“NEW” ANCIENT GRAINS
Lori, our Bulk Concierge, emailed: “I’m wondering if someone could explain what all these new grains are. I think there are a lot of people, like me, who have no idea what quinoa, farro, couscous, steel cut oats, millet, etc., are or how to prepare or use them.”
Me: “Goodness! They certainly aren’t ‘new grains’; they’ve have been popular and available for a long time–certainly in my awareness since I was a young woman and that was evidently eons ago! Sure–I’ll work on that soon.”
Lori: “Well, they’re new to a lot of us city gals who grew up shopping at Piggly Wiggly. That would be great.”
So I’ve plucked from the shelf of our town library a book called “Ancient Grains for Modern Meals,” perused some “back-to-real-cooking” cookbooks on my shelf, and dusted off a few bookmarked websites. I’ll share what I learn for a winter’s worth of grainy adventure via this Newsletter, with recipes posted on our website. Consider this project a stand-in for the Veggie Star which is on vacation till Spring.
ANCIENT GRAINS: FARRO
Farro isn’t a single variety of wheat; the term refers most often to three ancient varieties: Einkorn, the smallest and most ancient, was part of the last meal of Ötzi, the “Iceman,” whose intact remains emerged from a retreating glacier in the Alps several years ago; Emmer, the middle-sized grain, is the most common in Italian cuisine, and our friend Farmer Georgie can get it for us from her neighbor who grows it on Ebey’s Prairie, Whidbey Island; Spelt, very similar to modern wheat, is the largest of these, and the one most commonly grown in Germany and Switzerland. Barley, common wheat (“wheat berries”), oat groats, rye, and other whole cereal grains are sometimes called farro and used in the same ways. Most Farro grown and sold in the United States is Emmer, called Emmer-Farro. It is often semi-pearled, as is the farro presently on the shelf at our Co-op, retaining only part of the bran and nutrients but allowing it to cook fast, without pre-soaking, in 20 or 25 minutes. You can tell by looking at the grains if they have been buffed off at the surface. I believe the Emmer-Farro I will order soon from Whidbey Island is not pearled.
Cooking: Einkorn, farro piccolo, can be cooked like rice without pre-soaking. Emmer, farro medio, and Spelt, farro grande, both benefit from an overnight soak and then slow simmering for anywhere from 35 minutes to 70 minutes. After removing the pot from the heat, pour off any remaining water and then cover, allowing the grain to plump before serving.
[NOTE: It is widely claimed that traditional practices of soaking, fermenting, and sprouting increase the availability of nutrients in grains. These are clever ways our ancestors figured out to improve palatability, digestibility, nutritional benefits, and convenience. Nowadays there are many experts, many claims, infinite controversies, and much zealotry about the details and most efficacious implementation of these practices.]
Most intact cereal grains, Emmer, Wheat Berries, Spelt, Hulled Barley, Oat Groats, Rye Berries, cook like Brown Rice after a pre-soak: 2 or 3 to 1, water to grain; cook the better part of an hour on low heat till tender; drain off excess water and cover to plump the grains for a few minutes. Try them plain as a side dish with salt, pepper, and butter or sauce, or in hearty winter soups. Check our website for recipes: sanjuancoop.org, click on Library/Cookbook
Quinoa is a grain-like seed that was domesticated in the Andes Mountains as early as 5000 years ago. Before that it was associated with herding around 7000 years ago. It is not a true cereal grain. Its nutritional profile is notably better than common cereals, it is very tasty, digestible, and gluten-free. Most quinoa is imported from South America, but some production has taken place at high altitudes in Colorado, California, Oregon, and Washington. More information:
The co-op has white and red quinoa in the bulk bins; there is no significant nutritional difference and all varieties are a source of complete proteins. Like beets, chard, and spinach to which the plant is related–you can see the similarity in the photo–it contains oxalates. Most commercial quinoa has had the bitter saponins removed, the plant’s natural defense against insects; if in doubt, rinse it before cooking. Store your quinoa in an airtight container in a cool, dark pantry (light is said to compromise vitamins in grains and seeds, and warmth can make them go rancid), or if you have room, in the fridge.
