For decades, grains were very simple matters for us amateur cooks. Mostly, we encountered them after they were ground into various flours and meals for making breads, sweets, and pasta. The various brown and white rices were also staples, especially when we dabbled into Asian and Latin cuisines. And, of course, there was always popcorn for parties and buttery corn on the cob for summer cookouts.
Some years ago I was on a writing assignment in remote Colca Canyon in the wilds of southeastern Peru when I encountered quinoa, which is not technically a grain, and fell in love with its texture, flavors, and adaptability. When I returned, it was somewhat hard to find in supermarkets, although I eventually did in a specialty store.
Now, thankfully, we are inundated with nutritional grains and related seeds, many of them heirloom varieties and only recently grown and marketed in quantity.
I saw such a stash of packaged grains and seeds when I was shopping for a household gift last winter at the Brinton Lakes Williams-Sonoma, and left the store with an armload of them–faro, black barley, black quinoa, and a mixture of spelt and emmer.
What I had in mind was to use them in summer salads– “grains and green”—tempted by seeing more and more of them on local restaurant menus, a welcome change from the ubiquitous and fattening pasta salads. Recipes for grains and greens serve as good inspiration for cooks, but the beauty of salads is that we can ad lib at will.
Simply start with some greens and other vegetables, add a protein such as sliced meats (or not if you want to stay vegetarian) and perhaps throw in some carbs in the form of croutons, pasta, crackers, or, better yet, grains. And with a little oil and vinegar mixed in, there is no need for a heavy mayo-and-cheese dressing.
Preparation of most grains is easy. Rinse them first to remove any residue, then cook them in hot water until they are al dente or whatever texture you’re seeking. Drain and season with oil and spices. If you like a particularly nutty flavor, toast the grains lightly before cooking.
“Soaking grains overnight prior to cooking can speed up the process,” explains Annie Mulligan-Smith, Williams-Sonoma’s culinary specialist at the Brinton Lake store. “You can add an acid to the water, which helps to break down phytic acid. I like to cook mine in a pressure cooker. As steam is contained in the pressure cooker, less water is required and the natural flavors are kept in.”
Many of our “new” grains available are “old” varieties of wheat, such as faro and spelt, that have been more popular in Europe, but even there are better known for making flours. “Quinoa is interesting because, unlike corn and wheat, it’s been almost untouched genetically,” Chef Lucas Bustos told me in February when I was in Argentina and participated in a cooking class. He smiled, reminding us that quinoa, potatoes, and tomatoes were all gifts of the Andes Indians to the world.
“The possibilities are overwhelming,” says Chef Ryan Marchetta of Eclipse restaurant in Wilmington, “not only with the variety of grains but how you can use them.” He will roast grains “to complement the softness of vegetables in dishes,” and he also likes to substitute them for rice in dishes other than salads. For example, he uses faro to make a “farosotto” instead of risotto.
Chef Brian Shaw of Fair Hill Inn west of Newark likes to prepare a summer salad from Kamut®, an ancient (but recently trademarked!) grain similar to durum wheat. “This is a great pairing with something a little substantial, such as grilled lamb chops or smoked chicken,” Shaw says, noting that he buys Kamut at the Newark co-op.
Shaw, who has won national whole-grain cooking competitions with Co-Chef Phil Pyle, chills the prepared grain, then coats it with extra-virgin olive oil and blends it with vegetables such as pickled ramps (you can use scallions), small cut tomatoes, cucumbers, fresh herbs, grilled zucchini, micro-sliced garlic, and sherry vinegar. “Blend and let set for a couple hours, adding grilled zucchini last,” Shaw says. “You don’t want the char color to make it ugly.”
Of course, there are no rules to the types of greens you use with grains, but I prefer the small-leaf ones to larger, chopped leaves because it’s easier to blend the elements and because smaller leaves generally have more distinctive flavors, especially lightly bitter notes.
“The interest in ancient and heirloom grains is growing largely to the rise of gluten-free diets as these act as an alternative to wheat,” Mulligan-Smith says. “Generally people look at grains as a healthier option.” And, as she points out, grains are part of the heirloom food movement popular among both professional chefs and home cooks.
Summer Barley Salad
Chef Annie Mulligan-Smith
Adapted from a recipe on “The Kitchn” blog
5 cups cooked pearl barley (from 1 cup raw)
1 cup red pepper, blackened on the grill and skinned (roughly chopped)
1 1/2 cups fresh, cooked corn kernels (charred in the grill adds another great flavor)
1 cup zucchini, diced
1/2 cup red onion, diced
1/4 cup sherry or champagne vinegar
1 garlic clove, finely minced
1/2 cup olive oil
1/4 cup fresh basil, finely chopped
1/4 cup fresh parsley, finely chopped
2 Tbs. mint, finely chopped
Salt and pepper to taste
Toss the vegetables with the barley. Mix the vinegar, garlic, and oil in a bowl and pour over the barley and vegetables. Sprinkle on salt and freshly ground pepper to taste, and the herbs, and toss again until everything is combined. Taste for seasoning. Serve room temperature or chilled.
(Barley can be substituted with farro, or a use a combination of the two.)