Whole Grains and Why They’re Good for You

Of course this is not news but a simple iteration on grains. As kids I’m sure most of you were told to eat your greens and your grains. I sure was. Whole grains are a good source of B vitamins, Vitamin-E, magnesium, iron and fiber, as well as a myriad of valuable antioxidants not found in some fruits and vegetables. Why whole? All grains are composed of three parts: bran, germ and endosperm. Most of the antioxidants and vitamins are found in the germ and the bran.

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However not all grains are created equal: all grains contain complex carbohydrates and various vitamins and minerals, but unrefined (whole) grains such as brown rice, quinoa, and oats are an even better source of fiber, selenium, potassium, and magnesium.
If the grain has been processed (e.g., cracked, crushed, rolled, extruded, lightly pearled and/or cooked), the food product may not deliver the same rich balance of nutrients that are found in the original grain seed. Well, that is a given. The gluten grains, wheat, rye, barley, spelt and kamut, should be avoided since a large percentage of the population is allergic to gluten. I don’t know how much gluten they contain, but I’d wage that it is likely to be more than you would find in wheat starch and so it’s best avoided by celiac patients.

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The main reason for writing this diary is not to give you a lecture on the goodness of whole grains but to give a few pointers on how to use three of them to your advantage in these dire economic times. Because grains are a whole lot cheaper than meat products and pack a wallop in proteins.

First a quick (but incomplete) list of the grains I use:

Pulses and legumes: more than forty species and countless varieties of grain legumes are cultivated throughout the world: peas, soyabeans, chickpeas (garbanzo), pinto, black bean, red kidney bean, lentils (all kinds: Puy, red, yellow and green), adzuki bean, cowpea (also known as black-eyed pea), mung bean (also called Oregon pea), lima bean (broad, fava or butter bean), cannellini bean and many more. All make excellent stir-fries and can be easily stored (dry beans will keep indefinitely if stored in a cool, dry place, but as time passes, their nutritive value and flavor degrade and cooking times lengthen so make sure you rotate your dry goods on a regular basis if you keep a large supply).

Rice kinds: White rice can last but brown rice has a shelf life of just a few months, because it still has a bran layer. Rice is an excellent source of folate, and a good source of iron, niacin and thiamin. And the choices are amazing: black rice, red rice from Camargues, Louisiana rice, Jasmine rice, arborio (for that earthy risotto!), wehani, then you have short grain rice, enriched rice, instant rice, converted rice (riceroni), and of course wild rice, native of North America (it’s really a grass but don’t tell anyone!)

Grains: not everyone can eat wheat. Wheat has become dominant in the diet of the modern world not because of its nutritional value but because of its convenience commercially. The opposite is the case with spelt, 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 commercial availability of quinoa greens is severely limited). These grains have a much higher nutritional value than wheat but lack the commercial convenience of wheat and therefore have become less prevalent, which is a pity. Other grains of note: couscous (from wheat), rye, polenta (also known as cornmeal), barley (great grain, very useful in soups, stews and stir-fries), buckwheat, bulgur wheat (both great in tabouleh), and oats for breakfast and crusty breads.

For my money, the very best of whole grains are by far the triumvirate of Quinoa, Amaranth and Spelt. And these are the grains that feature in this diary.

Spelt:

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.

And here’s my killer spelt salad: spelt with braised eggplant and caramelized onions, with a Balsamic vinegar & hazelnut oil dressing (though this is a bit fancy, you can easily substitute the hazelnut oil with olive or sunflower):

2 cups dried spelt, 2 large eggplants, 2 pints vegetable stock, 2 large onions, 4 garlic cloves, salt & pepper to taste, 4 tablespoons of hazelnut oil or olive, 2 tablespoons of Balsamic vinegar, a handful of fresh basil leaves (if not available, flat parsley will do) a knob of butter and a pinch of sugar for the onions, and 2 tablespoons of Dijon mustard.

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Preheat oven to 375˚F. Cut the eggplant lengthways, brush them with a little oil and bake till cooked, 30 minutes maximum and set aside. In a cooking pot place the spelt, bring to boil then reduce, uncovered, for about 45 minutes and cover with the vegetable stock, cook and bake In a medium saucepot, combine spelt, a pinch of salt and about 6 cups of water. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to medium-low and simmer, uncovered, for 50 minutes (until spelt is tender but still a little chewy). Drain and set aside. In a frying pan, melt the butter and cook the chopped onions, adding the brown sugar as you go. Stir till caramelized (5 minutes) and set aside. Make your dressing by whisking the mustard with the Balsamic vinegar, then the oil. Add the finely minced garlic. Check for salt & pepper. Cut the eggplant in chunks, add the onions and mix in the cooked spelt. Pour the dressing and add the chopped basil leaves. If you wish you can add some roasted pine nuts or pumpkin seeds to this. Nutritious and a good side dish to go with just about anything or on its own.

