I have experimented cooking with “ancient” grains lately, mostly in stews and soups, recipes downthread. The gluten grains, wheat, rye, barley, spelt and kamut, must be avoided should you be allergic to them. It’s important to note that wheat has become dominant in the diet of the modern world not because of its nutritional value but because of its commercial convenience. Sadly, the opposite is the case with spelt and amaranth which can be used as a high-protein grain or as a leafy vegetable, and quinoa whose green leaves can also be eaten though the availability of quinoa greens is severely limited. Pic of amaranth below, note how pretty it is as well as being immensely edible! Food of the gods indeed.
These “ancient” grains have a much higher nutritional value than wheat but lack the formidable marketing machine behind wheat and therefore have become less prevalent, which is a pity.
Quinoa was called “the mother grain” by the Incas, and was considered sacred. It was believed to be brought from heaven by the kullku, a sacred bird, and quinoa grains were honored as the progenitors of the city of Cuzco in Peru. Quinoa is high in protein, calcium and iron, and contains Vitamin E and B vitamins. Quinoa is not technically a grain. The seeds are the fruits of a leafy green plant in the Chenopodium family. It is in the same family as beets, chard, and spinach. It cooks up both soft and crunchy. As it cooks, the outer germ cooks up crunchy, and the grain cooks up soft. It comes in colors ranging from pinks to browns to reds.
With the most complete nutrition and highest protein content of any grain (its protein is high in lysine, methionine and cystine) quinoa is light, tasty, and easy to digest. Besides its unique protein, quinoa also provides starch, sugars, oil (high in essential linoleic acid), fiber, minerals, and vitamins. Many people seem to eat grains only during the colder months, but quinoa’s lightness combined with its versatility in cold dishes like salads and desserts makes it an ideal source of excellent nutrition all year round.
Mutton Stew Izzy (named as such because it’s damn easy to prepare, one hour tops.)
There’s nothing like a hearty mutton stew to ward off the incoming winter blues and this one happens to be inexpensive to make. Ask your butcher for neck cuts, boned and chunked. When I say mutton, most butchers or supermarkets don’t stock it and it’s most likely aged lamb that will end up in your stew. But do try to source mutton if you can, it tastes, well, muttony!
Note the following: quinoa is coated with a waxy substance called saponin that has a bitter taste to naturally repel birds and insects from eating the grain. Because of this, it is important to rinse quinoa before adding to any stew or soup
For 6 to 8 persons you will need:
2 pounds of mutton or lamb neck, 3 tablespoons of olive oil, 1 pint of chicken stock, 2 eggplants, cut into chunks, 2 leeks, cleaned and chopped up, 4 carrots, cut into same size chunks as eggplants, 6 to 8 garlic cloves, peeled and chopped roughly, 2 large onions, chopped up, 2 yellow or red bell peppers, cut into rough triangles, 1 pound and a half baby potatoes, 300 grams quinoa (pre-rinsed), bunch of parsley, 2 or 3 thyme and rosemary sprigs, 2 bay leaves, the juice of 2 lemons, approximately 1/2 cup of cornstarch, salt & pepper to taste.
In a large cast-iron pot and over a medium flame heat the oil, then add garlic, the onion and the leek, stir well, add the meat chunks, throw the cornstarch into it, stirring at all times, add the lemon juice, the chicken stock (from cubes is ok), then all the vegetables & potatoes, herbs and cover, cooking for 30 minutes slowly. Add the rinsed quinoa and cook further for 12 minutes or until it’s done. I have done a different version adding tomato passata to this dish to color it but I have to say that I prefer the mutton without it.
Tuna & Quinoa Salad, Italian Dressing:
This is a great dish that can be served all year round, cold or warmed up.
Note: to prepare in a rice cooker, simply treat quinoa like rice. Add two parts water to one part quinoa, stir, cover (unlike rice you can stir quinoa a few times while cooking to prevent burning in the bottom of the pan) and when the cooker shuts off, the quinoa is done. Alternatively you can also use a microwave to cook it: 1 cup quinoa, 2 cups water in a 2 quart microwave bowl. Cook on high 100% for 5 minutes and 60% for 8 minutes. Let stand for a few minutes and voila, perfect quinoa. Now you have a highly nutritious cooked grain which you can use for a number of dishes like salads, pilafs, soups and even breakfast (try it with yogurt, dried fruits, nuts and a dash of maple syrup).
For 4 to 6 persons you will need:
About 1 cup and a half of quinoa, 2 medium cans wildcaught tuna drained and flaked (check labels to ensure you’re getting the real thing), 1 bunch baby spinach leaves, 2 green Thai chilies (finely minced), a handful of basil leaves, 2 cucumbers seeded and cut small, 2 celery sticks chopped up finely, 4 or 5 firm tomatoes (you can even include green tomatoes in this recipe) seeded and cut finely, 2 or 3 scallions (white and some green) chopped up roughly, the juice of 2 limes, 4 garlic cloves finely minced, a pinch of cayenne pepper, some sea salt, 1/2 cup of virgin olive oil, 4 tablespoons of Balsamic vinegar.
