Articles in Grains
An abundance of corn in farmers markets is a delight and a challenge. Having already grilled platters of corn on the barbecue and boiled armfuls of shucked ears, it is time to invent another way to enjoy one of summer’s most delicious vegetables. Borrowing the flavors of elote, a Mexican classic, turns grilled corn into a salad that will delight everyone at the table.
Mexican street food delight
Travel in Mexico and you’ll encounter street vendors selling a great number of delicious food snacks. One of my favorites is elote, or corn on the cob, in which an ear of corn is cooked, dusted with dry cheese and seasoned with chili powder and fresh lime juice. The ear of corn is always served whole, sometimes resting in a paper dish or with a stick in the bottom like a corndog.
Elote is delicious but messy to eat. First there is the matter of the whole ear of corn, which takes two hands to manage. And, with each bite, the finely grated Cotija cheese tends to float off the corn and drift onto clothing.
Cutting the kernels off the cobs makes the seasoned corn so much easier to enjoy. In Mexico there is a corn kernel snack called esquites, which employs some of the seasonings used in making elote. This recipe is different because no mayonnaise is mixed with the corn. Mexican Corn Salad can be served as a light and refreshing entrée topped with a protein or as a side dish accompanying grilled vegetables, meats, poultry and fish. The elote salad is the perfect summer recipe.
The best way to cook corn on the cob is a topic of heated debate. There are those who will only boil corn, others who will only grill it. I have seen elote prepared both ways. My preference is to strip off the husk and grill the ear so that some of the kernels are charred, adding caramelized sweetness to the salad.
Just the right cheese
What gives elote its distinctive flavor is the combination of finely grated dry Mexican Cotija cheese, spicy chili powder and fresh lime juice. Powdery when finely grated, Cotija cheese is salty so you may not need to add salt when you make the corn salad. Often described as having qualities similar to feta and Parmesan, Cotija tastes quite different.
Mexican Corn Salad
Prep time: 10 minutes
Cook time: 15 to 20 minutes
Total time: 25 to 30 minutes
Yield: 4 entrée servings or 8 side dish servings
4 tablespoons olive oil, divided
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
4 large ears of corn, husks and silks removed, washed, dried
1/2 cup finely grated Cotija cheese
1/2 teaspoon chili powder
3 cups Italian parsley, washed, leaves only, chopped
2 limes, washed, quartered
1. Preheat an indoor grill or outdoor barbecue to hot.
2. Pour 2 tablespoons olive oil into a flat pan and season with sea salt and black pepper.
3. Roll the ears of corn in the seasoned olive oil to coat all sides.
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4. Using tongs, place the corn on the grill, turning every 2 to 3 minutes so that some of the kernels char, being careful not to burn the ears.
5. When cooked on all sides, remove and let cool in the flat pan with the seasoned olive oil.
6. To cut the kernels off the cob, use a sharp chef’s knife. Hold each ear of corn over the pan with the seasoned oil and slice the kernels off the cob.
7. Transfer the kernels and the remaining seasoned oil into a large mixing bowl.
8. Add Cotija cheese, chili powder and parsley. Toss well.
9. Drizzle the remaining olive oil over the salad and toss.
10. Serve at room temperature with lime wedges on the side.
Notes: Adding finely chopped Italian parsley to the seasoned corn kernels brightens the flavors. Cilantro can be used instead of parsley to give the salad a peppery flavor.
Traditionally, mayonnaise is slathered on the elote or mixed into esquites before adding the cheese and chili powder. I prefer to use olive oil to give the salad a lighter taste.
To use as an entrée, top with sliced grilled chicken, shrimp or filet of fish.
The salad can be prepared ahead and kept in the refrigerator overnight. In which case, do not add the Cotija cheese or parsley until just before serving.
To create a large, colorful salad, just before serving, toss the seasoned corn and parsley with quartered cherry tomatoes, cut-up avocados and butter lettuce or romaine leaves.
After tossing, taste the salad and adjust the amount of Cotija cheese and chili powder.