Quinoa cooks in about 15 minutes: use one part quinoa to two parts water and simmer covered. A prior rinse is a good idea; soaking optional. Combine quinoa with nuts and fruits as a breakfast porridge, use it in salads, bean dishes, soups, pilaf, tabouli, and baked goods. Sprout it for salads and sandwiches or grind it into flour for muffins and cookies. The co-op has some gluten-free quinoa pasta which I find very satisfactory.
Check our website for recipes, a quinoa salad and a hearty one-dish meal: firstname.lastname@example.org, click Library/Cookbook.
ANCIENT GRAINS: COUSCOUS
Though neither a grain nor a pasta–nor as ancient as most grains–couscous adapts naturally to the role of grain or pasta in many culinary traditions. Modern manufacturing processes make precooked couscous readily available so it can be prepared and served very quickly. Traditionally, though, making couscous is a long and arduous effort. Women work together for days to make large amounts of couscous. Coarsely ground durum wheat is the usual ingredient, though millet and barley are also used. Method: Salted water is sprinkled over a bowl of coarse flour which is raked about with fingers, forming tiny dough balls. The result has been called “inside out grains” with the germ and bran inside, protected by the starch on the outside.
To prepare, pour one cup couscous into one and one quarter cups boiling water or stock. Turn off the heat and cover, allowing it to steam for about 15 minutes. Fluff with a pair of forks. The co-op also has Israeli couscous, which is an extruded pasta invented in the 1950’s. Like other pasta, it is cooked in boiling water for ten minutes.
Two easy couscous recipes are on our website: sanjuancoop.org. Click on Library/Cookbook.
ANCIENT GRAIN: CORN
Tortillas, corn chips, popcorn, fresh ears dripping with butter, corn flakes, cornbread–these are the uses that come to most minds when corn is mentioned. Maize is the proper name for this monster grass with fat kernels growing on large ears, as worldwide, the word “corn” usually refers to any grain. Maize is a staple food in many parts of the world since it spread beyond its Mesoamerican birthplace in the post-Columbian era.
Beyond our familiar foods, corn has become important in many cuisines for beverages, breads, porridge, stews, and desserts. In industry it is processed as cooking oil and margarine, thickener, sweetener (corn syrup), Bourbon whiskey, livestock feed, dog food, and binder for making pills. Kernels are used as fish and animal bait; flowers are used in alternative medicine.
Most corn is not used for direct or indirect human food. It is used for garden hedges, seasonal decorations, and corn mazes; the cobs are made into smoking pipes; kernels are used in place of sand for indoor play boxes. It is made into plastics, adhesives, fabrics, and other chemicals; it is processed into a culture medium to grow microorganisms. It is used as fuel in heating stoves and home furnaces that use maize kernels, cherry pits, or wood pellets. It is used to make ethanol, biogas, gasohol–the production of corn-based biofuels has had a disastrous effect on food maize farming and the food culture of Mesoamerica.
Increases in food prices come about in part because of biofuel production, as 80% of the price of food in the United States is the cost of transportation, production, and marketing. All the more reason to eat local, eat seasonal, grow your own; rather than buying packaged food-like substances, better to offer our money to the people who bring real food from the earth! I once read that the farmer gets 4¢ for his oats that go into a box of Cheerios; the rest of the shelf price is factories, labor, and machines (puffed rice “shot from guns”) for manufacturing the cereal, box design, packaging, commercials, shipping–first the grain and then the airy boxes–and building and running the stores that sell these over-processed kibbles to moms and dads who feed them to their kids. About 40% of the American maize crop is grown for corn ethanol; 85% of the corn planted in the United States in 2009 was transgenic. Corn is a trading commodity for investors’ and corporations’ wealth-building. In that respect, modern agriculture is not for feeding and nourishing people as most of us think and as the perpetrators claim, but rather it is for putting money on the world market.
We have whole grain cornmeal from Fairhaven Mills in Burlington, processed from organic corn grown in Walla Walla. Use it to make fresh tortillas and hot cornbread.
