Glorious Grains: Many of these healthy seeds date back to ancient times



    We’re all familiar with commonly used grains like wheat, corn, oats and rice, but other grains are gaining in use and popularity. Here’s a rundown.


    Amaranth is not technically a grain, but it’s in the grain category. It’s a flowering, weedlike plant that’s native to Peru. The dried seeds are used in cereals and get ground into flour. Amaranth is high in protein, fiber and essential minerals like iron and zinc, and it’s also a good source of vitamin A and niacin. Plus, it’s naturally gluten-free.


    Barley is a member of the grass family, and it’s a major cereal grain that’s commonly used in America for soups, stews and breads, as well as in beer making. This ancient grain, which contains gluten, is packed with fiber, vitamins and minerals. The soluble fiber is effective in lowering cholesterol and can reduce the risk of heart disease. It also slows the absorption of sugar, reducing the risk of type 2 diabetes.


    Botanically, buckwheat is a cousin of rhubarb, not technically a grain at all, and certainly not wheat. But its nutrients, nutty flavor and appearance had led to its adoption in the family of grains. It is the only grain to have high levels of an antioxidant called rutin, which studies show improves circulation and prevents LDL cholesterol from blocking blood vessels.


    Bulgur is a parboiled or precooked cereal typically cut from durum wheat, so it contains gluten. Bulgur, recognized as a whole grain, is widely used in soups, stews, baked goods and tabbouleh. It boasts a slightly nutty flavor and is high in fiber, protein, potassium and iron. Bulgur’s quick cooking time makes it ideal for those new to whole grains. Cracked wheat is similar but has not been precooked.


    Also known as emmer, it is the long-grain seeds of a tall, wheat-like plant that has been consumed in the Mediterranean for thousands of years. This chewy, nutty tasting grain contains gluten. It has become popular in American restaurants in recent years. It’s high in complex carbohydrates, cholesterol-lowering fiber and magnesium.


    Brought back as a souvenir said to be from an Egyptian tomb, this wheat variety was peddled without much success at the 1960 Montana State Fair as “King Tut’s Wheat.” Years of testing and propagating eventually brought the grain — now called Kamut, an ancient Egyptian word for wheat — to prominence. This rich, buttery-tasting gluten grain has higher levels of protein and vitamin E than common wheat.


    Millet is a gluten-free grain that’s in the small-seeded grasses family that’s a staple grain in parts of Africa and India. It typically has been grown for birdseed in the U.S., but it has recently become popular for human consumption. It works great for flatbread and in porridge-like breakfast dishes. Millet is high in fiber, protein, essential minerals and B vitamins.


    Like amaranth, quinoa (pronounced keen-wah) is actually a pseudocereal, in the chenopod family. Quinoa was a staple in South America dating back to the ancient Incas. It is gluten-free and a good source of protein, fiber and essential minerals. It is high in calcium, so it’s a good option for those who are lactose-intolerant.


    This seed is unusual among grains for the high level of fiber in its endosperm — not just in its bran. Because of this, rye products generally have a lower glycemic index than products made from wheat and most other grains, making them especially healthy for diabetics. The type of fiber in rye promotes a rapid feeling of fullness, making rye foods a good choice for people trying to lose weight.


    Spelt is an ancient species of wheat from the fifth millennium B.C. It was an important staple in parts of Europe from the Bronze Age to medieval times; it now survives as a relic crop in Central Europe and northern Spain and has found a new market as a health food. It can be used in place of common wheat in most recipes. Spelt is higher in protein than common wheat, has a mild, nutty flavor and contains gluten.


    Teff is gluten-free and one of the smallest grains in the world. Farmers in southern Idaho have started growing it in recent years. Boise Co-op sells bags of teff flour produced by the Teff Co. in Nampa. Besides being high in protein, fiber and essential minerals, it’s also packed with healthy amino acids. Teff has a creamy-crunchy texture and a light molasses flavor.

    Sources: Jered Couch, University of Idaho Extension Office, Whole Grains Council


    Whole grains contain naturally occurring oils and can quickly go rancid at room temperature, creating a bitter taste. And whole grain flour also can absorb moisture from the air. So buy only what you can quickly use or store the grains in airtight containers in the refrigerator (up to three months) or freezer (up to a year).


    Provided by Barbara Abo, University of Idaho extension educator

    1.Use the best quality flour you can afford and is available. Store the flour in a cool, dry place to avoid pests and rancidity (decomposition of the oils resulting in undesirable tastes and flavors).