Main photo: Charred ears of corn on a grill. The corn will be used in a Mexican corn salad. Credit: Copyright 2015 David Latt
Every summer I go to a farmhouse in Provence with friends. We do one major supermarket shop on the first day to stock up on all the staples we will need for the week. We know we’ll eat well with just fun trips to the farmers market for produce and fish. The best news: This quick and easy trick works just as well when I’m home.
You, too, can shop once and then forget those dreary checkout lines. I’ve organized my staples into eight categories and suggest a dish or two for each. There is a lot of room to hack the formula.
With summer’s produce bounty at its peak, the farmers market is the only place you want to shop.
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Main photo: Stir-fried Tofu and Beans. Credit: 2015 Martha Rose Shulman
The grill is blasting away, people are licking their chops, and you’re asking yourself, “what sides?” A great approach is a salad, of course. But why stop at merely one salad? And too often that salad is one of the heavy mayonnaise-based standbys, macaroni salad or potato salad.
An approach I love is four salads, all of which should be easy to make and easy to make ahead of time. The first is a refreshing and simple salad of julienned carrots and a slightly bitter red radicchio that you can put together while the meat cooks. Young carrots are cut into matchsticks with radicchio sliced into strips and tossed with extra virgin olive oil, salt and pepper, and that’s it.
Make the most of ripe tomatoes
A second nice salad is a tomato, egg and olive salad. You would assemble this beautiful dish as you would a work of art. It’s stunning to look at and eat. Choose vine-ripened juicy tomatoes, preferably from your own tomato plant, and the best olives, not too bitter, not too salty.
Hard-boil the eggs and slice them interspersed with sliced tomatoes and black olives, all arranged in a spiral, and garnish with parsley, extra virgin olive oil, fresh lemon juice, salt and pepper. Do not refrigerate this dish.
Take bean salad inspiration from Greece
Many people must have a bean salad in summer, and a wonderful Greek version is made with canned black-eyed peas. Canned beans will work fine, as long as they are packed only in water. If you can’t find beans canned in water, you can boil some dried black-eyed peas instead.
After this step, the salad takes just five minutes to put together. For six servings, open two 15-ounce cans of black-eyed peas and rinse them. Toss with two trimmed and finely chopped scallions, a little salt, one small finely chopped clove of garlic, three tablespoons chopped fresh dill, five tablespoons extra virgin olive oil and freshly ground pepper to taste.
Show off seafood in a rice salad from Sicily
The last of our summer salads is a bit more involved, but not hard, and I provide you a recipe below. Years ago, in Sicily, I had a riso al mare, a seafood rice salad, that was probably the best I’ve ever had.
We were skin diving off the tiny port of San Gregorio and were exhausted and ravenous when we exited the water, which may have helped in the enjoyment of this salad.
Riso al mare (Seafood Rice Salad)
Prep time: 30 minutes
Cooking time: 30 minutes
Total time: 60 minutes
Yield: 6 servings
6 mussels, scrubbed and bearded just before cooking
6 littleneck clams, scrubbed
1/2 carrot, peeled
1 squid, skin pinched off, viscera removed, tentacles cut off below the eyes, washed clean
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 1/2 cups medium-grain rice (Spanish rice)
2 1/2 cups water
Salt to taste
6 cooked medium shrimp, shelled and very finely chopped
One 3-ounce can tuna packed in oil, very finely chopped with its oil
3 ounces Norwegian or Scottish smoked salmon, finely chopped
2 canned hearts of palm, drained and finely chopped
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2 teaspoons beluga or salmon caviar (or 1/2 teaspoon black or red lumpfish caviar)
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh parsley
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1. Place the mussels and clams into a pot with a few tablespoons of water and turn the heat to high. Cover and cook until they open, 4 to 8 minutes. Discard any that do not open and remain firmly shut. Let the mussels and clams cool, remove from their shells, and chop very finely. Set aside in a mixing bowl.
