Articles in Grains

Chef Drago's diet-friendly spelt panzanella salad. Credit: David Latt

Chef Giacomino Drago smiles a lot. The youngest member of a family of cooks to immigrate from Sicily, Drago, along with his brothers, has opened a dozen restaurants in Los Angeles, many in Beverly Hills, over the past four decades.

A contributor to the Beverly Hills Centennial Cookbook,” Drago declares that using the highest quality, freshest ingredients is the essence of Italian cooking. In his video he demonstrates an easy-to-prepare, classic Italian panzanella salad with diet-friendly spelt instead of bread.

Drago enjoys cooking. He smiles as he drops a handful of spaghetti into one of the half dozen pots of salted water on the stove and when he quickly renders a red onion into a mound of thin, pungent ribbons.

Come to Italy, he says, and one of the first salads you will eat is one made with vine-ripened tomatoes,  basil, red onions, extra virgin olive oil, red wine vinegar, and salt and pepper. Simplicity, he says several times, is the essence of Italian cooking. Find the freshest, highest-quality ingredients and prepare them in what Drago calls the rustic way, roughly cut so the dish is not overly fussy. The result is delicious, healthy food that is easy and fun to make.

A panzanella salad is the perfect dish for summer. To pursue the “current fashion,” as he puts it, he has traded spelt for bread in a signature salad at Via Alloro in Beverly Hills. He chose spelt because it has a refreshing texture and nutty quality that contrasts well with the acid of the tomato and vinegar. A heritage grain and cousin to wheat, spelt was developed hundreds of years ago as a flour in bread making. High in protein and fiber, Drago says spelt is heart-healthy because it is high in niacin. Because “panzanella” refers to a bread (“pane”) salad, it might be more accurate to call chef’s creation a speltzanella.

Chef Drago loves all his restaurants. But he designed the kitchen at Via Alloro in a special way. The area where the line cooks work is a horseshoe space with stoves in the middle and counters running along the walls. There are no dead-ends in this kitchen. Moving efficiently Drago and Executive Chef Paolo Sicuro prepare dishes with an unhurried ease, transferring their love of cooking onto the plates.

Fresh tomatoes are key to the flavor and pleasures of the salad. To protect the tomatoes’ richness of flavor, Drago insists they must never be refrigerated. That is why buying tomatoes from farmers markets is so important. Supermarket tomatoes may have been refrigerated for days, even weeks during their journey from the field to your kitchen.

Drago is precise about his cooking but flexible in terms of ingredients and seasoning. When cooking at home, he encourages that you use only ingredients you enjoy. If you do not like onions, don’t use them in the salad. The same goes for cucumbers and ground black pepper.

Diet-Friendly Spelt Panzanella Salad

Prep Time: 15 minutes

Cook Time: 1 hour

Total Time: 1 hour, 15 minutes

Yield: 4 servings as a salad portion, 2 servings as an entrée.

To capture all the tomato juice, chef cuts the tomatoes over the bowl. Use a variety of tomatoes for contrasts in shape, color and flavor. For the demonstration, Drago and Siruro used vine ripened, cherry and grape tomatoes. Yellow and heirloom tomatoes could also be added for contrast. To make the onion slices more “friendly,” Drago suggests double rinsing in water. This will result in a more mild flavor. Not widely available, spelt berries can be purchased in specialty markets and ordered online from purveyors such as Bob’s Red Mill. Cooked like pasta in boiling salted water, kosher salt should be used for the cleanest taste. Chef Drago uses English or hothouse cucumbers for the dish. If those are not available, Persian cucumbers would be a good substitute because they have a lower water content than garden cucumbers. The spelt may be cooked ahead and refrigerated. The other ingredients should be prepared immediately before serving to preserve their freshness.

Ingredients

  • 3 tablespoons spelt
  • 2 medium-sized tomatoes, washed, stem removed, cut into a small dice, reserving the liquid
  • 5 cherry tomatoes, washed, quartered
  • 5 plum tomatoes, washed, quartered
  • 1 small hothouse cucumber, washed, skin on, a small dice the same size as the tomatoes (optional)
  • ¼ medium red onion, washed, root and stem removed, thin sliced (optional)
  • 4 fresh basil leaves, washed, pat dried, roughly torn or chopped
  • 1 tablespoon kosher salt
  • Pinch of salt to taste
  • Pinch of freshly ground black pepper to taste (optional)
  • 4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon red wine vinegar

Directions

  1. Add kosher salt to three quarts of water. Bring to a rapid boil. Add spelt. Boil uncovered 30-50 minutes or longer depending on the desired doneness. Taste at 30 minutes to determine what is al dente for you and then again at 10-minute intervals until you reach the texture you like. I prefer cooking the spelt 50 minutes. Drain and set aside to cool
  2. Using a sharp paring knife, cut the tomatoes over the salad bowl to capture all the juices.
  3. Cut the skin-on cucumber into pieces similar in size to the tomatoes and add to the bowl.
  4. Slice the red onion. Submerge in cold water, rinse, drain, submerge in fresh cold water, rinse and drain. Add to the tomatoes and cucumbers.
  5. Add the cooked spelt berries.
  6. Roughly chop the basil leaves or tear them with your hands. Add to the salad bowl.
  7. Toss the spelt, vegetables and aromatics with the extra virgin olive oil and red wine vinegar.
  8. Season with sea salt to taste and freshly ground black pepper, as desired.
  9. Serve as a salad or a side with grilled meats, fish and poultry.