ANCIENT GRAIN: MILLET
Millet includes four families of small-seeded grasses; it is a functional, not a taxonomic group, and the term applies to many small seeded cereal grains. Palaeoethnobotanists think more millet was cultivated in prehistory than rice. Though it probably evolved in Africa, it spread widely and was an important part of the Neolithic diet throughout Asia. Gene Logsdon, in Small-Scale Grain Raising, says millet, not rice, is the basic carbohydrate food in China, where there is evidence of its cultivation 10,000 years ago. Maria Speck, in Ancient Grains for Modern Meals, writes that in 2005 archeologists found well-preserved 4000 year old 20 inch long millet noodles in China.
While millet is an important food for humans and animals in many parts of the world, in North America it is mostly grown for bird seed and fodder. It is a highly nutritious, endlessly versatile, easily prepared, and pleasant tasting grain; it’s easy to cultivate, grows in poor soil, needs no fertilizer, little water, no fancy equipment, no pesticides, no patents! Modern industrial agriculture, food manufacturing, and marketing businesses find no wealth-building potential in millet.
Outside of North America, millet is part of the culinary traditions of most parts of the world, as a breakfast porridge, a dessert, a side dish with butter or gravy, or as a part of savory main dishes and soups. It substitutes well in recipes using couscous, polenta, quinoa, and rice. And it’s gluten-free. Try it!
Find recipes on our website: sanjuancoop.org. Click on Library/Cookbook.
ANCIENT GRAINS: KAMUT
We got ten pounds of each of Emmer (Farro) and Kamut from Farmer Georgie’s neighbors on Ebey’s Prairie with last week’s shipment of Georgie’s dried beans. Look for 1# bags on our beans and grains shelf.
Emmer was included in the first of these articles as the most common of the grains in the category of Farro, extremely popular in trendy restaurants these days. It is an ancient wheat, cultivated in the Middle East ten thousand years ago and restored to widespread cultivation today.
Kamut is a trade name for khorasan, another ancient wheat with very large kernels that are described as rich and nutty or buttery. Khorasan was the name of a historical region of Iran. Apparently the trademarked name certifies that all Kamut is grown organically; it has been left alone by plant breeders, and retains its superior nutritional qualities. Its history and taxonomy are disputed, but it is ancient, it tastes great, its texture is pleasing, and it’s good for us.
To Cook Kamut Berries:
* Soak Kamut berries overnight and cook, covered, at a simmer, two parts water to one part drained kernels, for about an hour; drain off any remaining water and let sit 15 minutes covered.
* Or, using three parts water to one part kernel, cook for two hours at a simmer; drain and let sit as above.
* Pressure cook 35 to 45 minutes.
Note: 1 cup of the raw berries will yield about 2 1/2 cups cooked.
Recipes are posted on our website at sanjuancoop.org.
Click on Library/Cookbook.
ANCIENT GRAINS: OATS
Oats are not as anciently domesticated as other common grains. They were a weed among wheat and barley crops in the Fertile Crescent, and thus accompanied those grain crops as they spread into northwestern Europe and eastward to the Himalayas. The more favorable cool, wet conditions may have led to eventual domestication. Cultivation in Europe goes back to about 1000 BCE. Oats are successfully grown in Iceland.
Though used as human food, they are more commonly grown as animal fodder. Quoting Sam Johnson, compiler of the first comprehensive dictionary of English and known for wry entries, famously offered this under the “Oats” heading: “A grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people.”
Most of us are happily familiar with rolled oats in breakfast porridge, granola, and oatmeal cookies. But there’s much more: steel cut oats (oats cut into neat little pieces on a steel buhr mill) make a very different porridge, oat flour adds tenderness and a sweet fragrance to homemade breads and muffins, and oat groats, like other whole grains, make hearty, tasty, toothsome additions to soups and stews, form the base of delicious salads and main dishes, and make a fine and satisfying breakfast bowl. These are my favorite whole grains–I love their sweet, plump chewiness and the little *pop* when I bite them; they’re lunch and dinner as well as breakfast and snacks. And then there’s Oatmeal Stout….