2. Place the carrot in a small saucepan, covered with water, and turn the heat to high. Bring to a boil and cook until crisp-tender (or whatever you prefer), about 10 minutes. Drain and chop finely.
3. Put the squid body and tentacles into the pot you cooked the mollusks. Add 3 tablespoons water and cook on a high heat until firm, about 4 minutes. Let cool, and chop the body finely. Cut the tentacles in half and set aside. Add the rest of the chopped squid to the mixing bowl with the clams and mussels.
4. In a heavy 4-quart enameled cast-iron pot or flame-proof casserole with a heavy lid, melt the butter over medium-high heat. Add the rice and cook, stirring frequently, for 3 minutes. Add the water and 2 teaspoons salt, reduce the heat to very low, cover and cook undisturbed for 12 minutes. Do not lift the lid until then. Check to see if the rice is cooked and all the water has been absorbed. If it hasn’t, add a little boiling water and cook until tender. Transfer the cooked rice to a second large mixing bowl, spreading it out so it will cool faster.
5. Once the rice is completely cooled, use a fork to toss it well with the mussels, clams, carrot, squid, shrimp, tuna, smoked salmon, hearts of palm, caviar, olive oil and parsley. Check for seasoning and add salt and pepper as desired.
6. Arrange attractively on an oval platter and garnish each end with the squid tentacles and parsley sprigs.
Main photo: Carrot and radicchio salad. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clifford A. Wright
These days, many are choosing a gluten-free lifestyle. But artificially contrived gluten-free products such as pasta, bread and baked goods can be disappointing. With its rich tradition of rice-based dishes, Japanese cuisine beautifully suits a gluten-free diet. Here are six delicious, easy to prepare, gluten-free Japanese rice dishes for spring and summer.
Stir-fried rice with hijiki and Parmesan
Stir-fried rice dishes make use of one- or two-day-old rice and other ingredients that happen to be on hand. This recipe is one I invented for American audiences to showcase hijiki, my favorite Japanese seaweed. Rich in dietary fiber and minerals, it also has a pleasantly crunchy texture and tastes of the sea. It uses the black hijiki along with Parmesan cheese, cilantro and ginger.
The cheese is the secret to the success of this dish, whose recipe was in my first cookbook, “The Japanese Kitchen.” Fifteen years later, hijiki is much more widely available in this country.
Maze-gohan with parsley, shiso and egg
Maze-gohan, translated as “tossed rice,” is a simple dish of cooked rice tossed with flavorings. This version uses chopped parsley, dried purple shiso leaves and scrambled egg — ingredients that elevate the flavor, color and texture of plain cooked rice into a festive dish. Western-style flavorings can be used instead, such as ground black pepper, crisp butter-browned sliced garlic, finely chopped parsley and toasted pine nuts.
Maze-gohan goes well with any protein dish, such as fish, chicken or meat.
Donburi with teriyaki steak
Donburi dishes combine cooked rice with a topping of separately cooked ingredients and sauce. This one is a beef lover’s favorite: I cook the steak in a skillet, cut it into cubes and flavor them with a sizzling sauce of shoyu (Japanese soy sauce) and mirin (Japanese sweet cooking wine) to create everyone’s favorite teriyaki sauce.
When it’s time to serve the donburi, put the teriyaki beef and sauce over freshly cooked rice for a quick, mouthwatering dish. The sauce trickles down and gives its delicious flavor to the rice. A similar dish can be made with chicken teriyaki.
Takikomi-gohan with chorizo and peas
Takikomi-gohan is rice that is cooked with seasonal vegetables and/or seafood or poultry in kelp stock or dashi stock. It’s like Japanese paella or risotto.
Spring pea rice is a traditional version of takikomi-gohan for spring or summer. The key to producing the best green pea rice is to blanch the peas in stock, then cook the rice in that stock and add the briefly cooked peas toward the end of rice cooking. This method keeps the peas very green and firm.
