Articles in Grains

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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Legumes, clockwise from top: chickpeas, brown lentils, red lentils (masoor dal), green gram (moong dal), black gram (urd dal), pigeon pea (red gram or toor dal). Credit: Clifford A. Wright

The variety of dried legumes used in Indian cooking can become quite mind-boggling. When you are in an Indian market, you may find yourself walking back and forth in the aisle trying to figure out what’s what.

When I was writing my book “Some Like It Hot: Spicy Favorites from the World’s Hot Zones,” I came up with some explanations I hope are helpful.

The best known Indian dish using dried legumes is called dal and although that word simply means legume, the prepared form is a kind of mushy side dish made with the legumes, spices and chilies. Many Indian dishes also use dried legumes as a kind of seasoning, sometimes calling for as little as half a teaspoon in other, more complex, concoctions.

Some dal favorites include red gram, black gram and green gram. Sometimes the word dal specifically refers to split dried legumes. Adding to the confusion, Indian authors writing in English sometimes use the same word for two different legumes. Here’s a little guide to help (or confuse) you more. Arhal dal or tur dal (toor dal) are either split red gram or pigeon pea (Cajanus cajan L.). But tur dal, and also thuvar dal, is used by some authors to mean yellow split peas (Pisum sativum L. var. hortense). The English word gram derives from the Portuguese word for grain, which is what the early Portuguese voyagers to India called these little dried legumes in India.

More on sorting out Indian dal

Gram generally means chickpea (Cicer arietinum L .), specifically Bengal gram (also channa dal), but can also mean any dried legume.

Channa dal is the whole or split chickpea although some writers use it to refer to yellow split pea.

Black gram (Vigna mungo L. syn. Phaseolus mungo) is urad dal known also as urd, and sometimes called horse bean, horse gram, Madras gram, sword bean and jackbean (bada-sem). This is complicated by the fact that those last five identified as urad dal are a different species, Canavalia ensiformis L. and also called kulthi dal. Urad dhuli dal is the white version or split white gram.

Sometimes chowli or chowla dal or lobia is the cowpea, also known as black-eyed pea (Vigna unguiculata L. subsp. unguiculata syn. V. sinensis), although chowla dal also refers to the related Vigna catjang.

Beginner’s dal sauté. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

Beginner’s dal sauté. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

Green gram (Vigna radiata L. syn. Phaseolus aureus and P. radiatus) is more familiarly known as mung bean and in India is known as moong dal. Kesari dal (Lathyrus sativus L.), or grass pea. If you eat too much of it, grass pea causes a crippling disease called lathyrism.

Masoor dal is split red or yellow lentils (Lens culinaris Medikus syn. L. esculenta; Ervum lens; or Vicia lens).

To round out the dals, matki is moth or mat bean (Vigna acontifolia), sem (also valpapdi, avarai) is hyacinth bean (Lablab purpurus [purpureus] (L.) Sweet. syn. L. niger Medik. and Dolichos lablab L.) and sutari is rice bean (Vigna umbellate).

OK, got that? Personally, no matter what a recipe you’re following says, I find that the cooking of all this is quite easy. It’s only if you were to write a recipe for someone else that it gets confusing.

Beginner’s Dal Sauté

Serves 4

Ingredients

3 tablespoons black gram (urad dal)

3 tablespoons green gram (moong dal)

3 tablespoons dried chickpeas

3 tablespoons red lentils (masoor dal)

3 tablespoons pigeon pea (red gram or toor dal)

2 tablespoons olive oil or vegetable oil

Salt

Directions

1. Place all the legumes in a saucepan and cover with cold water by several inches. Turn the heat to high and once it comes to a boil, cook, salting lightly, until tender, 45 to 60 minutes.

2. Drain and place in a sauté pan with the olive oil and cook, stirring, for 2 minutes. Salt to taste.  Serve hot.

Top photo: Legumes, clockwise from top: chickpeas, brown lentils, red lentils (masoor dal), green gram (moong dal), black gram (urd dal), pigeon pea (red gram or toor dal). Credit: Clifford A. Wright

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Top photo: Zester Daily contributor Sonoko Sakai demonstrates breadmaking at Kneading Conference West. Credit: Amy Halloran

“Bread is like dirt,” said Naomi Duguid, describing an attitude she encountered while researching flatbreads in the Soviet Union. “Yes, it’s the essence of life, but it’s so ordinary. How can you give it attention?”