I once met my friend in Ballard on his way to work carrying an unusual object. “What’s that?” “It’s an oat crinkler. An old woman in my church who grew up in Eastern Washington during the Depression used to make little bags of crinkled oats and sell them to her neighbors for 5¢ when she was a girl. She’s been crinkling oats all her life, but the little machine has been malfunctioning lately so I told her I’d take it to the shop to fix it.”
Look for recipes on our website: sanjuancoop.org; click on Library/Cookbook.
ANCIENT GRAIN: BARLEY
I really, really like the purple naturally hull-less barley grown near Lynden, Washington, that I picked up at Fairhaven Mills in Burlington. The grains are large and when cooked up they are very flavorful with a good chew and a little *pop.* The co-op also sells pearled barley, which is polished like white rice to remove the nutritious germ and bran, and intact whole hulled barley which has all the nutrients. Pearled barley cooks faster; it breaks down in soup and absorbs all the broth which many people prefer, but I like the texture of hulled better and I appreciate its higher food value.
Barley appeared very early in the Middle East, about the same time as the first domesticated wheats, einkorn and emmer wheat. Barley is an important cereal grain as animal fodder, as a source of fermentable stuff for beer and distilled beverages, and as food for people. It is included in many so-called “health foods.” Traditionally barley is used in soups and stews, as a porridge, and in barley bread. Barley grains are prepared into malt using a traditional and ancient method.
An elderly man, Aklag, from Ethiopia, used to come for lunch at my little cafe in Ballard. He had been a shepherd as a boy, and as a man he had worked in a government office. His wife had passed away, so he had to move to Ballard to live with his son who worked for Microsoft–because the son has a wife. Ethiopian men don’t cook; they apparently starve without a woman. One day he came in and found that I had made Scotch Broth with lamb and barley; he was beyond thrilled–these were the best foods he could imagine. Barley, he explained, is so nutritionally valuable that it is fed to the finest horses and to pregnant women. And as a former shepherd boy, he valued lamb. After he finished his lunch he bought two more servings to take home to show his daughter-in-law what he had eaten!
Look for recipes on our website–Scotch Broth and Barley Bread: sanjuancoop.org. Click on Library/Cookbook.
ANCIENT GRAINS: BUCKWHEAT
Buckwheat isn’t related to wheat and it isn’t a grain; it’s related to sorrel and rhubarb, and has grain-like triangular seeds. On the plant what you see is the fruit, a hard hull that tightly encloses a seed. Seeds are used for human food and animal fodder. Bees like its pretty white flower clusters and it makes an intensely flavored dark honey. Buckwheat grows on poor soil in challenging climates and altitudes. It was first cultivated in Southeast Asia perhaps as early as 6000 BCE, and is known in the Balkans by 4000 BCE. Buckwheat was one of the first crops brought by Europeans to North America. The plant is valuable as a cover crop and green manure, but cultivation tapered off dramatically in the 20th century with the introduction of nitrogen fertilizers.
Buckwheat noodles have long been eaten in Tibet and mountainous regions of China, and they are important in Japan, Korea, and Northern Italy. Buckwheat groats made into porridge are the most common form in the 20th century, mostly in Russia, Poland, and Ukraine. Buckwheat pancakes are popular in several European countries today. They were common food in pioneer times in America, and in memory of my ancestral farm where buckwheat was grown and used in the kitchen, I often add buckwheat flour to cookies, breads, biscuits, and pancakes–in fact as I write the delicious fragrance of a loaf of hearty dark buckwheat bread wafts up the stairs from the oven. At first non-family members don’t quickly move past the fact that while it adds fragrance and tenderness, even in small amounts buckwheat tints baked goods to the color of sidewalk.
Uses: Buckwheat is very nutritious and for no particular reason I have always associated it with robustly healthy, strong people; the flavor is sometimes described as “earthy.” The groats are the hulled seeds. Most that are available to purchase have been roasted and are ready to cook, called “Kasha” in America, though in Eastern Europe the word refers to any porridge (note: unroasted buckwheat will collapse into a mush, so toast them if they’re raw and cook them in a heavy pot). Buckwheat flour is used in any baking where the flavor and nutrients are sought. Buckwheat pasta is widely available, especially among Asian specialties. Buckwheat is used to make gluten-free beer.