I emphasize the paella comparison by adding chorizo as well as ginger. Unlike paella or risotto, though, takikomi-gohan usually has no added butter or oil. This allows all the ingredients to speak for themselves in the dish.
Takikomi-gohan with mushrooms
For a version of takikomi-gohan studded with mushrooms, I use shimeji mushrooms for savory umami flavor, maitake for their fragrance and king mushrooms for their distinctive texture.
For all these rice dishes, I recommend that you use freshly picked vegetables and mushrooms from your local market or store. The natural taste and sweetness will come through.
Corn rice with shoyu and butter
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The diverse world of Japanese cuisine contains hundreds of such naturally gluten-free dishes. If you are looking for more recipes, consult my two books, “The Japanese Kitchen” and “Hiroko’s American Kitchen.” Both are widely available and contain detailed instructions to make some of the dishes described here.
Corn and Ginger Rice with Shoyu and Butter
Prep time: 15 minutes
Cook time: 20 minutes
Total time: 35 minutes
Yield: 6 servings
2 ears corn
2 1/4 cups short or medium grain polished white rice, rinsed and soaked 10 minutes, then drained
2 1/2 cups kelp stock or low-sodium vegetable stock
1 teaspoon sea salt
1 1/2 ounces peeled ginger, finely julienned (1/2 cup)
1 tablespoon shoyu (Japanese soy sauce)
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
1. Remove the corn husks and quickly grill the ears over a medium open flame on a gas stove, turning them until the entire surface becomes lightly golden. Or, boil the corn in salted water for 1 minute.
2. Cut each ear of corn in half. Place each half ear on the cut end in a large, shallow bowl and use a knife to separate the individual kernels from the cob. Repeat with all the pieces. You will have about 1 1/2 cups of kernels.
3. Place the drained rice and the stock in a medium heavy pot. Sprinkle the corn, salt and ginger evenly over the rice. Cover the pot with a lid and cook the rice over moderately high heat for 3 to 4 minutes or until the stock comes to a full boil.
4. Turn the heat to medium-low and cook the rice for 6 to 7 minutes, or until all the water is absorbed. Turn the heat to very low and cook for 10 minutes.
5. Remove the lid and add the soy sauce and butter. With a spatula, gently and quickly toss and mix the rice. Divide the rice into small bowls and serve.
Main photo: Tossing the ingredients for maze-gohan. Credit: Copyright 2015 Hiroko Shimbo
Regionally sourcing flour for 15,000 pounds of bread a week is the equivalent of a lunar landing, but in Vermont one bakery has found the way to do so. Red Hen Baking Co. has been baking organic bread in central Vermont for 15 years. By the end of this year, all of the flour that the bakery uses will come from within a 150-mile radius.
“As a baker, it’s a real luxury to have the same wheat all the time,” said Randy George, of Red Hen Baking Co. The Vermont baker spoke about local flour with Quebec farmer Loic Dewavrin at the Northern Grain Growers Association conference in March, in Essex, Vermont. The two have an uncommon partnership.
Such leaps forward don’t register as significant to consumers because growing grains and making flour are almost invisible processes. However, the farmers, bakers and food advocates at the conference appreciated this achievement, and listened hard for details of the challenges en route to this success story.
The importance of local flour
“Normally, you will see some variation from flour lot to flour lot. You can never count on complete consistency,” George said. The typical roller mill draws wheat from a variety of sources, but the flour from Le Moulin des Cedres all comes from wheat grown by Dewavrin and his family at their organic farm, Les Fermes Longpres.
“Roller mills are incredibly expensive infrastructure. I never heard of one that was on a farm,” he said.
Stone mills located on farms are not uncommon. This type of mill is relatively simple to run and inexpensive to purchase. Roller mills, however, are industrial-scale equipment. Les Fermes Longpres, located just west of Montreal, recently finished assembling a small roller mill. The family took four years to complete the project, using parts from a defunct French roller mill and doing much of the work themselves to minimize the investment.
