Though it seems like it's always been omnipresent, just a few years ago, quinoa was a fairly exotic foodstuff around here. Yet even as it has dominated the national carb load of the U.S., its peer grains and seeds - amaranth, teff, and millet, to name a few - remain obscure to the typical American household.
"I think people are intimidated by these lesser-known grains. They may know quinoa now, but some of the others haven't broken through yet," says Brett Naylor, chef at Oyster House.
With quinoa serving as the gateway, there's a cornucopia of whole grains to explore, many of them ancient, and each with its own texture and flavor. Fall and winter are ideal seasons to dig into a hearty bowlful.
The best reason to eat whole grains in general is well-documented. "We see more and more people ordering grains because they're trying to move away from processed foods," says Karen Nicholas, chef at Harp & Crown.
In their whole form, grains are full of fiber, and slow carbohydrates can help with lowering cholesterol, preventing blood clots, and managing blood sugar levels, according to the Harvard School of Public Health. Individually, the less-popular grains have their own benefits: Amaranth and millet are high in protein. Whole rye is rich in minerals like manganese and iron. Buckwheat (technically a seed) can help aid digestion. Teff contains eight essential amino acids and a high level of calcium.
From a cost-saving perspective, grains also make for a wise choice in the kitchen. Consider a bowl of beef barley soup, which requires very little beef to suffice as a meal for a family. Folding grains familiar or unfamiliar into a stew or serving grain bowls with vegetables and beans can stretch more expensive ingredients a bit farther.
And, from a taste perspective, chefs find that these grains offer endless fascinating possibilities to explore, with true versatility. "We've used einkorn, blue rye, and amaranth in the restaurant," says Ian Moroney, chef at Pumpkin. "I love knowing that these are things people ate thousands of years ago."
Moroney especially enjoys the woody, earthy, almost cornlike flavor of amaranth. "I sometimes like to fry it like popcorn and serve it with swordfish or monkfish," Moroney says. "Or I might chop cauliflower really fine, so that it's almost like a couscous itself, and mix it with quinoa or amaranth."
When that old supermarket box of couscous seems immeasurably boring, wheat-based alternatives like smoky freekeh (green wheat) or even bulgur can stand in. Fine Palate chef Vince Joseph is partial to the former. "I like to combine freekeh with lentils to break up the monotony of the grains, and then I like to layer other Middle Eastern flavors with it, such as harissa."
Nicholas experimented widely with kasha at her previous job at Citron & Rose, where it fit naturally into the Eastern European menu. A popular dish was kasha and kale fritters, in which the fritters served as an appealingly crisp package for the underused grain. At her current kitchen, she cooks farro with baby kale, broccoli, and corn, and she also uses farro flour as the basis of a pasta dish.
An obvious way to prepare grains is by making a risotto, cooking them slowly with a lot of liquid until the result is soft and creamy. Farro, with its nutty and distinctly textured individual kernels, does particularly well as a risotto, especially when pecans or mushrooms are involved. Naylor also likes to make a barley risotto, and he finds the grain more forgiving than rice.
A pilaf technique, starting with sautéed onions and pan-toasted grain, can incorporate dried fruits and nuts, along with fresh herbs. Whole grains such as rye berries, wild rice, and farro work well as a stuffing for vegetables or meat. Puffed ancient grains such as barley and kamut can bring a new spin to granola.
Most grains work well when mixed together, more so when there's a textural contrast. Quinoa and brown rice, amaranth and couscous, and oats and millet are great combinations to try.
Grains can also be used interchangeably in many cases. "If you're not terribly rigid about it and cook it properly, farro and barley can be used in the same way, or you can swap out amaranth for quinoa in a recipe," Moroney says. Making tabbouleh with quinoa or amaranth instead of bulgur is one such substitution. Using millet instead of oats for morning porridge is another.
Anyone who's ever had a rice salad understands that grains function nicely as a background canvas for stronger flavors. "I often keep a batch of cooked bulgur around, and it's great with shaved raw vegetables with some lemon juice and olive oil," Naylor says. "It's the kind of thing you can throw together at the last minute."
Grains can also serve as an added flourish to vegetable salads. A mix of cooked and uncooked veggies, as in Moroney's salad of roasted cauliflower and raw sunchoke, fennel, and radicchio that gets mounded over cooked teff, can result in a dish where every bite is layered and interesting.
There's also no shame in sticking with the basics, Moroney says. "One of the best dishes I've ever had is farro with tomato sauce. I saw the recipe on a Lidia Bastianich show and thought it looked too easy. But when I actually ate it, it was a revelation. Grains can be so good when they are so simple."
