Food Trend: Ancient Grains

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Wheat Berry Salad; Ellie Krieger.

Photo by: Tara Donne

Tara Donne

Wheat Berry Salad; Ellie Krieger.

There's nothing wrong with plain old wheat, but curious cooks all over are drawing inspiration from the history books and cooking up old-world grains to add texture and variety (not to mention extra nutrition) to meals. Read this primer on the most popular varieties, then get 15 healthy whole grains recipes here.

Kamut
Often considered the granddaddy of all grains, kamut is a variety of wheat that has never been hybridized. The high-protein grain gets its name from the ancient Egyptian word for "wheat," and one legend says the grain was discovered in the tombs of ancient Pharaohs. We're not sure about all that, but the grain is two times larger and much more nutritious than modern wheat varieties. It's used commercially in pastas and crackers, but you can also use the deliciously nutty grain whole in salads, soups or pilafs.

Quinoa
We're cautious about throwing the term "superfood" around, but quinoa is a definite food star. Most folks call quinoa (pronounced "keen-whah") a grain, but it's actually a seed — one that originated thousands of years ago in the Andes Mountains. Dubbed "the gold of the Incas," it's treasured because of its nutritive value (more protein than any other grain or seed!).  Plus, it's gluten-free and cooks up in less than 15 minutes. You'll usually find quinoa in its tan or yellow form, though it comes in many colors: orange, red, pink, purple and black.  Any color of quinoa works great as a simple side dish or in a pilaf. Be sure to rinse it before cooking to get rid of its natural soapy coating. 

Get more ideas for cooking quinoa >>

Millet
You've probably purchased millet before — it's often the star grain in bags of bird seed. But this tiny grain isn't just for the birds: The little yellow kernels have been used in African, Asian and Indian cuisine for thousands of years. Commonly called a grain, it's actually a seed that must be hulled before we can eat it. Millet is gluten-free and packed with magnesium and fiber. Use this versatile, gluten-free grain in everything from hot cereal to savory side dishes.  You can also buy it in flour form, which is wonderful for baking.

Spelt
This grain has more protein, B vitamins and iron than its cousin wheat.  You can find spelt at natural food stores in two forms: whole kernels, or "berries," and ground flour. Spelt flour is often used in breads, muffins and cookies — you may even see it in the packaged baked-goods section at your health food store. You can replace some or all of the flour in a bread or muffin recipe with spelt. It will give the food a sweet, nutty flavor and an extra dose of protein and vitamins. As for spelt berries, try them in any recipe that calls for cooked grains (rice, quinoa or wheat berries), like side dishes, salads and hearty soups.

Amaranth
Once considered a lowly weed here in the United States, this plant has climbed the social ladder and is now being acknowledged as a nutritious, high-protein food. The seeds can be used in a cereal, or ground into flour for bread or baking. The greens of this plant are also edible — try them sautéed or in salads. 

Buckwheat
This Russian native is often thought of as a grain, but it's actually an herb.  The seeds of this plant are used to make buckwheat flour, which gives a bold flavor to pancakes and famous Russian blinis. You can also use the hulled, crushed kernels (called buckwheat groats) in rice-like side dishes. Roasted groats, called kasha, have a nuttier flavor.

Barley
This grain has been around practically forever (seriously — since the Stone Age), and can be used in everything from cereals to side dishes to soups.  Although a large portion of the Western world's barley crops are used to feed animals or to make beer and whiskey, you can find several varieties of the grain in natural foods stores. Barley grits are made from cracked hulled barley and include the nutritious bran, while polished pearl barley does not.  

Get more ideas for cooking barley >>

Bulgur
Bulgur (pronounced BUHL-guhr) is a quick-cooking form of whole wheat that's produced by cleaning, steaming, drying and crushing whole-wheat kernels. This is truly an ancient grain — the process of turning wheat into bulgur has been around for thousands of years and originated in the Mediterranean region. With a nutty flavor and chewy texture, bulgur cooks up like rice; you only need some hot water or stock. You'll find it in coarse, medium or fine grinds. Use coarse grinds for stuffing, soups and casseroles, medium grinds anywhere you'd use rice, and the finest grinds for breakfast cereals and tabbouleh salad.

Some folks confuse bulgur with the term "cracked wheat," but they aren't the same thing. Bulgur is pre-cooked and ready to eat after minimal cooking; cracked wheat hasn't been cooked and therefore takes a lot longer to prepare.

Wheat Berries
Wheat berries are a true whole grain. You may not recognize the name, but without these kernels, there would be no flour. Wheat berries are whole-wheat kernels. They look like thick, short grains, similar to brown rice. Industrious cooks grind them into whole-wheat flour for baking; you may not have the time to regularly grind your own flour, but it's a fun thing to try at least once.

When boiled, cooked wheat berries have a chewy bite and subtle nutty, earthy flavor. They're sturdy enough to handle bold salad dressings and still delicate enough to taste delicious with some milk, honey and cinnamon. If you like sprouts on salads and sandwiches, add a little water to wheat berries and you can grow your own wheat sprouts.

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