A family mill makes uniform flour
At Le Moulin des Cedres, the Dewavrin family mills wheat grown on the farm. With an eye toward evening out seasonal irregularities, the flour is made from a combination of two years’ crops. This is why baker George was marveling at having access to uniform flour.
All mills use raw materials that are products of nature and have a wide range of potential expression. Since roller mills pool wheat from multiple sources, the result can vary. Even with careful testing of grains to try to keep the range within limited parameters, mills are blending wheat from many different climates and micro climates, from many different farms with various cultivation, harvest and storage habits, and the flour and its performance changes accordingly.
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Le Moulin des Cedres is unique, but exemplary of the farm’s approach. When Dewavrin returned to the family farm after a career as an industrial engineer, he and his brothers began to convert a conventional corn-soy crop farm into a more diversified organic operation. This was in pursuit of a system that could support the brothers financially, and support the farm’s health and long-term viability.
To make the most of what they grew, the brothers sought methods to capture crop value on the farm and avoid selling crops into the commodity market as much as possible. Making sunflower oil was the first value-added process they tackled. Next, they considered whether to do something with the soy they grew, or the wheat. After investigating the markets, they saw that what they could do with soy didn’t hold as much promise. Flour seemed the best route. There was enough whole-grain, stone-milled flour, however, and bakers had expressed interest in locally grown and produced white flour.
Keeping the integrity of the crop
The idea of having full command of the crop from seed to selling had great appeal to the Dewavrin family. Without running a mill themselves, their production was mixed with grains from other farms.
“Our goal was to keep the integrity of the crop,” Dewavrin explained. Selling wheat to a mill meant their crops were mixed with many others. “We lost the purity of the product and the controlled efforts we put into it.”
Les Fermes Longpres is a very careful farm. The family puts a lot of thought into crop rotations, tillage, and other ways of building good soil, the basic tenet of organic farming.
For the mill, they also worked hard on wheat quality issues, from selecting plant varieties to combating diseases and pests that challenge wheat in the field, and in storage. They began milling slowly last year, determined to understand the process and create a good flour for bakers.
A bakery-mill collaboration
Feedback from bakeries like Red Hen, one of the few bakeries using the mill’s limited supply, helped in this area. In response to what George observed when baking with Les Cedres’ early mill runs, Dewavrin increased the level of starch damage slightly to improve the baking quality of the flour.
“Damaged starch” is an odd term. While it sounds like a bad thing, it’s just milling terminology for opening up the starch granules.
“Getting just the right amount of ‘damage’ is critical so that the flour is in the right state for the baker to continue the ‘damage’ in the baking process,” George said. All mills have to get this right, so the adjustment made is not unique. But the way that the correction came about, through the baker communicating with the farmer/miller was entirely different than the norm.
Leaps forward in decentralizing the production of staple crops don’t register as significant, not yet. But the more that bakers seek local flour, and the more that farmers seek noncommodity marketing options, the more consumers will learn to understand and appreciate the small food mountains people are moving.
Main photo: The Red Hen Baking Co. has been baking organic bread in central Vermont for 15 years. Credit: Copyright Courtesy Red Hen Baking Co.
I am a culinary instructor, a cookbook author, a food blogger. And yet, despite my ability to plan very well all the other aspects of my life, I have a confession to make: I am meal-planning challenged.
For those of us who view with rose-colored glasses those who can successfully execute a weekly meal plan, I have often attempted this feat, and, finally, given up. I’ve realized that it’s perfectly fine to embrace a daily practice of winging it when it comes to dinner. And you can, too.
Here’s my secret. With lentils or dal as the cornerstone of my family table — and of many Indian tables — the possibilities are endless for a quick, easy and healthy dinner, with the addition of vegetables into the mix. As long as I have a variety of legumes and grains stocked in my pantry, I’m good.
Despite my meal-planning-challenged self, I often produce a balanced meal on short notice. I have 10 examples here in the slideshow.