Amaranth:

Amaranth (Amaranthus) 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. Before the Spanish conquest in 1519, amaranth was associated with human sacrifice and the Aztec women made a mixture of ground amaranth seed, honey or human blood then shaped this mixture into idols that were eaten ceremoniously. This practice appalled the conquistadors who reasoned that eliminating the amaranth would also eliminate the sacrifices. The grain was forbidden by the Spanish, and consequently fell into obscurity for hundreds of years. If not for the fact that the cultivation of amaranth continued in a few remote areas of the Andes and Mexico, it may have become extinct and completely lost to us.

Good thing it survived! Royal quinoa and amaranth are the most nutritive seeds on earth with an ideal protein and mineral profiles. Both royal quinoa and amaranth are hypoallergenic and naturally free of gluten. Soaking royal quinoa and amaranth overnight will help to preserve their nutritional profiles to their best. Now widely sold in health food stores and supermarkets, both grains are also available on the Internet. Amaranth flour is ideal for use in gluten-free diets. The plant is easy to grow in the home garden, sprouting quickly and needing very little special care. Although best nurtured by good soil and moisture as all plants do, it is most resilient and can survive both drought conditions and poor soil.

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Note that rinsing amaranth is tricky since the seeds are so tiny. If you can, line your strainer with cheesecloth. Anyway here’s my turkey & amaranth stir-fry (turkey can be substituted with any other meat or a bunch of vegetables):

2 cups amaranth (pre-soaked overnight), half a pound of turkey breast, 2 pints of chicken stock, salt & pepper to taste, 2 medium sized zucchinis, 2 red bell peppers, 6 garlic cloves, 2 red onions, 2 tablespoons of sesame oil, a dash of Tamari or soya sauce. Cut up the turkey into fine strips, mix with the tamari and the finely minced garlic and set aside. Cook your amaranth in the chicken stock (or vegetable one) for about 20 minutes or until soft, drain and set aside (the leftover cooking liquid will make an excellent soup). In a wok, pour a little sesame oil, add the chopped onions, the then turkey strips, stir for 2 or 3 minutes, add the chopped bell peppers and the sliced zucchinis. Cook for a further 2 minutes, then add some soya sauce or tamari, then the amaranth, keep stirring for another minute and it’s done.

Quinoa:

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.

Quinoa is simple to make, cooks very much like rice, and is absolutely delicious all by itself. Cooked quinoa is similar to couscous, but more substantial, tasty and nourishing. So is my quinoa tabouleh!

Get your hands on a handful of flat parsley to make this tasty and incredibly healthy starter (or main). 2 cups of quinoa, 1 cup of chopped flat parsley, 4 ripe tomatoes, 2 red onions, 1 cucumber, the juice of 2 lemons, 4 tablespoons of olive oil, a dash of tamari, a pinch of hot paprika (optional) and a few mint leaves to add freshness. Cook your quinoa like the amaranth, 20 minutes tops, drain and set aside. Finely chop your onions, tomatoes and cucumber. Add the parsley and mint. Mix with the quinoa and add the lemon juice and olive oil. Salt & pepper to taste. And that pinch of paprika!

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From Diana Mirkin’s website, two useful charts on cooking grains.

Chart 1. Cooking Whole Grains in a Steamer

For 2 cups (1 lb.) Grains: Amount of bouillon Cooking Time
Wheat Berries 4 cups 75 minutes
Kamut 4 cups 75 minutes
Spelt 4 cups 75 minutes
Rye 4 cups 75 minutes
Triticale 4 cups 75 minutes
Oat Groats 4 cups 75 minutes
Barley 4 cups 75 minutes
Brown Rice 4 cups 65-75 minutes
Wild Rice (½lb.) 4 cups 75 minutes
Job’s Tears 4 cups 75 minutes
Millet 4 cups 40 minutes
Quinoa 4 cups 30 minutes
Amaranth 4 cups 30 minutes
Teff 3 cups 40 minutes
Kasha (Buckwheat) 4 cups 15-20 minutes
Bulgur 4 cups 20 minutes

Chart 2. Cooking Whole Grains on the Stovetop

For 2 cups (1 lb.) Grains: Amount of bouillon Cooking Time
Wheat Berries 6 cups 60 minutes
Kamut 6 cups 60 minutes
Spelt 6 cups 60 minutes
Rye 6 cups 60 minutes
Triticale 6 cups 60 minutes
Oat Groats 6 cups 60 minutes
Barley 6 cups 60 minutes
Brown Rice 5 cups 45 minutes
Wild Rice (½lb.) 6 cups 60 minutes
Job’s Tears 6 cups 60 minutes
Millet 5 cups 20 minutes
Quinoa 5 cups 15 minutes
Amaranth 5 cups 20 minutes
Teff 4 cups 30 minutes
Kasha (Buckwheat) 6 cups 15 minutes
Bulgur 5 cups 20-2 5 minutes

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