First cook quinoa as described above, and set aside. When cool, prepare your salad: mix all the above in a wooden bowl, add the quinoa, the lime juice, the balsamic vinegar and mix again before you add the oil. Check for salt and serve with warm or toasted pita pockets.
Amaranth (Amaranthus, pic above) has a colorful history, is highly nutritious, and the plant itself is extremely attractive and useful. Amaranth was a staple in the diets of pre-Columbian Aztecs, who believed it had supernatural powers and incorporated it into their religious ceremonies. The leaves and seeds of the amaranth plant are still characteristic ingredients in Mexican cuisine, especially in the staes of Morelos, Mexico, Puebla, Tlaxcala, and particularly Oaxaca, where the plant is widely cultivated as a valuable cash crop, worth four times more per kilo than corn. This is understandable, given the fact that amaranth provides a high quality protein, with a nearly perfect balance of essential amino acids, including abundant lysine and methionine, not found in most grains.
Amaranth is just as easy to cook as quinoa. Here is a recipe for a truly fantastic soup. The trick is to find a few smoked tomatoes because it brings out the flavor of the amaranth superbly. If you can’t find any, it’s easy enough to make your own smoking device: just follow the instructions here. A quick aside: in China, the leaves and stems are used as a stir-fry vegetable and called Yin Choi (which would be a close cousin to Bok Choi!)
Smoked Tomato, Pancetta, Bell pepper & Amaranth Soup:
For 6 to 8 persons you will need:
2 pints chicken stock, 1 and 1/4 cups amaranth, 4 red bell peppers, seeded and cut into chunks, 1 leek, cut into chunks, 4 medium-sized smoked tomatoes (don’t overdo it with smoked tomatoes, just a few will give you that flavor), and roughly 10 ounces of Pancetta (which is really glorified bacon), 6 garlic cloves, peeled, salt & pepper to taste. A dash of cream (optional) but it gives this soup a nice velvety touch.
All you need to do is to put all of these ingredients into a large pot and cook it slowly for close to one hour. Use a processor to blend it, then add the cream and a few chopped basil leaves for effect.
I’ve tried another version in which I added a handful of blanched almonds. Not a bad result.
Are you ready for a bit of exotica?
Chicken & Amaranth Tagine, Moroccan Style:
I simply love tagines.
Note: if you are going to make this dish, it would be even greater if you were to procure yourself with a few preserved lemons, a must ingredient in a Moroccan tagine dish. Having said that, if you can’t come across these little buggers, then use the juice of 3 or 4 lemons.
For 6 to 8 persons you will need:
6 chicken breasts, cut into medium-sized chunks, 1 and a half pint of chicken stock, 2 soup spoons of olive oil, 2 onions, chopped, 2 zucchinis, sliced thick, 8 oz of amaranth, 1 large can of cooked garbanzo beans, rinsed and drained, 1 pint of passata, the juice of 3 or 4 lemons, 6 garlic cloves, peeled and chopped, 1 pinch of cinnamon, 1 pinch of ground coriander, 1 pinch of smoked paprika, 1 pinch of ground cumin, and a big handful of large green olives, salt & pepper to taste. You can give this dish a little heat if you add a soup spoon of harissa or a couple of chopped chilies.
In a tagine or cooking pot, heat up the oil, add the garlic, then the onions and the chicken. Stir well till more or less sealed, and add the zucchinis, amaranth, all the spices & olives then the garbanzo beans and the lemon juice. Cover with the passata, mix well and cook slowly for 50 minutes, with the lid on. Make sure you stir every 10 minutes or so. You can plate this dish and top it up with a few toasted almond flakes.
You can’t convert grams into ounces? Well here’s the conversion site I use, very handy when bookmarked!
Amaranth & Lentil Salad with Grilled Eggplant & Fennel:
Nutritionally, both the leaves and grain of amaranth are of unusual value. But this time I’ll use the leaves which taste like spinach or Swiss chard with a spicy bite to it. Amaranth is also rich in B-Complex vitamins so when combined with lentils you have a powerful dish.
For 4 to 6 persons you will need 8 ounces of dried green lentils, 8 ounces of fresh amaranth leaves (if impossible to get, you can substitute with either spinach, Swiss chard or even kale), 2 eggplants, 4 fennel bulbs, 2 bell peppers, red & green, 4 garlic cloves, finely minced, 1 large shallot, finely diced, 4 tablespoons (60 ml) raspberry vinegar, 1/3 cup (200ml) extra virgin olive oil, salt & pepper to taste.