Duguid smiles when she speaks and lifts her voice with its an appealing Canadian accent, inviting people into her considerations. The cookbook author was giving plenty of attention to a very flat bread at the Kneading Conference West, three days of workshops in mid-September centered on grains and baking.

People sat on folding chairs under a tent and watched her make crackers. She and Dawn Woodward, the baker-founder of Evelyn’s Crackers stood at tables in front of a mobile wood-fired oven. Attendees asked questions, rolled dough and took notes.

The fourth year of the conference at Washington State University’s Mount Vernon Research Station was just underway. Bakers, farmers and people otherwise interested in grains came from as far as South Africa to learn everything they could about flour and its life from field to loaf. There were classes in sourdough, pastries, pizza, local flours, and soba noodles. People built an oven. Experts gave presentations on barley breeding, malting, baking science and gluten intolerance.

This is the sister event of the Kneading Conference, which began seven years ago in Skowhegan, Maine. Wheat breeder Steve Jones has spoken at that conference and is the director of the station at Mount Vernon, Wash. Bringing this bread brainstorm home made a lot of sense.

The western version is rooted in the Skagit Valley, lush farmland nestled along the Interstate 5 corridor just north of Seattle. The area was once used to grow oats for the city’s horses. Now farmers grow 80 different crops, including tulip bulbs, vegetable seeds and potatoes.

These farmers grow grains in rotation, to help build up the soil and break cycles of disease and pests. The grains generally go to the commodity market, which means the farms lose money compared with  what they earn from the land other years.

Jones and others are helping farmers earn money from grains as specialty crops. Skagit Valley Malting Co., a small-scale malthouse, is almost up and running, malting test runs of barley for breweries, distilleries and culinary use. With help from the breeding program at the WSU station, vegetable farmers are branching into grain production. Nash’s Organic Produce is now growing and milling Espresso wheat, and marketing it along with their vegetables.

The conference highlighted these local projects and others in the region, such as Camas Country Mill. Farmer and owner Tom Hunton spoke about the way his Willamette Valley mill has facilitated production and use of grains, and other field crops. Growers now ask what they can grow for the mill, and consumers are eager to buy the flours and other foods the mill provides.

Wayne Carpenter and Mike Doehnel from Skagit Valley Malting spoke about custom malting. Bakers from Seattle and the surrounding area spoke about using local flour.

Jonathan Bethony is the staff baker at the station’s The Bread Lab. This bearded fellow is a dynamo, ready to tackle wheat varieties in all their complexity, and figure out how to make the most of all the flour’s qualities, good and bad. His tours of the lab, with Ph.D. student Colin Curwen-McAdams — who endearingly linked his studies in seed breeding to baking with his mother — were both lively and thought-provoking.

Bethony gave an enthusiastic presentation on how to work with sourdough, praising the reactions that occur between its wild yeast and bacterial components.

 Breadmaking tips from the experts

“If the world would just work like a sourdough, we’d be all set,” he said. Bethony drew parallels between starters and any other relationship. Leave your starter in the fridge for a while, and like a neglected friend, it is going to need a while to warm up and be ready to use.

Scott Mangold from Breadfarm Bakery referred to Bethony as he gave a workshop called Learning to Love Your Local Wheat. “Jonathan said he started looking for signs he knew from baking with white flour, and stopped worrying whether it’s going to fall apart,” Mangold said. “That was a big breakthrough for me, to just trust that it is going to work.”

Bakers are trained to expect certain performance from flour, because most flour is milled to narrow industry standards, from grains that have very specific quality profiles. Local flours tend not to fit these strictures, and can really behave differently in leavened doughs, causing the anxiety that necessitated a workshop with such a name.

“When I’m testing new flour, I’m making observations and writing everything down,” Mangold said, passing around a chart that detailed the way he used his hands and eyes to gather information from different batches of bread.

