Articles in Grains
Indian food lovers in the United States often have a vague concept of what biryanis are — a perception that stems from Indian restaurants that spike basmati rice with spices and dot it with either pieces of meat or vegetables. From the Persian biriyan (to fry before cooking), true biryanis were introduced and made popular by several invaders; the Moghuls were a prime influence, having gathered their knowledge from the Persians. The Nawabs of Lucknow and the Nizams of Hyderabad also popularized these layered meat-rice-nut dishes all across India, where there are more than 35 varieties.
The fancier the occasion, the more elaborate the biryani — some even included pounded silver leaves. I consider such biryanis to be meals in themselves; the only accompaniments they need are a simple yogurt-based raita (even a bowl of plain yogurt will suffice), pickles (either homemade or store-bought), and flame-toasted lentil wafers (papads).
The constitution of a biryani is rather simple. First, meat is often marinated and braised, spiced and simmered in various sauces. To prepare the rice layer, clarified butter is perfumed with whole spices, and sometimes with nuts and raisins. Then basmati rice is steeped in the butter (with water) to partially cook it. Finally, alternating layers of the meat curry and rice pulao are spread in a casserole and baked until the flavors mingle and the rice grains are tender. Although many of the biryanis are meat-based, vegetarians have adapted these dishes to include legumes and vegetables.
Kichidi, a savory and soothing porridge
Now, don’t get me wrong, I love biryanis, but the dish that gets no respect is one that is a close sibling, albeit a dowdy one in some Indians’ minds. Kichidis are soothing and simple porridges usually eaten when convalescing from an illness. The easily digestible grains, when eaten with plain yogurt, make for a comforting meal. Often, the trilogy of pickles, papads and yogurt accompanies kichidis to complement the porridge’s softness with pungency and crunch.
Of all the stories I heard in my childhood days, the one that always made me sit up and listen was this one about kichidis. To set the stage, it’s helpful to know about Akbar, the third and highly revered emperor of the Moghul empire, who ascended the throne at the tender age of 13, around 1556. Over the course of his rule, he developed a deep bond and friendship with his trusted inner circle adviser, Birbal, whose wit, impartiality, compassion and intelligence were legendary. Stories were penned over the years that regaled many a child at bedtime. This one particularly stuck with me, appealing to my culinary sensibilities.
Birbal listened patiently to the poor Brahmin’s predicament. The Brahmin, with teeth still chattering from the previous night’s bone-chilling experience in the frigid waters of the lake, recounted how he was promised 100 rupees for spending the night in its icy bed. He had managed to survive the frigidity by cozy thoughts that his children’s bellies would soon be filled with the help of this small fortune. He called upon Rama for strength, hands folded in pious servitude, looking toward a lighted oil lamp 200 feet away for the only flicker in an otherwise charcoal-black night. His prayers helped him make it to the crack of dawn, when he emerged from the lake with frozen, shriveled skin but a warmed heart filled with the hope of a hot meal for his hungry babies.
The court ministers marveled at the Brahmin’s fortitude and quizzed him at length on his successful survival. But once they heard that he had made it through with the “warmth” from the flickering light 200 feet away, they refused him his meager prize.”You cheated us you insolent man,” they fumed. “You heated yourself with the oil lamp 200 feet away.” The Brahmin’s earnest pleadings fell on deaf ears even when he insisted on presenting his case to the usually fair-minded emperor, Akbar.
Birbal stroked his beard as he listened to the Brahmin’s misery. It was time to teach the cruel ministers and Akbar a lesson. He invited them to a simple dinner of kichidi in his palatial courtyard. With help from the Brahmin, he lit a small fire from dried twigs. He fashioned a supporting structure 50 feet high from which dangled a large earthenware pot filled with rice, lentils and gold-yellow turmeric. The crowds gathered and waited with growing impatience for the humble, delicately spiced porridge.
Akbar’s anger rose along with the wisps of smoke from the pitiful twig fire as he demanded explanation for Birbal’s obvious stupidity in trying to cook a pot of kichidi 50 feet away from such a weak flame. “Jahanpana,” he said with respect, addressing him as King of the World, “if a flickering light 200 feet away could warm a Brahmin standing in waist-high icy-cold water, why can’t I cook this kichidi only fifty feet away.” Akbar realized his folly, duly reprimanded his ministers, and ordered them to pay the Brahmin five times what was promised to him. Birbal once again prevailed!