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A grilled onigiri can be the perfect Fourth of July finger food. Credit: Sonoko Sakai

Not everyone uses the word “barbecue” in Japan, but when it comes to cooking over the flame, Japanese have a long tradition — and grilled onigiri is the star!

Onigiri is essentially rice shaped into balls. When onigiri is brushed with some soy sauce and grilled until it is brown and crispy, it becomes Yakionigiri (yaki means to grill). In our family, my father would make it using a Hibachi, the classic Japanese grilling device that holds burning charcoal. He would take his time brushing the soy sauce on the onigiris. You don’t need anything else to make grilled onigiri taste good.

It’s a great side dish, or an appetizer or snack, and if you happen to have a gluten-intolerant person in the mix, offer a grilled onigiri and he or she will be grateful.

The preparation is easy, and you can even use day-old rice. Old rice has a way of perking up with heat.

There is no pre-seasoning required. It takes about five to eight minutes on each side to brown the onigiri, depending on how far the grill is from the heat source.  The shape of an onigiri is a matter of preference. In my family, it has always been triangular in shape — sort of like a pyramid. It can take some practice to get the pyramid to stand up, but you eventually figure out how to apply just the right amount of pressure to the rice to form the three corners.

You can also make them round or oval in shape. My father’s onigiri was made with brown rice. My grandmother’s onigiri was white rice. I like them both, but you have to remember to use short- or medium-grain rice. Long-grain rice will not make onigiri; you need rice that sticks. My family’s onigiris were filled with either a pickled plum or katsuobushi, dried bonito flakes seasoned with a little soy sauce. The contrasting flavors of the bland rice next to the savory bonito was heavenly.

You can grill onigiri while you grill the meat or fish or vegetables. All you need to do is keep an eye on it so the onigiris don’t burn.

Besides the straight soy sauce, you can add miso to the soy sauce to make your onigiris taste more savory. Add mirin if you want to add a little sweetness. The thing you want to remember is to serve onigiris right off the grill, while they are still hot. That way, they are crispy and really delicious.

Grilled onigiri

You can grill onigiri while you grill the meat or fish or vegetables. Credit: Sonoko Sakai

Grilled Onigiris

Prep Time: 30 minutes (Note: Brown rice must be soaked overnight)

Cook Time: 10 to 16 minutes to grill onigiris

Total Time: 40 to 46 minutes

Yield: Makes 8

Rice recipe

2 cups white short-grain or brown short-grain rice, such as Koda Farms Kokuho Rose

2½ cups of water (or follow rice cooker manufacturer’s instructions)

Salt water (see note above)

2 tablespoons salt in a small bowl

1. Cook the rice first, with the measured 2½ cups water, or cook according to the manufacturer’s instructions.

2. When the rice is cooked, divide it into eight equal portions. Make the onigiri while the rice is hot. Take one portion of rice and put it in a teacup or small bowl.

3. Shape the onigiri: Moisten your hands lightly with the salt water to keep the rice from sticking (if you like your onigiri saltier, moisten your hands in the water, then dip your index finger into the bowl of salt and rub the salt on your palms). Mold the rice using your hands: For a triangular shape, cup one hand to hold the rice ball. Press gently with your other hand to create the top corner of the triangle, using your index and middle fingers and thumb as a guide. Turn the rice ball and repeat two more times to give the onigiri three corners. The onigiri can also be round or oval in shape.

4. Repeat with the rest of the rice to form eight onigiri.

Soy miso sauce

¼ cup miso (red miso paste)

1 to 2 teaspoons mirin to taste

1 to 2 tablespoons soy sauce

¼ cup finely chopped chives

1. In a medium bowl, blend the miso, mirin and soy sauce.

2. The chives can be whisked into the sauce, or sprinkled over as a garnish just before serving.

Grilled onigiri assembly

8 onigiri

Vegetable oil

Prepared soy miso sauce

1. Baste the onigiri with a little oil to prevent it from sticking to the grill.

2. Heat a grill over medium-high heat until hot, or heat the broiler. Line the grill pan or a baking sheet (if using the broiler) with foil. Grill the onigiri on both sides until crisp and slightly toasted; this can take from 8-10 minutes on each side depending on the heat and cooking method. While grilling, baste the onigiri with the sauce on each side a few times until it is absorbed and becomes crisp; the onigiri should not be moist from basting when done. Watch carefully, as the onigiri can burn.

3. Serve immediately while the onigiri are piping hot. Sprinkle with chives.

Main photo: A grilled onigiri can be the perfect Fourth of July finger food. Credit: Sonoko Sakai

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Bolzano miche from Brooklyn's Runner and Stone bakery and restaurant using local flour. Credit: Mayumi Kasuga

I love locally grown and ground flours because they taste great and think right. So when my son wanted to share a meal for his birthday, not just a cake, we used local rye to make crepes in the cow pasture near his boarding school.

While eggs and butter do a lot of flavor work in this recipe, the rye has a speaking role.  I can trace the flour back to the field, and picture where the rye was milled, sure as I can remember my kid on his first birthday, standing at a coffee table and digging at a roasted chicken with hunger and delight. Beyond my love for my son and a beautiful day, does the flour stand on its own merits? To find out I interviewed a couple of New York City bakers who use Farmer Ground Flour.

