, it held positions in important rituals in addition to being a food for sustenance. However archaeological evidence suggests the wild consumption of quinoa to go back as far as 7000 years ago. It thrives in hardy, sandy soil and can withstand huge temperature differences from 90 degrees down below freezing.

The seeds in their raw form are beige in color and very hard. You boil the seeds in water or other liquid and they turn a reddish-brown as seen above and become considerably tender but still with a lovely al dente texture to them. They're hardy enough to withstand vinaigrettes for seasoning and won't deflate or become soggy, which makes them ideal for picnic salads or parties. You can use quinoa the same way you'd use pasta -- so light olive oil based dressings, citrus to flavor (lemon is excellent with quinoa), herbs go wonderfully -- or rice so infusing the quinoa with broths and other seasonings while boiling produces a wonderful dish. Quinoa is valued for its high protein. So if you're  vegetarian or vegan you may want to introduce quinoa into your repertoire. And even if you're not, it's a great and super healthy alternative to fattier steaks and (gasp) pork.

[photo courtesy of OrganicPlant.com]

We've heard it and probably you've had it already. Teeny tiny little balls of fluff often served as a side dish instead of rice or pasta, couscous is a fabulous and healthy grain we really should incorporate more often. There are a few versions of couscous; we're most exposed to the kind above made with ground semolina wheat. The makers are also kind enough to parcook them for us, so at home we can usually make couscous in 10 minutes flat, if that.

Couscous originates in western Africa and remains a popular food item in Morocco, the Mediterranean, parts of India, the Middle East, and even in South America (by way of Spanish settlers). It can be made from wheat or pearl millet (wheat is usually the preferred version in the Mediterranean while pearl millet is for African and Indian cuisine) which is why you'll find sometimes it's very small granules or larger balls like pearls (see picture above). Sometimes the pearl millet is called Israeli Couscous to distinguish it from the much smaller and yellow colored wheat version.

Depending on how raw the couscous is you're working with, it can be steamed or boiled. Most commercially available couscous is already parsteamed, so all you have to do is boil it to reconstitute it and infuse it with flavor. If you're working with raw couscous, the process is considerably more involved: you must steam it a few times (usually 2 or 3) in a special steamer lined with cheesecloth to catch the small pieces in order to achieve the desired fluffiness couscous is known for. Different cultures prepare it different ways. You can infuse flavor by using a broth instead of plain water when boiling. Adding aromatics is a wonderful and super traditional way to prepare couscous -- I love using a combination of bay leaf, cinnamon stick, clove, and orange zest. Once the couscous is cooked you can also "dress" it with a flavored oil or vinaigrette much as you would pasta or rice. Traditional African preparations serve couscous with vegetables steamed (or boiled) with it, which also infuse the flavors. Use carrots, parsnips, celery or other root vegetables to infuse flavor. Or, do it the Moroccan and African way and make a stew of veggies and meat and serve the stew on top of the couscous like you would a thick ragu on pasta noodles. For a light vegetarian side dish, try a mix of chopped fresh herbs, scallions, tomatoes, good olive oil and lemon juice. You can even make it more of a dessert like the Egyptians and use cinnamon, clove, black pepper, rose water or orange water, and dried fruits and nuts, and honey to flavor the couscous. As you can see, the options are limited to your imagination and fridge.


Closely related to the couscous is millet. Like quinoa, it's one of those super ancient grains dating back to neolithic times in eastern India and Asia. Millet is a grain crop and considered a cereal. Eventually it made its way into Europe via the Black Sea where it was embraced by the Germans of all people, and remains a popular dish in Russia. Millet grows in drought, making it a "savior crop" that quite literally saved generations of people in times of  intense drought.

It's prepared in boiling watter, again the idea is to plump the seeds up with liquid. It's most often prepared as a sort of porridge, kind of like you'd eat grits or polenta, so that's the consistency you're looking for. It's very low calorie and fat. Millet functions a lot in the same way as wheat does, so if you have wheat allergies you may want to incorporate millet as a substitute. It contains no gluten (yay for diabetes!) but that also means you can't make bread out of it unless you combine it with glucose (i.e. carbs), so millet will give you flatbread at best. Those with thyroid issues beware -- millet has huge antithyroid properties so stay away!!!


[two kinds of barley; you pick out the grains from the long grass-like stalks]

Yes, barley. You know what it is and have had it if you've eaten bread and drunk beer. I'm beyond excited to say yes, eat bread and drink beer, it's good for you (!!!!). Despite the incredible amount of tasty beers (and bread) that have come out of Europe, barley in fact is not indigenous to Europe. Wha?? Yes, it's true. It's actually from the east. I'm talking Asian east like Korea and Middle East like Syria and Egypt. Yes, it's true. And the Egyptians are credited for making the first real beers. But that's another posting entirely.

Despite providing a tasty alcoholic beverage, barley also provides wonderful nutritional value for foods. It's heavy on amino acids and dramatically brings down blood sugar. So diabetic peeps - start munching on barley grains! You can eat the grains toasted by themselves -- they are wonderfully crunchy a lot like Grape Nuts cereal and have a very pleasant sweetness to them. They taste like "beer seeds" if such a thing could exist. The grains can also be baked into breads or throw into soups where they plump up to wonderfully tender little nuggets of yum. Or, make beer.


["spelt berries": left = chucked; right = unshucked]

From the area north of the Black Sea, spelt is a grain used for thousands of years. Earliest known going as far back as 4000 BC. Ya, that's a while ago. The grain made its way into central and western Europe where it surged in popularity during the Middle Ages. Most of our recipes we know today using spelt will come from that time period, courtesy of England and Germany mostly. Spelt is high in protein and other vitamins, but interestingly also contains a little fat and gluten making it a wonderful sustainable crop during those times. Have you always wondered how in movies all they seem to do is eat porridge or eat bread and live fine? Spelt is why -- it has everything in it to sustain them so it was extremely popular among the poor class as well.

Germans eat the spelt like a cereal, or you can grind the grains finely into a spelt flour and make bread.  However, people allergic to wheat can definitely use spelt instead.


It just sounds so cool, doesn't it? Kamut is another very old grain by way of Egypt. It was found in ancient tombs of the pharoahs, and is said to have been brought aboard Noah's Ark. It's also called Khorasan Wheat, after the region in Khorasan, Iran where it is widely cultivated. Full of protein and many amino acids and vitamins, it's extremely healthy and a wonderful option if you're watching your weight.

It has a nice buttery flavor and good firm texture when cooked. Like the other grains above, it's best to cook kamut in water or broth to make it nice and tender. The "berries" can be ground up and used as a flour, but kamut has no leavening on its own so it must be combined with other grains and leavening agents to produce bread. A popular way to cook kamut is like you would oatmeal: a ratio of 1:3 kamut to liquid and cooking until very tender, then topping with a little milk or cream. Kamut is a bit tougher than other grains, so be sure to invest the proper amount of liquid and time to get it just right.

Now that you know about some of these readily available ancient grains, I encourage you to pick some up and start experimenting with recipes. You can never go wrong adding fresh herbs, olive oil, lemon juice, salt and pepper, and maybe some chopped tomatoe or cucumber or even dried fruits to create wonderful dishes. Eat them on their own or use them as a healthy side dish for saucy stews, briskets, and grilled meats and fish.

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