    2.Shaping your artisan bread helps form the dough for an optimal rise. The goal is to shape the loaves without popping air bubbles or tearing the gluten strands.

    3.Slash free-form loaves a quarter-inch deep before baking. This allows the bread to expand into a predetermined shape, rather than having the gasses find the weak points at the surface and create a torn look in the bread.

    4.To achieve a thick, chewy crust on your artisan bread, bake in a hot oven (about 450 degrees or higher) with additional moisture added to the oven (see recipe for details). Top crusts brown near the top of the oven and bottom crusts brown near the bottom of the oven.

    5.If you are using a no-knead recipe, be sure to refrigerate the dough after the initial two-hour rise. This step will keep your dough safe from any harmful bacterial growth.


    University of Idaho Extension/Ada County office

    5880 Glenwood St., Garden City (next to Hawks Stadium), (208) 287-5900 (See the website for upcoming classes. There’s an “Artisan Breads Using Ancient Grains” class on March 19, for instance.)

    College of Western Idaho Culinary Arts

    1310 University Drive, Boise (next to Bronco Stadium), (208) 562-2374

    Public dining room and deli hours: 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Wednesday-Friday

    The Dish

    205 N. 10th St., Boise (in the Empire Building), (208) 344-4231

    The restaurant is open for lunch and dinner Monday-Saturday.

Grains get a bad rap. Maybe this has something to do with the constant reminders from our doctors to eat more fibrous food rich in nutrients. Part of the problem is that cooking with whole grains mystifies people — they just don’t know what to do with all those healthy little kernels.

It wasn’t too many years ago that eating more grains (defined as the entire seed of a plant in the grass, or Gramineae, or other species whose seeds are used in similar ways) for most Americans meant buying oat-crusted, whole wheat bread from the grocery store, or switching from all-purpose white flour to whole wheat flour for those industrious types who bake at home.

In recent times, buzzword heritage grains like quinoa, farro and millet that are high in protein, fiber and essential minerals — have become increasingly more familiar to the ears and palates of Americans. These are often referred to as super grains.

Local chefs now use ancient grains in whimsical ways on their seasonal menus, spotlighting regionally grown food. Cooking classes have also popped up around town, helping to demystify the perception that cooking with whole grains is difficult.

“I challenge my students to pick a grain and fall in love with it and use it in several recipes,” says Barbara Abo, an Extension educator for the University of Idaho.

Many of these grains boast a robust flavor, more so than the bland taste of ordinary wheat. Abo believes that new foodstuffs, even if they have a long history of consumption, become familiar to us after we acquire a taste for it — true about a lot of things in life.

“Some grains have a stronger flavor. They do take a little getting used to,” Abo says.

“Amaranth is a good example of that,” she says. “I made a pudding with it once, and it was earthy, kind of like the smell of your garden after it rains.”

Abo teaches year-round cooking, food and nutrition classes at the University of Idaho Ada County Extension office. During the colder months, when people desire heartier, more comforting foods, she offers a series of classes on how to cook with whole grains, including a baking class on making artisan breads using grains like millet and quinoa (recipe, Page 14).

“Cooking this way is not only better for your health than eating processed foods, it’s also much cheaper to cook from scratch. You can save pennies on the dollar,” she says.

Student chefs at the College of Western Idaho culinary arts program, and at chef schools all over the country, for that matter, are learning to work with whole grains in creative ways, and not just in baked goods.

“We talk about how to cook with grains in the hot foods class. It’s a very early class that students take here,” says Kelly Steely, a chef instructor and program chair at CWI Culinary Arts. “They also get more of it in the global class, where they learn about the original sources of these ancient grains.”

The students take this newfound knowledge and put it into action when they advance to the Front Kitchen Lab, where they operate a lunch-only dining room and deli.

“We’re using farro for the risotto on our current menu. It has a much heartier texture and deeper flavor than arborio rice (typically used for risotto),” Steely explains.

She’s talking about the marinated and grilled flank steak served with farro risotto, slowly cooked with vegetable stock, butternut squash and sage (recipe, Page 14).

Inland Northwest farmers have jumped on the farro bandwagon in recent years, especially in the Columbia Basin, where emmer farro and spelt, both containing gluten, are grown near Ephrata, Wash.

The whole grains of this grassy, wheatlike crop (common during Roman times and before) can be used in various ways with great results.

“Most people enjoy farro once they try it. They just have to overcome that fear of eating something new,” Steely says.