Plein-air crepe using local flour rye. Credit: Amy Halloran

Author’s husband, Jack Magai, celebrates son’s birthday with rye crepe. Credit: Amy Halloran

Peter Endriss bakes at Runner & Stone in Brooklyn. I met his bread at a tasting of regional flours six months before I met him. His rye — dark and dense, sweet and sour — sat in my brain like a gargoyle perched on a building.

The name Runner & Stone refers to New York City’s first water powered gristmill, which was located nearby. In stone milling, the top stone is called the runner and the lower, stable stone is called the bedstone.

His breads appeared at farmers markets before the bakery nested inside the restaurant at the end of 2012; since then, good press has shined a star on the loaves, helping them march out the door long before lunch is even served.

“The only non-local flour we’re using is artisan white bread flour from Central Milling,” said Endriss in a recent interview, beginning a verbal tour of the invisible breads that sold out before 10 that morning, thanks to attention from the New York Times.

Runner & Stone features baguettes that are white, whole wheat and buckwheat.  It also makes a whole wheat walnut levain, Bolzano rye, sesame semolina, and a rye ciabatta, all with varying percentages of whole grain Farmer Ground flours. The brioche and croissants have 10% whole wheat flour. Champlain Valley Milling, another mill in New York state, provides the white spelt flour used in its pretzel, modeled after a southern German pretzel that uses Dinkel flour, which is also spelt.

These breads are built with many qualities in mind.

“First, I want the bread to be nice,” Endriss said. The second is “how much whole grain can we add to a baguette and still have it be my impression of a baguette?”

This means a thin crust and an open interior with a flavor that is not too sour; something pleasant to eat and a little lighter than a whole wheat sourdough.

The 1970s concept of whole grain breads carried a halo of self-righteousness and the reputation of a penitential texture, but these loaves — and the team that makes them — are more down to earth about blending earthy concerns with the loftiness of high bread.

“I have a degree in environmental science,” Endriss said, reflecting on what motivates his flour choices. “I think my experiences in studying natural resource management and doing fieldwork associated with that, [gives] the farm a stronger presence in my mind when I look at an ingredient.”

Local flours for flavor, not structure

In baking circles, the arguments against using local flours tend to focus on their unpredictability. Because smaller mills  blend from fewer grain sources, the batches vary more than larger mills. This isn’t a problem for Endriss, who doesn’t rely on the whole grain flours for structure. The white flour provides that, and the local flours act more as flavor elements.

Whole grain flours get another strike because the bran acts like little knives, interrupting the formation of the gluten matrix. Using pre-ferments – fermenting a portion of the dough before the whole batch – helps ameliorate some of that.

“The scale of our production is probably the factor that allows us to adjust to inconsistency in the flour,” he said. “If our five kilos of dough is fermenting a little too fast, we just put the tub in the fridge and fix it.”

In a larger bakery, 300 kilos of dough running off the track would not be so easy to correct.

She Wolfe Bakery also uses Farmer Ground Flour, backing up the local whole grains with King Arthur organic flours. The bakery supplies Andrew Tarlow’s restaurants – Reynard, Marlow & Sons, Diner, Roman’s – and the breads are also for sale at Achilles Heel and Marlow & Daughters.

She Wolfe began at Roman’s, where Austin Hall baked bread in the wood fired pizza oven. In January 2013, the bakery moved to rented space in a shared kitchen and began baking seven days a week.

This bread has also enjoyed great press, and with good reason. The whole wheat miche — a kind of French country loaf that might be the poster child for the artisan bread movement — is still sitting in my mind, staring at me like Endriss’ rye gargoyle.

Linked to the land

Hall’s interest in local flour is linked to the land, and similar to Endriss’s. (Coincidentally, the two worked together briefly at Per Se, where Peter expanded the restaurant’s bread program.)

Hall grew up in Iowa, in an agricultural community but not in a farming family.

Muffuletta made with local flour ciabatta. Credit: Amy Halloran

Achilles Heel stuffed muffuletta with ciabatta from She Wolfe Bakery. Credit: Amy Halloran

“Watching the farmland around me disappear into a bedroom community was frustrating,” he said over a pilsner at Achilles Heel, where his bread sat on shelves, down the row from whiskey bottles. The round ciabatta sat like a cake on a crystal pedestal, dimpled white rounds sandwiching the plump filling of a muffuletta.

Coincidentally, the Farmer Ground Flour in those loaves is the product of suburban sprawl. Outside of Ithaca, N.Y., the land that grain farmer Thor Oechsner was renting was getting snapped up for development. He needed to make more money from his crops, so he added value by switching from growing grain for animal feed to growing food grade grains and starting a flour mill.

Hall likes this local flour because he believes supporting stone milling helps preserve a body of knowledge. The miche serves that kind of preservation role, too.

“For me the miche is such a preindustrial thing, you know?” he said. Everything about it, from the lightly sifted stone milled flour, to the size of the loaf and the style of baking is related to a series of preexisting conditions.

“You’re using a stiff starter because it’s easier to control without refrigeration. You’re mixing a really wet dough, because if you don’t have a mechanical mixer, it’s just a matter of dragging your arm through a mixing trough,” he said. “You’re making a large loaf because if you’re baking once a week, you want it to keep for a long time.”