Winging it runs in the family
There’s a history of that in my family. As a child of a mother who worked outside the home, I never saw my mother poring over menus or meal plans. Our meals were simple to elaborate – depending on the day and the time available to cook. And while my mother didn’t obsess over food groups, somehow, her meals always ended up being well-balanced.
That turned me into a very practical mother who views the weeknight dinner as a ritual that is not up for a lot of discussion or drama. I have found that by doing my own cooking, it saves me the hassle of worrying over details such as sodium content, whether something’s organic or the meal is well-balanced. Since I’m doing the cooking, I pretty much control what’s happening in those departments.
There’s plenty of peer pressure to do it the hard way.
Keeping up with the meal-planning warriors
We seem to have a battle of the parents – often mothers — who tout their ability to produce multidimensional, unprocessed meals every day for their weeknight dinners. They wage that war armed with apps on everything from meal planners to calorie counters and recipe trackers. These well-armed planners are pitted against the seemingly meal-planning-challenged parents, who feel they should follow suit.
Instead, busy, working parents often find it easier to pick up a pizza or Chinese takeout – and then feel chagrined when they analyze the nutritional content of those meals.
At a recent event, I was asked about the good old family dinner. I flippantly mentioned that most people would say I raise my children on rice and beans.
I mention lentils as an extended example. I am sure most people have favorite dishes in mind and a culinary repertoire that are relatively simple, full of childhood nostalgia and lacking any artificial trappings of flavor or processed ingredients. My lentils can be someone else’s chicken noodle soup – or whatever your pantry offers.
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My favorite comfort food will always be red lentils. So, depending on my mood, I can make a meal of red lentils by adding anything from kale to carrots to chicken. It brings back memories of warmth, simplicity and family time.
My son often feels the same way about his morning eggs, which I scramble simply for him. He tells me that they start his day right. Once again, it is sometimes the simple, unplanned things that resonate with us most at the meal table.
So embrace your meal-planning-challenged self. I can get you started with 10 one-dish meals that range from light and lively to elaborate, comforting and elegant. Dishes like khichuri or a biryani are always nourishing and they can do the trick in your household, just as they do in mine.
You can get started with this recipe from my cookbook, “Spices and Seasons,” for Bulgur or Cracked Wheat Pilaf.
Bulgur or Cracked Wheat Pilaf
Prep time: 10 minutes
Cook time: 35 minutes
Total time: 45 minutes (mostly unattended)
Yield: 4 to 6 servings
For the pilaf:
2 tablespoons oil
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
1 red onion, thinly sliced
1 tomato, chopped
1 teaspoon salt or to taste
3/4 cup bulgur or cracked wheat
3/4 cup cooked red kidney beans or chick peas
1/2 teaspoon red cayenne pepper powder (optional)
1 (3-inch) cinnamon stick, broken
2 cups water
For the garnish:
Juice of 1 lime or lemon
1 to 2 tablespoons chopped cilantro
1. Heat the oil in a pot on medium heat. Add the cumin seeds and when they begin to sizzle, add the onion and sauté for about 6 minutes, until it wilts and begins to turn gently golden.
2. Add the tomato, salt, and bulgur and mix well.
3. Stir in the red kidney beans, cayenne pepper powder (if using), and the cinnamon stick. Mix in 2 cups of water and gently bring to a simmer.
4. Cover and cook on low heat for about 25 minutes, until the water is absorbed and the bulgur is soft and cooked through.
5. Squeeze in the lime or lemon juice, stir in the cilantro and serve.
Note: This recipe also can be made with quinoa or faro, depending on your preference, and you can add in vegetables such as mushrooms or zucchini to modify.
Main photo: By keeping legumes and grains on hand in your pantry, you can create quick, healthy weeknight dinners like this Tomato Rice With Peanuts. Credit: Copyright Rinku Bhattacharya
Cake. It’s what’s for breakfast.
And why not? Some studies show that a high carbohydrate and high protein breakfast actually helps people shed pounds. So it turns out your Marie Antoinette breakfast need not be a guilty pleasure. You can actually have your cake and lose weight, too.