ANCIENT GRAIN: EINKORN
Einkorn was included under “Farro” as “farro piccolo” on the first post of this series, but it deserves its own since it’s regarded as the most ancient wheat and among the first grains domesticated by early farmers, round 10,000 years ago in southeast Turkey; wild einkorn was harvested as early as ~15,000 BCE. The laborious task of grinding grain on a stone may have been well established in the–er–stone age. It would have been worth the effort, because the hard grains are easy to store, guaranteeing there’ll be something to eat during hard times.
Except where traditional cuisines continue to use einkorn as porridge, in soups, salads, casseroles, desserts, and fermented brews, to make bulgur (cracked wheat), and as animal fodder, it is rarely planted these days. Recently interest in einkorn is increasing because of its rich flavor, superior performance as flour in baked goods, high nutritional value–half again as great as modern wheat. It is highly valued as a health food. It grows in poor soil, is tolerant of salt, and is easy to cultivate, like other ancient grains, so it might be a good choice on marginal land in an uncertain climate.
Compared to modern wheats, the protein in einkorn may be better tolerated by people with gluten sensitivity. In fact, it has been hypothesized that the observed growing incidence of intolerance in the population might be due to the efforts by plant breeders in the last fifty years to produce hybrid wheats with improved yield and disease resistance. Einkorn has been left alone by plant breeders; research may reveal it to be tolerated by celiac sufferers–don’t try this at home yet.
We have 2# bags of regional Einkorn from Azure Standard, grown on the Azure Farm in the dryland grain growing area east of Mount Hood. The recipe on the package is for Einkorn pudding, just like old-fashioned rice pudding; this is a fine way to encourage children to eat whole grains! I cooked some for my soup yesterday and it has a very pleasing nutty aroma and flavor. I once cooked hard red wheat and spelt in identical pots with identical heat and identical times. They turn out to be nearly the same, but the spelt berries burst more than the wheat, exposing the soft insides. Einkorn broke down even more, so it became a very tender grain, which I like a lot, plain with butter and salt, and recommend as a nice meal-in-a-bowl. I would shorten the cooking time for salads and soups.
Try Jovial Einkorn Spaghetti which you’ll find on the pasta shelf; my family has totally embraced that stuff. Jovial Einkorn tea biscuits for old-fashioned dipping in your cocoa or chai are among our boxed cookies.
Look for recipes tor risotto, pilaf, dolmas, and “rice” pudding made with nourishing einkorn on our website: sanjuancoop.org. Click Library/Cookbook.
ANCIENT GRAINS: AMARANTH
Amaranth, like quinoa, is a “pseudograin” because though it’s not a grass, the flavor, nutritional value, and cooking method is similar to grains. It has been cultivated for eight millennia and has spread all over the world. There are sixty or seventy species of amaranth, many used for the leaves and stems as a green vegetable, for the roots as a starchy vegetable, for the flowers as ornamentals. Many species are considered weeds, some beneficial and others annoying. Three or four species are grown for grain. It is a very efficient grain crop and thrives to produce very nutritious food for humans in harsh conditions. It is also grown for animal fodder. Amaranth and Quinoa were both cultivated in ancient times in South America, and can be used in the same recipes; millet is equally versatile.
There was much excitement in the 1970’s about the potential for amaranth to become an important food crop in challenging climates, altitudes, and soils. Then and now it has drawn attention as a health food because of its high protein content, proteins that complement those in other grains, and its high mineral and vitamin content. It’s surprising how frequently it appears on the nutrition labels of “healthy” cereals, breads, crackers, tortillas, energy bars, and snacks. Like all grains, it should be prepared and cooked, sprouted, soaked and drained, or fermented in order to reduce the adverse effects of its anti-nutritional and toxic factors such as nitrates, oxalates, and phytic acid. For the same reason, the leaves and stems, like spinach, kale, bok choi, should usually be prepared by cooking or fermenting if one intends to eat them in large quantities.