Hall delivers the romance of a bread that’s frozen in time. Even if people can’t taste the values a baker imagines, I love that Endriss and Hall want to feed people the landscape. That is a motive I understand, whether my griddle is perched on a campstove in the midst of a pastoral view, or steady at the home stove, steering in the morning pancakes.

Main photo: Bolzano miche from Brooklyn’s Runner & Stone bakery and restaurant using local flour. Credit: Mayumi Kasuga

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Prebiotic stars among spring vegetables. Credit: Martha Rose Shulman

Probiotics have been quite the hot topic for some time now. We are beginning to understand more about the importance of these beneficial bacteria, or microflora, in our guts — not only in maintaining digestive health, but also in boosting our immune systems. At a minimum, if you’ve seen Jamie Lee Curtis extolling the virtues of Activia yogurt in television commercials, you may have some vague idea that probiotics are the answer to undisclosed, unseemly tummy issues, especially if you are a middle-aged woman.

Some of the advertising claims for commercial yogurts can be a bit far-fetched or vague, but there is now a lot of good evidence in the scientific literature supporting the benefits of probiotics, including immunity enhancement, improvement of lactose digestion, treatment of diarrhea in infants and treatment of constipation, improved tolerance to antibiotic therapy and reduced symptoms of respiratory infections. Cultures around the world that eat fermented foods like yogurt, kefir and kimchi have been on to this for centuries.

The secret to probiotics

I thought I understood the concept of probiotics until I heard a talk by nutritionist and Stanford University dietitian Jo Ann Hattner. She coauthored, with Susan Anderes, “Gut Insight: Probiotics and Prebiotics For Digestive Health and Well-Being.” What I had not understood was that probiotics do not thrive on their own. They have to be replaced every few days, and they have to be nourished.

“Bacteria have to eat, too,” Hattner says, and it turns out there are certain foods they really love. These are foods that are high in specific nondigestible, fermentable carbohydrates (fibers), or prebiotics. The fibers are not digested in the stomach — they survive its acidity, and when they arrive in the colon they are fermented by the beneficial microflora that they encounter there. Scientists believe that the acids resulting from this fermentation decrease the pH levels in the colon, and this is detrimental to the survival of pathogenic bacteria. Probiotics and prebiotics have a synergistic relationship and the end result for us, the host, is increased gastrointestinal health and boosted immunity.

Prebiotic foods to consider

Scientists have begun to isolate some of these prebiotic elements. Measurable amounts of two of them, oligosaccharides and inulin, have been found in bananas, chicory root, burdock, dandelion greens, garlic, onions, leeks, globe artichokes, Jerusalem artichokes, jicama, mushrooms, green tea, wild blueberries, kiwis, salsify, whole wheat, barley, and rye. These are foods that Hattner designates as “prebiotic stars.” Other foods that scientists are studying because they think they have “prebiotic potential” include apples, berries, raisins, tomatoes, greens, legumes, oats, brown rice, whole grain corn, buckwheat, flaxseed, almonds and honey. However, they need more human studies before they can be assessed as “stars.”

Spring is a great season to take advantage of many of the “prebiotic stars.” I’ve built a big bowl using six prebiotic stars and potentials, which I top with yogurt, so the synergistic relationship between these ingredients begins on the plate itself. Mind you, I am not one to create dishes because of health-related attributes in the ingredients — deliciousness is always my goal. The stew is a wonderful Mediterranean stew, and the big bowl makes a wonderfully hearty vegetarian meal. The prebiotic/probiotic attributes in the dish are a healthy and delightful coincidence.

In this dish, the prebiotic stars and potential stars are:

  • Onion
  • Garlic
  • Artichokes
  • Fava beans
  • Greens
  • Barley

The probiotic bonus is the garlic yogurt that garnishes the big bowl.

Big Bowl With Barley, Spring Vegetable Stew and Yogurt

Serves 4

Ingredients

For the stew:

Juice of 1 lemon

6 baby artichokes or small artichokes

2 tablespoons olive oil

½ pound spring onions, white and light green parts only, chopped (about 1½ cups)

½ cup chopped celery, preferably from the heart of the bunch

1 bulb green garlic, papery shells removed, chopped

1 large fennel bulb (1 to 1¼ pounds), trimmed, quartered, cored, and chopped (3 to 3½ cups chopped)

½ cup water

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

1 bunch baby turnips, with greens, turnips scrubbed and quartered, greens stemmed and washed

1½ pounds fava beans, shelled

2 tablespoons chopped fennel fronds or chopped fresh mint (or a combination)

3 cups cooked barley

1⅓ cups Greek yogurt, with 1 mashed garlic clove stirred in if desired
Chopped fresh dill, parsley or mint (or a combination) for garnish

Directions

1. Fill a bowl with water and add lemon juice. Trim the artichokes, quarter them and place in the water as you go along.

2. Heat oil over medium heat in a large, heavy, lidded skillet or Dutch oven and add onions and celery. Cook, stirring, until tender, about 5 minutes. Add garlic, stir for about a minute, until you can smell the fragrance of the garlic, and add fennel and a generous pinch of salt. Cook, stirring often, for another 5 to 8 minutes, until the fennel has softened.

3. Drain artichoke hearts and add to the pan, along with the baby turnips. Cook, stirring often, for 5 minutes. Add ½ cup water and salt to taste and bring to a simmer. Cover, reduce heat to low, and simmer for 10 to 15 minutes.