In fact, this easy one-bowl take on the classic Italian Amor Polenta cake of Lombardy is far healthier than most processed breakfast cereals — full of the wholesome goodness of corn, butter, eggs and almonds. Flavored with citrus zest and apple eau-de-vie, and served with berries, it’s a satisfying breakfast that will keep you going all day long.
While cornmeal can be made from just about any variety of dent corn, the older heirloom varieties such as Mandan Bride, Floriani Red and Painted Mountain are superior in taste. Now that locally grown and locally milled grains are enjoying a renaissance across the U.S., you can probably find delicious and nutritious corn grown by someone near you. And if you want the freshest and most nutritious cornmeal possible, you can even invest in a countertop grain mill.
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If you don’t have a source of freshly ground corn, just about any store-bought cornmeal will be fine in this cake, whether it says polenta on the package or not. But if you want to make the traditional Amor Polenta or Dolce Varese, look for the finely ground farina di mais fioretto or the even more refined farina di mais fumetto.
Although this cake has butter, eggs and sugar, as any good cake must, it is not a butter bomb or a sugar rush. Rather it’s a not-too-rich, not-too-sweet slice of perfection — just right as an accompaniment to your morning tea or coffee. So say goodbye to processed cereals and hello to healthy polenta cake for breakfast.
Healthy Breakfast Polenta Cake
Prep time: 20 minutes
Cook time: 45 minutes
Total time: 1 hour, 5 minutes
Yield: One (8- or 9-inch) loaf cake, about 10 servings
2 sticks (8 ounces) butter
3/4 cup sugar
Zest of one lemon
Zest of one orange
3 tablespoons apple brandy, amaretto, or other liqueur
1/2 teaspoon Fiori di Sicilia (or vanilla or almond extract)
1 cup cornmeal
1 3/4 cup almond flour
1/3 cup unbleached wheat flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1. Preheat oven to 350 F. Butter a loaf pan and dust with cornmeal.
2. Put the butter, sugar, and lemon and orange zest in a mixing bowl and beat until light and fluffy. Then add eggs one at a time, beating after each addition, and scraping down the sides of the mixing bowl.
3. Beat in the liqueur and Fiori di Sicilia or other flavoring.
4. In a separate bowl, stir together the dry ingredients: the polenta, almond flour, wheat flour, baking powder and salt.
5. While the mixer is running at low speed, slowly add the dry ingredients to the butter mixture until just combined.
6. Pour the batter into the prepared loaf pan and bake until a lovely aroma comes from the oven, and a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean, about 45 minutes
7. Let cool in the pan for about 1/2 hour, and then loosen the cake from the sides of the pan with a knife and tip it out onto a rack to cool completely.
8. Slice and serve with fresh fruit, or frozen fruit or fruit jam you may have from last summer.
Main photo: Breakfast polenta cake. Credit: Copyright 2015 Terra Brockman
“The world doesn’t want to know the truth about gluten,” graduate student Lisa Kissing Kucek joked last July under a tent at Cornell University’s research farm in Freeville, N.Y. Lightning cut the sky, and we, a group of farmers and bakers, dashed for our cars before she could tell us what she’d discovered.
Now we know. Her research, “A Grounded Guide to Gluten” was published recently in the journal Comprehensive Reviews in Food Science and Food Safety. Kissing Kucek and her colleagues reviewed more than 200 scientific research papers to see what is known about how different wheat varieties and our processing methods affect people’s sensitivity to wheat.
The conclusions of her literature review are cautious, far more so than the declarations made in such books as “Wheat Belly,” which considers modern wheat a chronic poison. Kissing Kucek was curious what wheat actually does in the human body and began by looking at gluten and the pathologies associated with it.
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Her inquiry grew to cover a broad territory, including the problems caused by wheat, how those problems vary by wheat species and variety, and the role of processing methods. It considered everything from celiac disease, wheat allergy and nonceliac wheat sensitivity (NCWS), to fructose malabsorption and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
The review pairs well with other Cornell research. The university and its research partners received a U.S. Department of Agriculture grant in 2011 to look at heritage wheat varieties. Field trials, lab analysis and baking trials are all part of this grant project, which ends in 2016.