Notes from a seminar on the chalkboard at Kneading Conference West. Credit: Amy Halloran

Notes from a seminar on the chalkboard at Kneading Conference West. Credit: Amy Halloran

This and other workshops — one on soba noodles led by Sonoko Sakai — had bakers up and at the bowl, honing the practice of work and observation. Bakers from King Arthur Flour led discussions and classes that were a little more geared to professional baking, but not too much for the experienced home baker. Richard Miscovich showed people how to use wood-fired ovens for bread and beyond, a live version of his new book, From the Wood Fired Oven.”

Lectures and discussions on baking science, barley breeding and gluten intolerance also filled the schedule, and two keynotes framed the larger conversation about grains in practical and symbolic terms.

Darra Goldstein, founding editor of Gastronomica, spoke about bread culture, using examples of bread in Western art as a lens to discuss its symbolism. She showed how people used to hold bread close to the heart, and how 20th century paintings have bread on cutting boards.

Farmer Thor Oechsner spoke about the mill, Farmer Ground Flour and bakery, Wide Awake Bakery that developed as he transitioned from organic feed production to growing grains for us to eat.

These presentations presented ideas people considered throughout the rest of the conference, and when they went back home.

The farmer-miller-baker model Oechsner presented is something people could see happening, and help make happen, in their own back yard. Bakers mused about how to bring bread close to the heart again. If we do away with bakery bags, will we have lovely images of people carrying bread close to their chests posted on the bakery walls?

The discussions illustrated the ways that grains have glued us together, body and soul, and we can imagine that gorgeous connection again.

Top photo: Zester Daily contributor Sonoko Sakai demonstrates breadmaking at Kneading Conference West. Credit: Amy Halloran

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Carole Murko's grandmother and Bronx shopkeepers on a Saturday morning in the 1940s. Credit: Courtesy of the Murko family.

I am a home cook from a food-obsessed family. Everything that happened centered on food. After all, I grew up in a three-generation household with my Italian-American grandparents as well as my parents. My household wasn’t unique in a food culture sense. But while many of the foods and recipes are similar to those from other families, the stories are what bring the food to life. The best way to delve into Italian-American cuisine and stories is through a typical family meal. And that starts with shopping for the ingredients.

My mom, Josephine Lanzetta Murko, was born on an apple farm in Claverack, N.Y., during the Great Depression and only lived there for a few years. She recounts that my grandfather could not sell an apple for a nickel and had to move the family back to the Bronx. At that time, the Bronx was still quite rural and people lived in a tight-knit neighborhood with everything within walking distance.

Saturdays in my mother’s young life were spent shopping for food with her mom, my nana. The journey, as my mom recalls, was a stroll down the “avenue.” Mom and Nana first visited Mrs. Green’s coffee shop. Mrs. Green would make custom blends for all her customers. My grandmother liked a light blend for her stove-top percolator. The aromas were so keen, and my mom recounts that whenever confronted with the smell of fresh coffee today it still triggers the memory of Mrs. Green’s coffee shop and the Saturday market treks with her mom.

The next stop was the butcher shop where customers stood two-deep and where my mom watched in fascination the knife work and dexterity of the butchers. This was what she wanted to be, a butcher, she thought, and as a little girl she wrote a paper about it. My mom has amazing knife skills, and it’s probably in her blood as my grandfather owned a butcher shop in the Bronx before his foray as an apple farmer.

A butcher shop back then was a different place. Sawdust was on the floor to absorb the meat and blood drippings while the butchers worked their magic. Once up to the counter, my mom would watch the butcher cube and then grind the beef, veal and pork they would then use to make meatballs. Nothing was prepackaged in those days, and the meats were from local animals.

Then on to the produce store where only local, in-season fruits and vegetables were sold. My mom said it was like a photo; she was in awe of the abundance of all the brightly colored fruits and vegetables. She notes that she had never had a strawberry out-of-season and that the fruit was not shiny. Their next stop was the cheese shop where they bought fresh ricotta and mozzarella and other cheeses. Imagine next stepping into a shop entirely dedicated to butter. Butter of all kinds was sold from large barrels by the pound, which sounds heavenly to me.