4. Meanwhile, blanch the turnip greens in a pot of salted boiling water for 2 to 3 minutes, until tender. Using a skimmer or a slotted spoon, transfer to a bowl of cold water, then drain and squeeze out excess moisture. Chop medium-fine. Bring the pot of water from the greens back to a boil and drop in the shelled favas. Boil 1 minute, then transfer to a bowl or cold water. Drain and skin the favas. Set aside.

5. When the simmering vegetables are very tender and fragrant, stir in the blanched turnip greens, skinned favas, the chopped fennel fronds and/or mint and simmer for 5 more minutes. Taste and adjust salt and pepper.

6. Spoon a generous serving of cooked barley into each wide bowl. Top with the vegetables, making sure to spoon broth over the barley. Place a spoonful of yogurt on top, sprinkle with parsley, dill or mint, and serve.

Main photo: Prebiotic stars among spring vegetables. Credit: Martha Rose Shulman

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Whole wheat pancakes. Credit: Jacob VanHouten/iStock

The soup kitchen where I work has a beautiful griddle, perfect for pancakes — the food that spins my world. Yet I’ve been hesitant to make them because I like to serve them fresh, and serving 100 people necessitates making them ahead of time and keeping them warm. I’m also dedicated to whole grains, but people who eat here are the same as many Americans, dubious about whether they’ll like whole-grain foods. I often hear people ask for white bread for breakfast and reject whole-wheat rolls for lunch.

These breads are soft stuff that comes from plastic sleeves, the easy-to-catch remnants from supermarkets. Stale bread travels more freely to food pantries and soup kitchens than other foods, such as produce. That’s because bread looks better longer than fruit and vegetables, which show smelly and off-putting signs of age sooner. Produce is just more perishable than bread.

Plus, produce is more susceptible to food-safety problems. When’s the last time you heard of a sliced bread recall? You can probably remember salmonella in spinach, tomatoes and jalapeño peppers, not to mention more shelf-stable foods, such as peanuts.

How we got hooked on white bread

The preference for white bread goes beyond its mere shelf-stability. Long a hallmark of the rich, white flour only became inexpensive in the late 1800s, when roller milling became common.

White flour is made from just the endosperm, the center part of a grain kernel, minus the bran and germ. These subtractions were pricey when stone milling was the main route to flour. Bran and germ also offer problems.

Roller milling was a boon to flour because it separates the component parts of the grain, making it easier to divide them. Germ contains oils that make flour spoil more easily. These oils can also gum up the mill process. In Michael Pollan’s latest book “Cooked,” anonymous millers told him that germ is such a trouble to milling that it is generally removed from national brands of whole-wheat flour.

Bran is less bothersome at the mill, but bakers don’t love how it acts like knives in rising dough. This makes whole-wheat breads more dense than their puffy, fluffy, white cousins.

This is because wheat’s main goal is reproduction. Wheat germ is the part of a kernel meant to start another plant. Bran is several layers of armor that protect the next generation of wheat — the germ and its food, the endosperm. Any function or flavor we get is secondary to the plant’s intention.

While bran’s benefits used to be dismissed, the current thinking is that the indigestible fiber slows down metabolism of the starches in flour. Because starches convert to sugars in digestion, eating whole grains translates to lower blood-sugar levels. However, habits make whole-grain baked goods a hard sell.

Bran and germ contain most of the flavor you can find in a wheat berry. That starchy endosperm doesn’t have a lot of flavor on its own. White flour takes its flavors from its processing. White flour gets flavors from fermentation (by yeast or sourdough), from salt and sweeteners added during processing, and from the chemical reactions of baking, which both colors and creates crust.

Embracing whole wheat

Whole-grain flours have more taste, and that is troubling. Luckily, there are some methods to help the dedicated white-flour eater take the leap.

Just as some fish are more fishy tasting than others, some whole wheats are wheatier. As with fish, freshness counts a lot, too.

Wheats are red or white. This classification refers to the color of the bran. Red wheats have more tannins than whites. Tannins in whole wheat can be perceived as bitter. However, even dedicated whole wheatsters like me can taste the sweetness of white wheats. I am a huge fan.

More reds are grown than whites because white wheats tend to sprout easily in the field. This is another example of the plant’s first function taking precedence over its edibility again.

Brands to consider

If you can get locally grown and milled flour, find out about the color of the kernels. I have a pretty steady affection for the white whole-wheat pastry flour from Farmer Ground Flour. The pancakes I make from it ride little magic carpets in my mind. They’re oh so sweet and fluffy.

White whole-wheat flours are manufactured by many national brands. My favorite are King Arthur, Arrowhead and Bob’s Red Mill. If you are trying to persuade people to use whole grains, these types of flour are good suggestions for first-time users.

Of course, there is still the hurdle of texture, especially in leavened breads. Whether the wheat is white or red, the knife-like action of bran can keep your loaf from fluffing. If you’re baking for eaters who demand softness, use half white whole-wheat flour and half unbleached flour. You could ease people into your program with foods that are supposed to be denser, like banana breads, where you could easily get away with 100% white whole-wheat flour.

Don’t cater too much to those preferences, though. When I made pancakes at work, I used a combination of King Arthur white whole-wheat flour and that heavenly pastry flour from Farmer Ground. The cakes were light, fluffy and well-loved. We served scrambled eggs, sausages and pancakes topped with blueberries.

The only complaints we got were from people who didn’t like pancakes for lunch.