Regular eating of amaranth grain or oil may be of benefit to those with hypertension or cardiovascular disease. Its nutritional qualities make it a good choice for gluten-free and vegetarian diets. For flavor and performance in a blend of flours for baked goods, amaranth flour is most useful at about 15 – 25 percent of the total.
One source suggests cooking plain amaranth grain in lots of water, as much as six cups for every cup of amaranth. The water becomes goopy with the starch that’s released and the grain needs to be rinsed off in a strainer. In a soup, however, the starch would be a thickener. Here’s how Andrew Weil says to cook it: Combine a cup of seeds with two and a half cups water in a pot and bring to a boil. Reduce heat, cover and simmer for 20 or 25 minutes, or until the water is absorbed and the grains are fluffy; cover and let sit for ten minutes. Use more water and simmer a little longer if you want to eat it like porridge. Amaranth can be popped like corn: preheat a pot–very hot–and put some oil in the bottom. Add amaranth seeds a tablespoonful at a time, not too many total, and stir or shake the pan as they pop because they’ll scorch quickly. Dump out of the pan as soon as most are popped. Eat it like popcorn, mix it in cookies or bars, in taco filling, or eat it like puffed rice for breakfast.
ANCIENT GRAIN: WHEAT
Wheat was first domesticated in southeastern Turkey about 9000 BCE. Wild wheat was probably exploited as long as 25,000 years ago. The characteristics of wild grass mutations selected through repeated harvesting and planting resulted in larger grains that were easier to gather, and such selection favoring food qualities resulted in the loss of natural dispersal mechanisms so that wheat does not survive without human agency. Domesticated strains rapidly spread around the world. Wheat from a granary in Macedonia dated to about 1350 BCE had sufficient gluten for yeast breads. This late development suggests why earlier wheats like emmer and einkorn are sometimes more easily digested.
Commercially grown wheat has been bred in recent decades to perform well in the field and in industrial food production. In the home kitchen, aesthetic qualities have been more important than nutritional values. Wheat we eat today is not the wheat that Grandpa and Great Grandpa grew in their fields, and everyday breads and pastries are not the same as those eaten a century ago. It is thought that older wheats like einkorn, emmer, spelt, and kamut which have not been altered by breeding are more nutritionally desirable than today’s commercial wheat. Ongoing research in our maritime region endeavors to restore the varieties that were formerly grown here and to develop varieties with a good nutritional profile that thrive in our climate.
Whole wheat flour is preferred by nutritionists because it contains the valuable germ and bran in addition to the protein and starch. Whole wheat breads, biscuits, and pie crusts often contain some portion of all-purpose flour to achieve the texture most people like. I’ve always made everyday cookies with whole wheat only.
Like all grains, wheat can be eaten in other ways than bread and cookies and pasta. Wheat “berries” (some folks object to the word “groats”) are used in salads, soups, side dishes, and sprouted breads. Cooked whole wheat berries are nice as an addition to fresh breads and as a breakfast cereal. It takes about an hour to cook after an overnight soak. Cracked wheat (bulgur) cooks quickly and makes excellent side dishes such as Tabouli. Rolled wheat for cooked cereal is sold in some stores; roll it yourself if you have a grain roller like the one I wrote about recently in conjunction with oats.
This week’s recipe is for sprouted grain bread, because Jessica-the-Checker offered me a bite of sprouted Kamut and fruit bread she’d made. In the 1970’s the old Phinney Street Co-op offered “Essene Bread” which I loved, and our young San Juan Island Co-op has yummy Manna Bread in the freezer–I like it with cream cheese. I’ll post a recipe on the website to try with whatever sprouted grain you like: sanjuancoop.org.
ANCIENT GRAIN: RYE
Rye is related to wheat and barley; minimal archeological evidence of its domestication from wild species is present in Neolithic sites in Turkey, probably as a weed mixed in with wheat. It first appears as a cultivated crop around 1800-1500 BCE. It has been extensively cultivated in Central and Eastern Europe since the medieval period and remains the main bread grain in those regions. It grows in poor soils in cold weather and survives in drought or wet conditions. It is used as an overwintering cover crop to control weeds, for green manure, and as a nurse crop.
