Quinoa Makes A Great Whole Grain Breakfast–Here’s How

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I ‘ve written about quinoa before, and included it in several recipes, but I don’t think I’ve ever mentioned what a great breakfast cereal it can be. As far as I’m concerned, it’s just about everything you’d want in a morning meal–it’s light, quick to cook, digestible, high in fiber and high in protein (18%), with a good balance of essential amino acids. And for those of you with gluten sensitivities, it is gluten free. Unconvinced?  Trying adding a tablespoon of raisins for sweetness, a tablespoon of toasted sunflower seeds for crunch, and a little milk of your choice for moistness. All in all, a good way to start the day.

To cook quinoa: bring 2 1/4 cups water to a boil in a small sauce pan, add a pinch of salt. Measure one cup of quinoa into a fine mesh strainer and rinse well under running water. When the water boils, add the quinoa and cover. As soon as it boils again, turn down heat to low. Cook 20 minutes. Fluff up. Serves four. Quinoa will keep well in the fridge for two to three days. When reheating, add about a quarter cup water for each cup of cooked quinoa and warm over medium heat four to five minutes. Read more about quinoa, and see my recipe for quinoa-potato sauté here.
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Great Grains: Wheat Berries Shine In This Vibrant Orange-Dressed Salad

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Most of us who grew up in Western countries have a love affair with wheat. We eat it without thinking, disguised as it is in bread, pasta and myriad other tasty but not always nutritious treats. We forget that wheat, like brown rice, can be eaten as a whole grain. And we know that keeping grains more intact slows oxidation and preserves their fiber and nutritional profile. For culinary purposes, we call the unbroken, hulled whole wheat kernels “wheat berries.” My friend Adele devised this salad some years ago when she cooked at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, and she’s been making it to rave reviews ever since. One secret of this salad’s success is its vibrant orange flavor–use orange juice concentrate straight from the pack. You should be able to find wheat berries, hopefully in bulk, wherever natural foods are sold. To cook, rinse the wheat berries, place in a roomy pot, cover with about two inches of water, bring just to a boil and simmer 45 minutes. Taste, and cook only until al dente–they should be tender, but still retain a subtle crunch. Drain thoroughly, and dress this salad while the wheat berries are still warm. Cool an hour or more, giving the berries time to absorb the dressing. Adele’s super easy recipe is after the jump.

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Great Grains: Celebrating Our All-American Grain, Corn

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I’m writing this on the 4th of July, a day when we celebrate America, and what could be more American than corn? Corn (known as maize in much of the world) is as central to the peoples of the Americas as rice is to Asia.  Simply put, it is fundamental. As many of you know, I grew up on a farm in the great Midwestern corn belt where in summer we lived amongst a sea of waving corn. July days were often so hot and muggy all you wanted to do was jump in a cool lake. However, we knew better than to complain, as corn loves the heat, and grows so fast you can it see shoot up from day to day. An abundant corn crop meant money in the bank, and survival for another year. Most of that corn was field corn, the kind kept in the field until fall, harvested dry, and used for cattle feed, corn oil, and these days, ethanol. But we and neighboring farmers also grew sweet corn under contract to the Green Giant Company, whose canned and frozen corn was sold world wide.  During the five or six weeks sweet corn was in season, my memory is that we ate it every single day and never tired of it. So, I suppose you could say corn is in my blood, and to this day I pretty much love all things corn. So, for the next few weeks, I will be offering corn recipes, including one for Fresh Corn Tofu Frittata (after the jump). Previously, I’ve posted recipes for millet and corn croquettes, lemon cake made with cornmeal, and corn pudding.  Enjoy!

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This award-winning corn was shown at the 2008 Olmsted County Fair, Rochester, Minnesota (photo by Jonathunder, via Wikipedia)

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Great Grains: Why We Love Brown Rice

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Rice. Is there anything new to say about this almost ubiquitous staple food? I’ve read that rice provides one-fifth of the calories consumed by humans, and when you consider that the world’s most populous countries, China and India, are rice-eating nations, that’s plausible. When I began researching rice, I was vaguely aware that it was domesticated long ago in China (10,000 years ago, in fact) but I had no idea that rice was a significant African crop, where it’s been cultivated for 3,500 years. In fact, the first rice grown in the U.S. came from Africa, and it was African slaves who taught Carolina plantation owners how to grow rice. Today, rice is an important crop in our backyard, California’s Sacramento Valley.

In Japan, the rice-eating country I know best, rice is considered essential, not just as food, but culturally. It’s sometimes said that rice-eating cultures are more communal because, historically, no farmer could grow rice on his or her own, building and maintaining the paddies and intricate water systems took the whole village working together. Consider how rice has been used in Japan, not just as a filling grain, but as an alcoholic beverage (sake), a condiment (rice vinegar), a sweet snack (mochi), a sweet drink (amasake), an essential element in miso, an ingredient in tea (genmai cha), in paper, in tatami floor mats, and on and on.