Besides long-grain farro, CWI culinary arts students use several other heritage grains throughout the school year. Gluten-free quinoa gets turned into bright and flavorful salads in the deli, where people will also occasionally find tabbouleh made with bulgur wheat. The bakery constantly experiments with flours, turning out a bevy of savory artisan breads.

This education surely pays dividends later, particularly for diners who desire healthier options on menus around town.

“In the restaurant industry, we’re seeing more and more of these whole grains being used on (high-end entrees) as people see the nutritional value, and as they try to eat a more locally sourced diet,” Steely says.

Chef Jered Couch, co-owner of The Dish in Downtown Boise, graduated in 2000 from the prestigious Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y. At that time, not much of an emphasis was put on cooking with heritage grains.

“We learned a lot about different rice varieties, like arborio and wild rice, and the proper way to cook polenta,” Couch says. “But we really didn’t get into ancient grains very much. I’m sure that’s not the case there today.”

Couch has taken it upon himself over the years to learn about cooking with various grains.

This is apparent on his seasonal menus, featuring inventive dishes like slowly braised Kobe-style beef brisket with a millet-cheddar cake and a pan-seared pork chop served with brown-butter farro and fig jam. He has definitely come up to speed quickly when it comes to cooking grains in a contemporary manner.

“Grains are so versatile. I’m always thinking of new ways to use them on my menu,” Couch says.

He’s especially fond of teff, a gluten-free grain first used in prehistoric times in Ethiopia, which can be used in lieu of wheat flour for those with celiac disease and gluten sensitivity. Teff is still eaten every day in East Africa, where the milled flour gets turned into spongy flatbread called injera.

These tiny grains are actually the dried seeds of a tall, alfalfa-like plant that has become a dynamic new crop in America. As a matter of fact, much of the domestically grown teff is cultivated along the Snake River Plain in Southern Idaho and sold by the Teff Co. in Nampa.

Couch likes working with teff flour because it boasts a slightly tangy flavor and it gives people with gluten restrictions more options when they dine at his restaurant. He’s noticed a spike in these kinds of requests as of lately.

He says hardly anybody asked for gluten-free dishes back when he owned SixOneSix, his former restaurant in Eagle. “Now I seem to get people asking me for them every day,” he says.

Don’t be surprised to see a teff crepe with sauteed porcini mushrooms and poblano pepper cream (recipe, Page 14) on the menu now and then. He also likes to cook teff slowly with vegetable stock, reducing it down until it turns creamy like polenta.

After Couch closed SixOneSix in 2008, he went to work for Thomas Cuisine, a local company that holds food-service contracts at several hospitals in the Northwest. He spent a year or so running the kitchen operations at a hospital in Bellingham, Wash., before coming back to the Treasure Valley to take the executive chef position at Saint Alphonsus in Nampa, a job he held until last year when he opened The Dish.

He occasionally worked with dietitians at Saint Al’s to create healthy menus, as well as developing cooking classes, including one on using ancient grains.

“I taught people how to cook things like teff crepes, bulgur tacos and quinoa burgers. It was a real hands-on experience for them,” Couch says.

Couch not only likes to cook with whole grains at his restaurant, he also eats them at home, especially on his days off when his wife, Bethany, often makes bulgur tacos (with all the traditional fixings) for him and their two kids.


Courtesy of Kelly Steely, College of Western Idaho Culinary Arts

Serves eight people as a side dish

2 cups farro

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

5 cups vegetable broth

1 medium yellow onion, diced small

4 tablespoons butter

12 ounces butternut squash, peeled, steamed until tender and chopped

Fresh sage, chopped, to taste

Salt and pepper to taste

In a large saute pan, cook the onion with oil and butter until translucent, then add the farro and lightly toast. Add enough vegetable broth to cover the grains and bring to a boil. Reduce to a simmer and stir constantly, adding additional broth a half-cup at time as it gets absorbed. Cook the farro until it’s al dente (firm yet soft in the center). Add the butternut squash, sage, salt and pepper and serve immediately. This can be served as a side dish or on its own, with a mixed greens salad. CWI culinary arts serves farro risotto with grilled flank steak, topped with cranberry-apple relish.


Courtesy of Jered Couch, The Dish

Makes six crepes


1 cup teff flour

1/4 teaspoon kosher or sea salt

1 cup whole milk

2 large eggs

2 tablespoons butter, melted

1. To prepare crepes, combine the teff flour and salt in a medium bowl and set aside.

2. In a separate bowl, combine the milk, eggs and melted butter. Add the wet ingredients to the flour mixture and stir with a whisk until smooth. Cover and set aside.