Top photo: Whole-wheat pancakes. Credit: Jacob VanHouten/iStock

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Barley germinating. Credit: Amy Halloran

I almost skipped my first chance to visit Valley Malt, New England’s first malthouse in a century. Although I love learning about people who are using grains, I don’t drink anymore, and I never made beer. What use could I possibly have for barley malt?

Lucky I reserved my reserve, and met malt pioneers Andrea and Christian Stanley. They showed me their first malting system and how they germinated grain — mostly barley — for brewers and distillers.

I stuck my nose in a bag of malted barley and I smelled Grape Nuts. Criminy. Let me at the kitchen. Here was an ingredient I could use.

Grape nuts is quick bread made in a sheet pan, baked, crumbled and baked again. I’d only used whole-wheat flour in my experiments, not the cereal’s mainstay, malt. That ingredient just isn’t on the market. Bakers use active and inactive malt powder for sweetening and to help boost yeast performance. Barley malt flour, however, is a DIY deal.

So there I was, in a garage that had once been a potato processing site, in Hadley, Mass., sniffing cereal. “Grape Nuts!” I said to Andrea. “You can use it in pancakes, too,” she said. If I wasn’t already sold on the stuff, that was the kicker.

I have long had an obsession with pancakes. Aunt Jemima Pancake Mix ushered me into my love affair at the stove. Decades later, pancakes were the first meal I made the man who would be my husband. Ages ago, I calculated we had them about 250 times a year. The serving ratio went up to daily when I found malt.

The best of brewing makes baking better too

Malting is germination. The same stuff that happens in the ground when you plant a seed, or on your counter when you make sprouts, is what  maltsters like Andrea or Christian seek. Steeping grains in water starts the growing process. Kilning stops it once the seeds reach a certain point.

What brewers love about malt is that the process loosens up the starches in the grain’s endosperm and readies those them for conversion to sugar. That makes the starches available to feed the yeast in fermenting beverages.

Malt is often used in the food industry as a sweetener and sometimes as a flavor. Ovaltine takes advantage of both properties, the sweetness and flavor. In bagels and other breads, however, malted barley is added in tiny amounts to take advantage of malt’s enzyme activity and make yeast more muscular.

I am still figuring out exactly what properties I’m using. I know that malt is a boon to my pancakes, adding flavor and helping the whole grain flours I use rise a little bit.

I don’t make sourdough or yeasted pancakes, so I’m not certain all the chemistry that the malt is achieving. I just know I see a marked difference.

Experimenting with pancakes and other baked goods

The pancakes are such a hit that I started making mixes for Valley Malt: malted cornmeal with rye, spelt and buckwheat with malt, and of course, whole wheat with malt, my absolute favorite.

When Andrea and I were making mixes in December, she asked me to make pancakes and snacks for the Farmer Brewer Conference she and Christian organize. I love to spread the gospel of what malt does on the griddle. Plus any excuse to play in the kitchen is great.

So I’ve been fiddling with malt in more than pancakes. I’ve figured out how to use the pancake mixes to make biscuits. They take tons of butter and less milk. I added cornmeal made from malted corn to shortbreads, cornbread, and pie crusts,  all with fine results.

Adding malted barley to whole wheat shortbread stumped me, though. Fresh from the oven, the cookies were adored. A few days in, I opened the tin where I’d stored them, and I could smell the butter was going off. Had I used bad butter? Was the tin a funk fest? Help! I’m still not sure what went wrong, but I managed to make my recipe work by not refrigerating the dough, and by freezing the cookies immediately after baking.

At the conference, I found people to help me figure out what’s happening in that recipe, and in my other experiments. While the presentations focused on malting for brewing, people who study malt are also curious about what it does in baked goods.

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Service berry custard pies with malted cornmeal crust. Credit: Amy Halloran

The snacks I made — crackers with malted barley, almonds in a barley meringue, and those shortbreads — went down just fine. The biscuits and pancakes for breakfast were a hit, too.

As I mentioned, this is real DIY territory. If you want to play with malt, and you are lucky enough to have a local maltster, get a little bit and start experimenting. If you don’t have a maltster to befriend, you can use malts from a brewing supply place. Either way, grinding is the way to go. I use my blender for the first grind, and a milling attachment on my Kitchen Aid to finish the job.

You can’t use malt like flour, because the enzyme activity changes the gliadin and glutenin in the grain, interfering with their gluten-forming capacity. But you can add bits of it for flavor and sweetness. Here’s a recipe to get you going.

Making your own malt flour

To make your own malt flour, start with a pound of barley malt from your maltster or from a home brew shop. Your maltster might have a mill that will make flour. Ask her or him to grind it as finely as possible, husks and all, for your baking fun.

Home brew stores are used to grinding grain, but not into flour. They crack grains for brewers, who only need the starches released for access in the brewing process.

If this is your scenario, ask the store to crack the malted barley, and bring it home and put it in a coffee grinder or sturdy blender and go to town. Sift off anything chaffy with a strainer.

In my house, I grind the malt first in my blender, and then put it through the mill attachment for my Kitchen Aid stand mixer. Otherwise, the malt gums up the works and I don’t get flour.  Other types of table top flour mills should handle the challenge better.