Autumn Vegetable Salad with Teff, Anchovy Vinaigrette & Savahschaff Cheese
Makes 2-4 servings
1 cup teff
3 cups water
Zest of one lemon
4 ounces radicchio, leaves torn
4 ounces roasted cauliflower
3 sunchokes, thinly shaved
1/4 head fennel, thinly shaved
1/4 cup chopped parsley
1/3 cup chopped mint
1 ounce toasted walnuts
2 ounces Savahschaff, pecorino, or parmesan cheese
For the anchovy vinaigrette:
1 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1/3 cup lemon juice
1 clove garlic, minced
5 anchovy fillets, chopped
1. Make the teff: Bring teff and water to a boil in a saucepan. Lower heat to simmer. Cover and cook for 15 minutes. Remove from heat, transfer teff to a fine-mesh strainer and rinse in cold water until cool and water runs clear. Drain well, then mix with a pinch of salt and lemon zest.
2. Combine radicchio, cauliflower, sunchokes, fennel, herbs, and walnuts. Toss in a bowl and season with a pinch of salt.
3. Make dressing: Whisk to combine olive oil, lemon juice, garlic, and anchovy. Season to taste. Dress vegetables with anchovy vinaigrette.
4. Add a mound of teff to each plate. Spoon salad over teff and grate cheese on top.
- From Ian Moroney of Pumpkin
Per serving (based on 4): 822 calories, 42 grams protein, 25 grams carbohydrates, 5 grams sugar, 73 grams fat, 58 milligrams cholesterol, 2,351 milligrams sodium, 9 grams dietary fiber.
Pecan Farro Risotto
Makes 4-6 side servings
4 cups chicken stock
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1 shallot, minced
1 cup farro
1 bay leaf
Kosher salt to taste
1/2 cup pecans, toasted and crushed
1/4 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1. Pour the chicken stock into a small pot and set it on a back burner on low heat.
2. Warm the oil in a medium saucepan over medium heat and add the shallot. Cook the shallot down for 3 minutes, until it is very aromatic, and then add the farro. Stir well to coat, and lightly toast the farro for about 5 minutes. Add the bay leaf to the farro. Then start gradually adding the warm chicken stock, about 1 cup every five minutes or so. As each addition cooks down, stir a lot, and when the stock is almost fully incorporated, add more. Taste the farro after 20 to 25 minutes of cooking; cook until it is just tender and quite wet, wetter than risotto would be if it came to your table in an Italian restaurant.
3. Season the risotto with kosher salt and then add the pecans. Stir to incorporate and then vigorously stir in the Parmigiano-Reggiano and the butter.
- From The Broad Fork by Hugh Acheson (Clarkson Potter, 2015)
Per serving (based on 6): 246 calories, 9 grams protein, 25 grams carbohydrates, 1 gram sugar, 14 grams fat, 14 milligrams cholesterol, 632 milligrams sodium, 5 grams dietary fiber.
Harissa Salmon over Freekeh and Lentils
Makes 8 servings
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 medium onions, chopped
1 shallot, minced
1 teaspoon ras el hanout
1 teaspoon sumac
11/2 cups freekeh, soaked in cold water for five minutes, drained and rinsed
3 cups vegetable stock
2 cups cooked le puy lentils
2 tablespoons chopped parsley
2 tablespoons chopped tarragon
1 tablespoon chopped marjoram
Salt and pepper
8 6-ounce salmon fillets
4 tablespoons harissa
2 tablespoons agave nectar
3/4 cup creme fraîche
Juice of 1 lemon
1 tablespoon minced garlic
1 tablespoon chopped parsley
Salt and pepper
1. Heat oil in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Add onions and shallot and cook, stirring until soft and translucent, about six minutes. Add spices and cook until fragrant, about 1 minute.
2. Add freekeh to pot. Stir until evenly coated. Add stock and mix well. Bring to a boil, cover, then reduce heat to low. Simmer for 15-20 minutes until most liquid is absorbed. Remove from heat. Let freekeh stand covered for five more minutes. Stir in lentils and herbs and then season to taste with salt and pepper.
3. Make salmon: Heat oven to 400 degrees F. Combine harissa and agave nectar. Rub each salmon filet with this mixture, then season each filet with salt and pepper. Line a baking sheet with foil, set the salmon on the sheet, and roast for 8 minutes. Then turn filets over. Turn on broiler and broil for 3 to 5 minutes more, until skin is crisp. Remove from oven and set aside.
4. In a small bowl, combine crème fraîche, lemon juice, garlic, and parsley. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
5. To serve: Spoon lentils and freekeh mixture on each plate. Top with salmon filet and a dollop of crème fraiche.
- Adapted from a recipe by Vince Joseph of Fine Palate
Per serving: 638 calories, 53 grams protein, 62 grams carbohydrates, 5 grams sugar, 21 grams fat, 93 milligrams cholesterol, 463 milligrams sodium, 20 grams dietary fiber.