First soak the lentils for a couple of hours and rinse well under cold water. Cook them over medium heat with a dash of the olive oil and some salt, drain and set aside to cool. To retain most of the iron and Vitamin C, steam the amaranth leaves for 5 minutes, cool and set aside. Slice the eggplants thickly, fennel bulbs and bell peppers, brush them with olive oil and grill them all on both sides for 5 minutes. In a serving plate or platter, toss the lentils into the amaranth leaves, mix well and garnish with the grilled vegetables.
In a mixing bowl throw the garlic and chopped shallot, add the vinegar then whisk in the olive oil, the chopped basil and season as you see fit. Pour over the “salad” and serve.
A poster asked for a recipe for spelt. I use spelt mostly as a flour for bread but here’s a neat recipe using pearled spelt (same grain but with its outer husk removed) as a risotto.
Note: spelt is not suitable for coeliac sufferers, it contains gluten.
Spelt & Wild Mushroom Risotto:
For 4 to 6 persons you will need 12 ounces (340 grams approx.) of pearled spelt, 16 ounces of wild mushrooms (fresh if you can find them, if not use button mushrooms or shiitake, oyster mushrooms, whichever you can find), 4 garlic cloves & 1 leek, finely minced, a small bunch of flat parsley, 2 soupspoons olive oil, half a pint of dry white wine and a full pint of vegetable stock, salt & pepper to taste. These nutty grains have a bouncier, more resilient texture than rice and make a really good risotto.
First it’s best to rinse the spelt under cold water then soak it in a bowl of water for 20 minutes before cooking. Heat the olive oil in your favorite cooking vessel, add the garlic, leek and chopped mushrooms and sweat for a couple of minutes, stirring. Add the spelt and stir for a minute, making sure all of the grains are well coated and not sticking together. Then add the dry white, keep stirring for a few seconds, then gradually add the vegetable stock in batches, making sure the liquids are well absorbed. This should not take more than 10, 12 minutes altogether. Throw in the chopped parsley towards the end and serve. Add some grated Parmesan or Fontina cheese if you want a richer dish.
The use of spelt goes back to about 5000 BC, when it was first cultivated in the region now called Iran. A kernel of spelt looks like a large grain of rice; it has a tough outer husk that protects its nutrients. Removing the husk makes spelt costly to process, so this ancient grain all but vanished in the United States until it was rediscovered about 12 years ago by a grain purveyor in the Midwest. Even though it does contain gluten, spelt seems to be tolerated by most wheat-sensitive people.
Quinoa & Smoked Tofu Stir-fry:
For 4 to 6 persons you will need 10 ounces (roughly 280 grams) of quinoa, 18 ounces of smoked tofu (or tempeh which is just as good), a bunch of Bok Choy, chopped roughly, 2 red onions, cut into strips, 6 to 8 cloves of garlic, peeled and minced finely, a handful of sun-dried tomatoes, cut into little bits, 4 red chili peppers (or 6 to 8 Thai green chilies) cut finely, 2 celery sticks, a small amount of toasted sesame oil, and have your bottle of Ketjap Manis or Tamari handy.
First cook the de-coated quinoa (as described above): just put the grain in a pot and cover with water. Bring the pot to a boil, cover, and turn down the heat to a low simmer. Let it cook for about 15 minutes, then remove from heat. the grains should be fluffy. Drain well and set aside.
Cube your smoked tofu or tempeh. Choose a large stir-fry pan or wok, pour a little sesame oil, add the onion and garlic first, stir well and cook for 2 minutes, then add the sun-dried tomato bits (it gives a sensational taste to the dish and you need less salt), then the chilies, chopped celery, bok choy, keep stirring as you cook, add the cubed tofu then the quinoa, mix it well then toss in some Ketjap Manis or Tamari to taste.
Have you ever tried teff? Teff is the smallest grain in the world. It takes about 150 teff seeds to equal the weight of a kernel of wheat!
Ivory and brown teff are sweet tasting grains unlike any other. Brown teff has a subtle hazelnut, almost chocolate-like flavor and a moist texture similar to millet, but more exotic. Ivory teff has a milder flavor than the brown. Tinier than a poppy seed, teff is a nutritional powerhouse.
This naturally gluten free grain is great as porridge. I’ve seen pancake batter made with teff as well. Teff packs a nutritional punch, and a serious one at that. Many believe Ethiopian runners owe their dominance in the long-distance running field to this tiny native African grain. Try the following recipe if you’re about to enroll in a marathon!
Honeyed Teff Porridge with Dates:
For 2 servings you will need a cup of teff, 4 cups water (although you can mix water & milk if you wish to have a richer porridge), 2 or 3 ounces of dried dates, cut up, 2 ounces of Acacia honey (or any honey you like), a pinch of cinnamon and a pinch of grated nutmeg.
Combine teff and water (and milk) in a medium-sized saucepan. Bring to a boil, reduce heat, cover, and let simmer until the liquid is absorbed which should be about 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the chopped dates and the cinnamon & nutmeg. Top it up with a generous amount of honey.