Vintage wheat varieties have captured the imagination of a gluten-shy public, and the paper includes thorough descriptions of wheat kernels and wheat genetics. The material is dense, but Kissing Kucek explains it in an easy to follow video presentation.
Many people have trouble digesting fructose and certain carbohydrates, collectively known as FODMAPS. “These individuals experience bloating and gas when consuming large amounts dairy, high fructose corn syrup, stone fruits and wheat,” she said. “As many foods contain FODMAPS, if these individuals only remove wheat gluten from their diet, their symptoms will likely persist.”
Lynn Veenstra, also of Cornell, surveyed fructan research for the paper. Some of the findings she reviewed were featured in a recent Washington Post article about FODMAPS.
Illnesses like nonceliac wheat sensitivity, IBS and fructose malabsorption can be hard to diagnose. But most of the research points to multiple triggers beyond gluten proteins or other parts of wheat.
Little about gluten is straightforward
Contrary to popular or wishful thinking, old wheats don’t wear halos.
“There is no perfect wheat species that reduces all types of wheat sensitivity,” said Kissing Kucek. However, einkorn is promising because it contains fewer celiac reactive compounds than heritage and modern wheat varieties. Einkorn dates from the very early domestication of staple crops; emmer and spelt are also classified as ancient. Heritage or heirloom grains refer to older seed varieties developed before 1950. Modern grain varieties generally have shorter stalks, which allow the plants to receive heavy doses of fertilizer without falling down in the field.
Different wheat varieties vary widely in their reactivity for celiac and wheat allergy. But we don’t know the effect on wheat sensitivity for many of the old or new wheat varieties used in the United States. Europe is screening more varieties. Yet nothing is straightforward when interpreting natural systems.
Figuring out how gluten works in our bodies is tough. Figuring out how growing conditions or plant variety might affect a crop’s potential to harm us is also tough. Understanding the role processing methods play also needs more research, but there’s enough information to cause concern over a few things.
One item —vital wheat gluten — is common in the food supply, and has the potential to cause reactions. It’s used to bind multigrain breads. A cheap protein and a great emulsifier and binder, it’s also widely used in industrial food processing. Irradiated flour and other baking additives also are cited as worrisome.
However, the paper’s section on processing offers some hope, too. Grain sprouting for instance, could help some people digest the complex proteins that give some eaters grief. Longer fermentation also breaks down proteins that can cause some forms of wheat sensitivity.
Other research questions about wheat and gluten are still being charted. A recent Mother Jones story about research at The Bread Lab of Washington State University suggests that modern baking is a bigger culprit than modern wheat. The publication Eating Well also has a new story on gluten by Sam Fromartz called “Unraveling the Gluten-Free Trend.” Like his recent book, “In Search of the Perfect Loaf,” the article nicely navigates the maze of fears about eating wheat and gluten.
Kissing Kucek’s “A Grounded Guide to Gluten” maps the research already done. Like any realistic map, the guide offers facts, not commandments of the “Here Be Dragons” sort. Answers might be found, the paper suggests, in turning to traditions.
This confirms what I’ve long suspected: That we need to unravel some of the processing developed over the last 150 years. In that time, we’ve adopted roller milling, which leaves behind most of the bran and germ. While I never fell out of love with wheat or gluten, I’ve grown enamored of the taste of fresh stone ground flour, and the concept of using all parts of the grain. Perhaps there is something that each lends the other, and to us, as we turn this plant into food. I think that the unity of stone milling is essential to healthy utilization of grains. Some professional bakers believe this too, and are working exclusively with fresh milled whole grain flours.
As people negotiate a friendly relationship with bread, I am hoping that my personal truth about gluten might gain scientific ground.
Main photo: Survey of wheat sensitivity research suggests there may be multiple suspects. Credit: iStock