Finally, to “brown” rice, which I think is a bit of a misnomer. Creamy colored, or beige maybe, but brown, definitely not. To me, eating so-called brown rice ought to be a no-brainer. Right off the top, there’s the added fiber. And remember, it’s not just the outside layer that’s removed to create white rice, it’s the bran as well which is thought to lower LDL cholesterol. Compared to white rice, brown rice is higher in B vitamins, iron and has four times as much magnesium. And to me, it just tastes more interesting. If your family or friends think they don’t like brown rice, mix in vegetables, or wild rice, seeds, nuts, herbs.  Make it interesting enough and they won’t notice the difference. Or try basmati or jasmine brown rice, both flavorful on their own, or add brown rice to soup or to rice pudding. Really, jazz it up a bit and the difference disappears. Brown rice does take longer to cook, but the added time is well rewarded. After the jump, I give you my method for cooking brown rice, as well as a recipe for gomashio, the toasted sesame seed condiment which is a great companion to rice. It turns out, there is a lot to say about rice, and in future posts, I’ll talk about various kinds of rice, and the dishes you can make with them.

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To make sesame seed sprinkle (gomashio), first toast sesame seeds over medium heat in a cast iron pan (recipe after the jump). Photo top: small bowls of short grain brown rice garnished with sesame seed sprinkle and nori.

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Millet Marries Chickpeas, Comfort Food In Loaf Form

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Sometimes you just want something hearty and substantial to bite into, and this loaf is that. Yes, it takes a bit of time to put together, but it truly is a meal in loaf form. Loaded with protein and minerals from the chickpeas, vitamins from the millet and vegetables, amino acids from the sunflower seeds and fiber from everything, this recipe is a nutritional powerhouse. And I like that it stars millet, a mild, sweet-tasting grain which doesn’t get the love it deserves. This recipe serves 8-10, so take it to a potluck or slice and freeze in zip lock bags. Served with a favorite gravy or sauce, I think this loaf’s subtle goodness will sneak up on you.  Full recipe after the jump.

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Pearl millet growing in a field. Millet has been cultivated in East Asia for thousands of years, and while India is the largest single producer of millet today, Africa is the world's leading millet growing region. (USDA photo)

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Great Grains: Turning Buckwheat Groats into Kasha Varnishkes (a Warming Dish for Cold Winter Days)

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Making Kasha Varnishkes from buckwheat groats is as easy as 1, 2, 3. (Toasted buckwheat groats are widely known as kasha in North America.)

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Maybe you need to have grown up in some wind-swept northern clime to fully appreciate the hearty, warming quality of buckwheat (if it isn’t a necessity, I’m pretty sure it helps). You won’t be surprised to learn that Russia grows more buckwheat than anyone else, with China second, and Ukraine third. While in East Asia, buckwheat is most often consumed as a noodle (think Japanese soba noodles), in Western Europe and North America we know buckwheat best as an ingredient in pancakes and crepes. But it’s the whole grain buckwheat groats of Russia and Eastern Europe that I want to celebrate today. Buckwheat’s ability to thrive in poor soil and a short growing season endeared it to our Eastern European ancestors, many of whom likely would have starved without it. It’s peasant food, pure and simple, but nutritiously rich in iron and a balanced concentration of all essential amino acids.

Toasted whole grain buckwheat groats

Immigrants from Russia, Poland and other Slavic countries, many of them Jewish, brought buckwheat to the U.S. From the 1880’s to the 1920’s, tens of thousands of these folk settled in New York’s Lower East Side, where I lived in the late 60’s. It was in one of that neighborhood’s thriving Jewish dairy restaurants where I first encountered kasha varnishkes, the Yiddish name for a much-loved dish which consists of little more than buckwheat groats, bow tie noodles and onions. The dish’s simplicity invites variations–some versions calling for eggs or chicken stock, or a rich gravy on top. These days, kasha varnishkes is mostly served as a side dish, but doubtless during times of scarcity, it was the entire meal. My vegan version sticks close to the pared down original, with only the addition of mushrooms.  So, some chilly day, eat like our ancestors ate, bring the past into the present and cook up a warming batch of kasha varnishkes (recipe after the jump).

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Great Grains: Farmed “Wild” Rice, The Affordable Luxury

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Adding wild rice to holiday grain dishes dresses them right up. Here, Wild Rice Croquettes with a Creamy Mushroom Gravy (recipes after the jump).

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Native Americans in Minnesota (where I grew up) have been harvesting wild rice for thousands of years and do to this day, making it one of the few indigenous foods commonly acclaimed as part of Minnesota cuisine.  There, wild rice turns up in “hot dishes,” pancakes, breakfast porridge, stuffing, and soup most prominently. “Wild” rice is now mostly cultivated, although sometimes you can still find the hand-harvested, truly wild variety, and as it’s considered a delicacy, you will pay two to three times the price of farmed “wild” rice. (Order  truly wild rice on line, here.) I should add that we Californians are now free to consider wild rice a local food because California has come to rival Minnesota in the size of its farmed wild rice crop.

As much as I love the distinctive, earthy flavor of wild rice, I like it better mixed with other rice or grains than I do on its own. In recipes, I typically use four times as much regular rice as I do wild rice. Compared to brown rice, wild rice is higher in protein, and lower in fat and carbs–so it’s well suited to today’s dietary trends. If  you’ve never cooked wild rice, treat it pretty much as you would brown rice–perhaps increase the cooking time a little–and you can’t go wrong. My adaptable recipe for wild rice croquettes is after the jump. Depending on your needs, you could use this recipe as a main dish in a vegan or vegetarian meal, as a side dish, and the basic recipe can even be modified to make stuffing.  How’s that for versatile?

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Native American women harvesting wild rice, print by Mary H. Eastman, 1853.

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