Rye is used for bread (& crackers & pumpernickel), beer, whiskey, and vodka, and for animal feed. Whole rye berries can be cooked like other grains and used as breakfast porridge and side dishes, or included in breads and crackers. When buying rye breads or crackers, be sure they contain whole rye or rye berries; just because it’s called “rye bread” doesn’t mean whole grains were used. Rye berries can be rolled into flakes like oats and used as a quick-cooking cereal and in cookies. Rye is lower in gluten than wheats, so ordinary yeasted breads usually contain a fair portion of wheat flours. It has more soluble fiber than wheats, not only in the bran but also in the endosperm.
Last week’s recipe for sprouted grain bread works well with rye. I made it with Einkorn recently, and kneaded in toasted hazelnuts, sunflower seeds, and soaked raisins before baking. I used only two cups of grain which was just enough.
Valdi-the-Checker is very happy with his 25# bag of Rye Flour fetched directly from Fairhaven Mills. He really likes Swedish Rye Bread and his own updated version of traditional Rye Flatbread. Look for Valdi’s favorite rye recipes on our website: sanjuancoop.org. Click Library/Cookbook.
ANCIENT GRAIN: TEFF
Teff is best known as a traditional grain of Ethiopia and Eritrea used for making injera, a spongy sourdough flatbread that is cooked in large rounds on the bottom only. It is at once food, utensil, and serving plate: stews, bean dishes, salads, sauces are served on the porous top, which are grasped and eaten with torn off pieces of injera. It is also eaten as porridge and is made into alcoholic beverages.
Harvesting Teff (wholegrainscouncil.org)
Teff, like amaranth, is a tiny grain with an excellent nutritional profile; it has a high concentration of minerals and vitamins, all of the essential amino acids, and plenty of carbohydrates and fiber. It is important for gluten-free and vegetarian regimens, for colon health, and for blood sugar control. It cooks quickly, thereby using less fuel, it thrives in both wet and dry conditions, a handful of seed sows a whole field, and the plant is not very susceptible to disease; thus “it has the potential to improve nutrition, boost food security, foster rural development and support sustainable land care” (US National Research Council). Teff is found in many new products, especially those for the gluten-free market.
Some of the bags of Teff and Amaranth at the Co-op a couple of weeks ago were bought by people who intended to plant them in their gardens! More Teff should arrive on Friday from Azure Standard.
Teff is cooked similarly to millet or quinoa, at a ratio of one cup of grain to three cups water or stock for 20 minutes. Season with salt, butter, herbs and serve as a side dish, or use as breakfast cereal or dessert with cream and maple syrup. A cup of teff cooked briefly (5 – 7 minutes) in a cup of water and covered for can be used like poppy seeds as a sprinkle on vegetables or sandwiches or in soups. Like amaranth, teff can be used to thicken soups, gravies, or stews. The porridge can be formed into cakes like polenta. Teff grain can be added to cookies and pancakes to improve nutritional value. Teff flour is used in whole grain breads, but it should be limited to less than 25% of the dry ingredients.
ANCIENT GRAIN: RICE
So familiar, yet so various! Most of us ponder “white rice or brown rice today?” when we head for the pantry to make supper; maybe short grain or long grain, or basmati, jasmin sushi, or arborio rice. Some of us acquire a touch of sophistication from dining in restaurants that serve cuisines from many places, but we rarely bring exotic varieties into our daily home cooking. We are entertained to learn that in addition to brown and white rice there are red, black, and purple varieties, and when cooked we can taste differences. We learn to use certain kinds of rice when we want the grains to be loose and other kinds when we want them to stick together. This is way fancier than my grandmothers who stuck with potatoes and never cooked rice at all.
In October a few years ago the food editor of a Seattle paper pointed out something we almost never experience: new crop rice, that is, the newly harvested rice rather than the grains that have been long stored. I went immediately to Uwajimaya in Seattle and bought five big bags of different varieties of new crop rice. It was a revelatory experience, but I was and remain too naive to understand. Check out this New York Times article: “California’s New Gold Rush,” by Kay Rentschler, 10/8/2003. Maybe we’ll start to be picky!