Crackers

Based on Laura Brody’s multi-seed crackerbread recipe from “King Arthur Flour Whole Grain Baking”

Ingredients

3 cups (12 ounces) whole-wheat bread flour

3 ounces home-ground barley malt flour

1 teaspoon salt

2 teaspoon olive oil

1 cup water

Directions

1. Preheat oven to 450 F.

2. Mix together the dry ingredients, and stir in oil.

3. Add water gradually. You may need more or less than 1 cup, depending how much water your flours absorb. If you’re using local flours, the moisture content of the flour can vary a bit. Add enough to make a stiff, but not dry, dough.

4, Knead a bit until the dough is smooth. Cut into 8 sections. Roll into balls and, on a barley-malt-flour-dusted surface, roll very, very thin. I shoot for something like thick paper, less than the width of a cereal box.

5. Bake for 5 to 7 minutes. Watch carefully, as edges darken easily.

6. When cool, break into pieces and serve. Store in a container that closes tightly.

Top photo: Barley germinating. Credit: Amy Halloran

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Mandan Bride corn. Credit: Terra Brockman

Corn has gotten a bad rap over the past 50 years, especially since it was genetically modified to resist enormous applications of herbicide, and then used primarily for ethanol and animal feed. That No. 2 Yellow Dent corn is a far cry from the delicious and nutritious staple of the Native Americans, who deserve to own the intellectual property of corn genetics for the simple reason that all corn is Indian corn, painstakingly developed by Native Americans from wild teosinte grass.

Cultivation of maize began more than 8,000 years ago in the Balsas River Valley in what is present-day Mexico, and the plant was considered a sacred gift from the gods. Over the years, thousands of varieties were developed by native peoples throughout Meso-America, and then throughout North and South America, until there were varieties for every altitude and climate, and for every culinary and ceremonial purpose. The Indians categorized their corn by intended use: for flour, for hominy and porridge, for popping, and so on. Of the many edible gifts native peoples have given us, the most important is, arguably, corn.

This Thanksgiving, you can give thanks to Native Americans and recapture some of the rich heritage and rich tastes of corn by seeking out heirloom varieties such as Mandan Bride, and serving them as a side dish or as a gluten-free stuffing for your bird.

Polenta revelation

My first experience with true polenta was not in Italy, but in my own kitchen using my brother Henry’s freshly ground Mandan Bride cornmeal, water, salt and pepper. Until that silky, creamy, revelatory moment, I thought all cornmeal came in a yellow and blue canister blessed with a smiling Quaker. And I thought it tasted pretty much like the cardboard it came in.

The steaming bowl in front of me was something else entirely — complex, nutty, mildly sweet and altogether comforting. And it got me wondering who and what Mandan Bride was, and why I had lived for 50 years before tasting the earthy essence of corn.

It turns out the Mandan Indians lived in parts of what we now know as Minnesota and North Dakota, and they developed this corn specifically for grinding into meal and making into porridge. They bred it for flavor and nutrition, and quite possibly for beauty as well.

Every ear of Mandan Bride is different, the variegated colors ranging from deep burgundy to hazy purple to smoky white, with some kernels a uniform color and others striped. The ears are so beautiful that you may find it being sold as an ornamental. But after enjoying its beauty, you should do as the Indians intended, and make yourself the most amazing polenta you’ve ever had.

Searching for Mandan Bride

Mandan Bride and other heirloom cornmeals are hard to find from anyone but a small-scale, biodiverse local farmer. The plant’s relatively weak stalks and soft cobs make it nearly impossible to harvest mechanically, so farmers must pick the ears by hand, then hand shuck them, dry them to just the right point and then stone grind them in small batches. Because the whole kernel is ground, heirloom cornmeal is much more flavorful and nutritious than commercial cornmeal for which the outer hulls and inner germ (the protein- and fat-rich center of each kernel) are removed. But freshly ground whole kernels are perishable, and should be kept in the refrigerator or freezer.

If you can’t find Mandan Bride, look for Hopi Blue or Bloody Butcher. Or resolve to grow your own next year. Seeds are available from a number of purveyors who specialize in old varieties, and Mandan Bride is listed as one of RAFT’s (Renewing America’s Food Traditions) “culinary mainstays of the last three millennia.”

Perfect Thanksgiving polenta

Many polenta recipes call for butter, cream or cheese, but if you have freshly ground heirloom cornmeal, there’s no need for anything but water, salt and pepper.

Polenta can be made and served at a loose, custardy consistency using a 5-1 ratio of water to cornmeal, or it can be made with less water (a 4-1 ratio) so that it’s firm and easily shaped into squares or triangles, and then pan-fried or broiled, giving you great crunch on the outside and creaminess on the inside. Either way, polenta pairs perfectly with bold autumn greens like Brussels sprouts or broccoli rabe.

For a less stressful Thanksgiving meal, make this polenta a day or two ahead of time, then broil it just before serving.

Broiled Polenta With Heirloom Cornmeal

Serves 6

Ingredients

4 cups water

1 cup Mandan Bride or other heirloom cornmeal (if unavailable, get the best organic cornmeal you can find)

1 teaspoon sea salt

Freshly ground pepper

Olive oil

Directions

1. Bring salted water to a boil in a heavy-bottomed saucepan. Turn the heat down to medium, and add the cornmeal gradually in a steady stream, whisking constantly until it’s all incorporated.

2. Turn the heat to low and continue whisking for about 5 minutes to prevent any lumps from forming.

3. Continue stirring often for the next 15 minutes or until the water is absorbed. Reduce heat to low and continue stirring until polenta turns creamy and pulls away from the sides of the pot. Taste and add sea salt and freshly  ground pepper if desired.