Saturday markets full of ingredients for soup

The bread store was perhaps my mom’s favorite. The smell alone made her feel warm and cozy and hungry. When she became old enough to shop without my grandmother, Nana would give my mom an extra four cents to buy the fresh-out-of-the-oven warm loaf, which she would then nibble on or devour all the way home. My grandmother knew this was a special treat for my mom, and to this day, warm bread and butter is one of her absolute favorite things. It’s one of mine.

Last but not least, on the shopping extravaganza was the poultry shop. Saturday was soup day. One Saturday when my grandmother wasn’t feeling well, she sent my mom and her sister, my aunt Margie, to get the chicken. They were still little girls. They selected the live chicken and waited patiently for it to be killed and packaged to bring home. While walking home, the bag started to jump.

They so wanted to drop the bag but being the obedient kids that they were, ran as fast as their little legs could go all the way home, imagining as only little girls could, what kind of spooks were in that bag. When they delivered the jumping chicken bag to Nana in a whirlwind of excitement, panic and fear, Nana giggled and told them, “Sweet girls there are no spirits in the bag it’s rigor mortis setting in.”

While my mom clearly describes the rich palette of textures and smells of the Saturday markets of her youth, she also revels about the joys of being connected to her neighbors and friends. She said they were having a great time because all the neighbors, relatives and friends were out on Saturday. This ritual was not a chore, it was an exciting day. It was the social fabric of creating the family meal. I have even heard stories of recipes being shared at the butcher counter. One Jewish lady I know learned how to make killer Italian meatballs from the Italian ladies at the butcher shop.

So, while we seem far removed from the 1940s Saturday shopping trek, I implore you to think about this question:  Is not the farmers market in your neighborhood or community a social hub of sorts?

Modern society has changed the way we shop for food and interact at the grocery store, often with blinders on as we roll our carts down the aisles. But at the farmers market you make eye contact, chat with the farmers and purveyors and smile and chat with your fellow shoppers.  I think we have found the “avenue” of my mom’s youth.

Italian Chicken Soup

I have learned that just about every cuisine has a version of chicken soup and even within a cuisine, there are many variations.  It’s what I call  similar but different.

Ingredients

One chicken cut up into parts and cleaned (this would include chicken feet in the old days)

Enough water to amply cover the chicken

2 to 3 onions, chopped

Bunch of carrots, chopped

4 to 5 parsnips, chopped

Salt and pepper to taste

2 to 3 garlic cloves, minced

Parsley, minced

Optional: Noodles, escarole, eggs. Sometimes, we added a little tomato paste, or tomatoes, the butt of the Pecorino Romano cheese

Directions

1. Boil the chicken for about 20 to 30 minutes.  Skim off the scum.

2. Add the vegetables, including the parsley and garlic. Add salt and pepper. Simmer for about 3 hours.

3. Remove chicken from broth.  You can either remove chicken from bones and put back into soup or eat separately.

4.  At this point, you can use the optional ingredients.

If using, add noodles that were boiled separately (thin or medium; your preference.)

Add escarole (cut, steam separately and drain). Mix 2 eggs, ¼ cup of Parmesan cheese, salt and pepper then add to broth.

Top photo: Carole Murko’s grandmother and Bronx shopkeepers on a Saturday morning in the 1940s. Credit: Courtesy of the Murko family

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Various types of pasta. Credit: Kathy Hunt

I grew up in a largely Italian-American community outside of Pittsburgh where, at least once a week, I ate pasta. When Sundays rolled around, my family would queue up in the long, snaking line outside Ladies of the Dukes, where, for more than 40 years, local, Italian women prepared and served homemade meals of spaghetti, cavatelli, ravioli and zesty red sauce. Because this feast happened only once a week, customers would bring along stockpots to fill with take-away dinners. Unquestionably, we were passionate about pasta in my hometown.