It’s no wonder rice is highly esteemed in many food traditions; it provides half the calories for about half the world’s people. It is claimed that there are 40,000 different varieties. Wikipedia lists four major categories, and offers the common varieties sorted by country. Thirty varieties are listed for Bangladesh and fifty for India, among which some have half a dozen sub-varieties. And so on. All this has come from a single domestication in China 8200-13,500 years ago. Traditional labor-intensive cultivation involves flooding to drown weeds and discourage pests, but it can be grown other ways as well.
Caveat: It has long been known that rice absorbs arsenic from soil and water more effectively than other plants; when that was in the news recently many people became alarmed. Organic is meaningless here, so it’s good to adjust cooking and eating habits. Here’s what Consumer Reports recommends: 1. When possible, choose rice grown in California over that grown in the Southeastern United States; best is rice imported from India or Thailand. 2. Brown rice has higher levels of arsenic than white, so in this case, pass up the nutritional advantages of brown rice and choose white. 3. Rinse rice before cooking and use lots more water than usual; then pour off the excess at the end which will remove about 30% of the arsenic. 4. Vary your diet by substituting other grains; many grains in this series are tasty and interesting and can be cooked and used like brown rice. Just as we benefit from a variety of fruits, vegetables, and proteins, we should eat many kinds of grains. 5. Avoid rice sweeteners which are very high in arsenic; they are found in many “healthy” treats. 6. Avoid feeding rice to infants regularly.
Leftover cooked rice looks benign sitting in its pot, but it can harbor Bacillus cereus
spores that can produce toxins which make people sick. Cool it quickly and keep it refrigerated to be safe.
Wild rice is a relative of Asian rice; it grows in lakes and streams and is harvested from a canoe. Three species are native to North America: one in the Great Lakes area and nearby states and provinces, another in the St. Lawrence River and on the Atlantic and Gulf coasts, and a third in central Texas. A fourth species is native to China. The Great Lakes species is the one that’s normally used as a grain. Since it became popular, it has seen cultivation in other parts of North America. I bought some from a grower in California which rather reminds me of grass seeds I have chewed in my youth, but it has an interesting flavor and texture which complements any meal.
ANCIENT GRAINS–FINIS: SORGHUM, aka MILO
When I was young sorghum syrup was an inexpensive substitute for maple syrup on pancakes or as a sweetener in baked goods. In my mother’s view, it got no respect; she grew up on a farm with yearly floods of maple syrup. Since about 1950, sorghum has disappeared from my radar.
It turns out, though, that worldwide, sorghum, or milo, is the fifth most important cereal crop. Sorghum Bicolor is the variety that is grown for grain. It is tolerant of drought, heat, and flood, and matures where the growing season is short. Some varieties grow ten feet tall; the stalks can be used as a building material or as fuel. It is widely used and appreciated in Africa and Asia as human food. In the United States it is used as fodder and for production of ethanol.
Wild sorghum was collected 8000 years ago and domesticated in East Africa where it remains an important food grain. From there it radiated to Asia and probably arrived in the Americas with the slave trade. Ben Franklin is credited with introducing the broomcorn variety for making brooms.
Sorghum/milo can also be used in recipes from other cooking traditions, either as a whole grain cooked like rice or porridge or as flour in flatbreads. In Turkmenistan sorghum or milo flour is added to any wheat flour dough to improve texture and flavor. The grain can be sprouted or fermented, and it can be used in beverages or popped for a snack.
In recent times sorghum grain has found a place in gluten-free foods. It has no hull, so the whole grain with all its nutrients is eaten. Sorghum flour is easy to use like other flours in baked goods, though it may require some patient experimenting to achieve the best results in GF recipes.
Unless someone reminds me of a grain I’ve neglected, this concludes the ANCIENT GRAIN PROJECT. It has been much fun; my pantry is bursting, there’s always a hearty soup, and to the family’s relief, I’ve returned to my old habit of baking various breads–traditional whole grain loaves, flatbreads, and sprouted grain breads.