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 dont know what to do with all those healthy little kernels.
It wasnt 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, its 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. Its 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.
Were 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.
Shes 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, were 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 didnt get into ancient grains very much. Im sure thats 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. Im always thinking of new ways to use them on my menu, Couch says.
Hes 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. Hes 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.
Dont 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 Als 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.
FARRO RISOTTO WITH BUTTERNUT SQUASH
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 its 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.
TEFF CREPES WITH MUSHROOMS AND POBLANO CREAM
Courtesy of Jered Couch, The Dish
Makes six crepes
TEFF CREPE BATTER
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. Dont 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.