In recent years I’ve had a troubled relationship with this childhood love. Spurred by the desire to eat more healthfully, I abandoned the traditional semolina-and-water combo for whole-grain pastas. Chocked full of fiber, minerals and vitamins, these new spaghettis seemed both sensible and wholesome. Described by my husband as resembling “wet cardboard,” they have not, however, been the most appetizing to eat.

My family is not alone in its struggle to adapt to these newcomers. In fact, our complaints seem fairly universal. We all crave the neutral flavor and al dente texture of regular pasta but with the added nutritional benefits that whole grains provide. What I don’t want is an overwhelmingly sweet or nutty taste or a limber consistency, traits that whole-grain pasta possesses and that clash with my heartier pesto, white and red sauces.

Around the time I decided to chuck whole grains altogether and return to traditional pasta, I came across an unusual organic farro fusilli from the Italian Alps. It was unique not only in its firm form and subtle, pleasing flavor but also in its mountainous origins. Dried pasta does not normally hail from northeastern Italy.

According to food historian and cookbook author Francine Segan, southern Italy produces and consumes more dried pasta than the rest of the country. “Because it was a poor man’s food and the south was poorer but also because the south grows the best grain — Puglia is called the ‘breadbasket of Italy‘ — and the air currents and water are ideal for pasta making, more than half of Italy’s pasta is produced in the lower third of the country,” says the author of “Pasta Modern” (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 2013).

As a result of its proximity to Austria, Switzerland and Lichtenstein, northern Italy has far more in common with the cuisines of these regions than with the rest of Italy. Instead of pasta, people there eat dumplings, polenta and spätzle, Segan says.

Northern Italy takes pasta challenge

Although making and consuming dried pasta may not be the norm in the north, Valentino Felicetti decided in 1908 to do just that. Reputedly because of a challenge from a southern Italian friend, Felicetti started a small, eponymously named, family-operated company in the Valle di Fiemme of the Dolomites Alps, says great-grandson and current head Riccardo Felicetti. Lucky for me that he accepted this dare; Felicetti Monograno produces the whole-grain fusilli that I’d adored.

Working with fresh spring water, mountain air and locally farmed soft wheat and barley, Felicetti’s first creation was a short pasta similar to rigatoni. Today the company uses what Ricccardo refers to as ancient grains, durum wheat, kamut or Khorasan wheat and spelt, which Italians call “farro.”

Organic whole grains, pure spring water and clean air of this idyllic region are what set Felicetti apart. “Polluted air or water would release within the dough a strange taste,” Riccardo says. He adds that, along with the pristine, local water, unspoiled Dolomites air is pumped into the production site.

Could the air and water have the much affect on taste? Yes and no. “The influence of water and air should be zero. Pasta should taste like the grains. Pure spring water and clean air will not influence the taste of our pasta,” Riccardo says.

That’s where my struggle to find both healthful and palatable pasta existed. Many brands claim to offer whole-grain products, but too often they’ve added fillers to their mix. Instead of merely air, water and grains, the pastas are enriched with modified starch and a host of other ingredients. These extras taint the taste and texture, resulting in one of those dreaded “wet cardboard” meals.

With this knowledge, my culinary crisis ended. I’m now happily eating pasta —  nutritious, tasty and whole-grain-only pasta — again.

Farro Pasta With Jerusalem Artichokes

Pasta ai topinambur

Recipe courtesy of Francine Segan and “Pasta Modern.”

Serves 4

Ingredients

1 large onion, thinly sliced

4 tablespoons olive oil, divided.

4 to 5 large Jerusalem artichokes

1 pound farro pasta, long or short

3 to 4 tablespoons pine nuts

Parmesan or other aged cheese, grated

Directions

1. Sauté the onion in 2 tablespoons of oil until golden. Meanwhile, scrub the Jerusalem artichokes with a brush, then thinly slice. Add to the onions and simmer over a very low flame until very soft.

2. Cook the pasta until al dente.

3. Purée the onion-artichoke mixture with 2 tablespoons olive oil so it’s smooth like pesto.

4. Return the purée to the pan and toss with the pasta for a minute or two, adding a little cooking liquid if dry.

5. Serve topped with pine nuts and grated cheese to taste.

Top photo: Various types of pasta. Credit: Kathy Hunt

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