3. Heat a nonstick skillet with a 7- to 8-inch diameter bottom over medium-high heat, brush with melted butter or spray with nonstick spray. Pour about 2 ounces of the batter into the pan, swirl to coat the bottom evenly. Cook until the bottom of each crepe is golden, which takes about 30 seconds. Loosen the edges gently with a spatula and turn the crepe over. Cook until the crepe sets and gets firm, about another 30 seconds. Turn the crepe onto a clean work surface to cool. Repeat with remaining crepes. Can be made two days ahead.


1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil

2 cups yellow onion, diced

1 pound fresh mushrooms, chopped or quartered

2 tablespoons fresh cilantro

1 tablespoon garlic, chopped

Heat a large pan over medium-high heat and cook the onions until they sweat. Add the mushrooms, cilantro and garlic, and saute until the mushrooms start to brown and the mushroom liquid has evaporated, about 10 minutes. At this point, season the mixture with salt and pepper to taste.


6 large fresh poblano chiles, roasted

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

1/4 cup yellow onion, chopped

1 tablespoon garlic, finely chopped

3 tablespoons all-purpose flour

2 cups milk

1/2 cup heavy cream

Char the poblanos directly over a flame until all sides are blackened. Place in a bowl and cover with plastic wrap, which will steam the skins off. Enclose for 10 minutes, and then peel, seed and thinly slice the chiles. Melt butter in a medium-size saucepan over medium heat. Add the onion and saute until soft, about two minutes. Add the garlic, stir until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Stir in the flour and saute for one minute longer. Whisk in the warm milk and bring to a boil, whisking constantly. Reduce heat to a simmer until the sauce thickens, about five minutes. Pour the sauce into a blender. Add the cream and half the roasted chiles (reserve the rest for garnish). Blend until smooth. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

To build the dish:

1. Place one crepe at a time on a clean work surface with brown spots up. Place 2 tablespoons of the filling in the center. Fold the crepe in half, and fold it in half again, forming a triangle. Place filled crepe on a baking pan and continue until the filling has been used.

2. Preheat an oven to 350 degrees. Bake the crepes until hot throughout. Pour 1/4 cup of the sauce onto the center of each plate. Top each plate with two of the filled crepes, and top each crepe with a little more of the sauce. Sprinkle the top of each crepe with some queso fresco (crumbly Mexican cheese) and the reserved roasted, diced poblanos. Garnish with fresh cilantro.


Courtesy of Barbara Abo, U of I Extension educator. This adapted recipe makes enough dough for at least four one-pound loaves.

3 cups whole-wheat flour

3 1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour

1 cup whole-grain quinoa, uncooked and rinsed

1 1/2 tablespoons granulated yeast

1 tablespoon kosher salt

1/4 cup vital wheat gluten

1/2 cup olive oil

3 1/2 cups luke warm water

1. Whisk together the flours, quinoa, yeast, salt and vital wheat gluten in a 5-quart bowl. Add the water and oil, and mix without kneading. You might need to use wet hands to get the last bit of flour to incorporate. Don’t knead!

2. Cover the dough with a lid (not airtight) or plastic wrap. Allow to rise at room temperature until it begins to collapse, about 2 hours. After rising, bake four loaves or refrigerate the dough and use over the next seven days.

3. Prepare a pizza peel or parchment paper by sprinkling it liberally with cornmeal. Divide the dough into four grapefruit-size pieces. Gently stretch the surface of each loaf around to the bottom, forming a smooth top. Shape it quickly, trying not to deflate the gas in the dough. Let it rest on prepared surface for 40 minutes if fresh; 90 minutes if using refrigerated dough.

4. Thirty minutes before baking, preheat oven to 450[0xb0]F. Place a baking stone in the oven to preheat as well as an empty pan for holding water.

5. Just before baking, slash the loaf with 1/4-inch-deep parallel cuts across the top. (This allows the bread to expand.) Place the loaf on the baking stone (or on an unheated pan). Quickly pour about 1 cup hot water into the water pan and close the oven to trap the steam.

6. Bake for about 30 minutes. Crust should be richly brown and firm to the touch. Internal thermometer should read between 190 and 200[0xb0]F. Cool completely on a wire rack before slicing.

James Patrick Kelly, a restaurant critic at the Idaho Statesman, is the author of the travel guidebooks “Moon Idaho” and “Spotlight Boise.” He also teaches journalism at Boise State University.

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