4. Generously coat a 13-by-9-inch baking pan with olive oil. Pour the polenta into the pan and let cool. Cover and refrigerate.

5. Take out an hour or so before you plan to serve it to let it come to room temperature. Set your broiler on high and grease a rimmed cookie sheet.

6. Slice the firm polenta into diamonds, wedges, or squares — or use your favorite cookie cutter. Place polenta slices on the baking sheet and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Place on the top rack of the oven and broil for 8 to 10 minutes, or until polenta is crisp and brown on top.

Top photo: Mandan Bride corn. Credit: Terra Brockman

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Pancakes from a homemade mix. Credit: Amy Halloran

One winter when I wasn’t eating sugar, the idea of not baking was really plaguing me. If I couldn’t make cookies, how could I find that holiday feeling?

After much pouting, I came up with an idea that wouldn’t get lost in a sea of homemade treats. Pancake mix would stand apart from the crowd. Plus, when the people I loved headed into the kitchen one lazy weekend morning, I could go with them to the griddle — one of my favorite places on the planet.

Pancake mix is one of the easier mixes to make because you don’t have to add fat. You can, of course, but then you have to worry about potential spoilage, and incorporating the melted butter or oil evenly throughout the mix. If you want, you can add fat to the batter, but I don’t. I find it drags down the cakes, which pick up plenty of butter from the griddle.

Highlighting lovely flours is another advantage of this gift. Stone-ground whole-grain flours do really well in pancakes. The bran and germ layers of grains contain much more flavor than the starchy endosperm, which is the only part of the grain milled for white flours. This means that whole-grain flours can be celebrated for vibrant flavors, not just their banner fiber.

Regionally produced flours are fairly easy to find. Because they are freshly milled from interesting varieties of grains, they have great tastes. They also add ecological and community economic values to your giving.

Last but not least, when you make your very own pancake flour, you are echoing the first packaged mix. Aunt Jemima Pancake Flour was invented in 1889, and contained only wheat flour, corn flour, salt and sodium phosphate. The name came from a song in a minstrel show.

Within a year, another milling company bought the formula and the mill. R.T. Davis added powdered milk to the mix, and hired a spokesperson. Nancy Green was a former slave who worked for a Chicago judge, and she played Aunt Jemima inside a booth shaped like a flour barrel at the Chicago World’s Fair. She was so popular that extra security was hired to tame the crowd waiting for her cakes and tales.

Those stories, and the ones featured in ads well into the 20th century, celebrated the imaginary cook’s ability to keep Union soldiers from scalping her master. Her pancakes mollified the troops, and her colonel kept his hair, and his life.

I’m amazed that just a generation after the Civil War, appetites for antebellum fairy tales were so strong. The way the company has held onto the Mammy stereotype for more than a century is also amazing.

Packaged food started with simple breakfast items

What is most stunning to me is the fact that such small improvements as adding leaveners, salt, and powdered milk could make a product succeed. How much time does it take to blend these ingredients at home? Less than a minute.

I see this as the dawn of packaged food. Breakfast is where we began to surrender our ability to feed ourselves to an anonymous industry. Aunt Jemima put a face on food as production scaled up, removing the faces of the farmer and miller from the immediate community.

Here’s how you can put your own face on your loved one’s breakfasts. My basic formula is this.

Homemade Pancake Mix

Ingredients

4 cups flour

1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon baking powder

1 teaspoon baking soda

1½ tsp salt

2  buttermilk powder, optional (if you want people to use just water and egg for their mix)

Directions

Mix all ingredients well with a whisk and put in plastic bag, or a container with a tight fitting lid. Brand new coffee bags are handy, and you can decorate them.

Homemade Pancakes

Ingredients

1 cup homemade pancake flour mix

1 egg

¾ cup milk

1 tablespoon yogurt

(Or skip the milk and yogurt and add ¾ cup water for the buttermilk variation)

Directions

1. Blend well and let sit for 10 minutes before using. This helps the flour absorb the moisture thoroughly. If the batter needs a little thinning, add some more milk.

2. Cook on a hot buttered griddle, flipping when the first side has little bubbles.

This mix takes well to variations. Mostly I fiddle with the flour. Some great combinations are:

  • 2 cups whole wheat pastry flour, 1 cup rye flour, 1 cup cornmeal.
  • 1 cup whole wheat pastry flour, 1 cup rye flour, 1 cup cornmeal, 1 cup oats or ground oats.
  • 2 cups buckwheat flour, 2 cups rye flour.
  • 2 cups buckwheat flour, 2 cups whole wheat pastry flour.
  • 2 cups cornmeal, 2 cups rye flour.
  • 3 cups cornmeal, 1 cup rye flour.

If you are making mixes for people who are not devoted to whole grains, you can use all-purpose flour in place of some or all of the whole-wheat pastry.

I never add sugar to pancakes, because I find whole grains sweet enough on their own. If you want, add ¼ cup of brown or white sugar per batch.

Please use a baking powder you know is strong and sturdy. For me, that is Rumford Double Acting baking powder.

If you really love the recipient, buy them an old cast aluminum griddle at a thrift store. Aluminum griddles distribute heat very evenly, and nothing makes a better pancake.

Top photo: Pancakes from a homemade mix. Credit: Amy Halloran

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