Rice-Lentil Porridge with Caramelized Onion (Pyaaz kichidi)
Makes 6 servings (about ½ cup each)
1 cup uncooked white basmati or long-grain rice
½ cup split and skinned green lentils (mung/moong dal — yellow in this form)
4 cups cold tap water
½ teaspoon ground turmeric
2 tablespoons ghee or melted butter
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
1 medium-size red onion, cut in half lengthwise and thinly sliced
2 to 4 fresh green Thai, cayenne or serrano chilies, stems removed, slit in half lengthwise (do not remove seeds)
1 medium-size tomato, cored and finely chopped
2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh cilantro leaves and tender stems
1 teaspoon coarse kosher or sea salt
¼ teaspoon black peppercorns, coarsely cracked
1. Plunk the rice and dal into a medium-size saucepan and add enough water to cover the grains. With your fingertips gently rub and swish the grains, at which point the water will get cloudy. Pour the water out and repeat three to four times, until the water remains relatively clear; drain.
2. Add 4 cups cold water to the pan and bring it to a boil over medium-high heat, stirring once or twice to separate the grains. Skim off any suds that may float to the top. Stir in the turmeric, lower the heat to medium, and simmer, partially covered, until most of the water evaporates. Cover the pan and continue to simmer about 5 minutes.
3. Turn off the burner and allow the pan to sit undisturbed an additional 5 to 10 minutes.
4. Meanwhile, heat the ghee in a medium-size skillet over medium-high heat. Sprinkle in the cumin and let it sizzle, turn reddish brown, and smell nutty, about 10 to 15 seconds. Immediately add the onion and chilies and stir-fry 4 to 6 minutes, until the onion turns purple-brown, 5 to 7 minutes. This is a good time to make sure your stove fan is on because of the pungent fumes from the roasting chilies.
5. Add the remaining ingredients and stew the mélange, uncovered, stirring occasionally, until the tomato softens, 2 to 4 minutes.
6. Scrape the skillet’s contents into the now-cooked rice-lentil mixture and mix well; serve.
Tip: If onions, chilies and tomatoes bother your stomach, leave them out. The humble cumin seeds and ghee are equally satisfying on their own.
Top photo: Indian kichidi. Credit: Raghavan Iyer
The cooking of Kerala Muslims owes as much to the Yemeni Arab traders as it does to the culinary traditions of its native Kerala, India. Consider alissa, a wholesome wheat and meat porridge, hand-rolled wafer-thin ari pathiri (rice bread), or muttamala served over pinnanathappam, (delicate thin strings of egg yolks cooked in sugar syrup served over steam-cooked cardamom-scented egg white pudding).
Centuries before Mahmud of Ghazni attacked northern India in A.D. 1000, the southwestern coastal region of the Indian Ocean between India, the Persian Gulf and East Africa was an area of active commercial exchange. People along these coasts excelled in maritime trade with distant lands, and by the early Christian period South India was transformed into a commercial hub linking the West and the East through coastal and inland routes. A flourishing spice trade between southwestern India and the Arabs of coastal Yemen and Oman flourished.
More about Kerala on Zester Daily:
Arab traders left their shores in July, at the height of the southwestern monsoon season, to go to Kerala, the heart of the pepper country. They returned carrying their precious cargo of many spices as the northwest monsoons arrived in November.
When the relentless monsoons prompted several Arab merchants to stay back until favorable travel weather returned, many settled down and married local women. The alliance was solemnized with the payment of a token bride price, and the local brides and their children were initiated into Islam. Muslims of Kerala, known as Mappilas, account for nearly a quarter of the state’s population.
Influenced by the culinary traditions of traders from the Persian Gulf and leaning heavily on the Kerala spice combinations, Mappila cuisine is known for its distinct taste. It is unlike the Muslim-influenced, rich Mughlai cuisine of North India. In Mappila cuisine, rice, coconut, coconut milk and coconut oil are liberally used. Black pepper is a predominant spice, followed by cinnamon, cloves and cardamom. Rice is the staple grain of Kerala. But because their Arab husbands preferred bread, the ingenious Mappila women created breads made with rice — pathiri.
More than any other Mappila dish, alissa is most strongly rooted to Arab cuisine. Unlike any other Kerala preparation, its main ingredient is wheat and traditionally cinnamon is the only spice used.
This thick porridge is made with wheat from which bran is removed along with meat or chicken. The dish is garnished with thinly sliced shallots, raisins and cashews fried in ghee. It is one of the dishes served as a starter before ghee rice or biryani at north Kerala Muslim weddings.
Many variations around the world
Alissa is quite similar to harisa, a recipe preserved over centuries by the people of the Middle East. Recipes for this dish are found in 10th-century Baghdadi cookbook “Annals of the Caliph’s Kitchen,” “Sufi Cuisine” and the Iraqi cookbook “Delights from the Garden of Eden.”
It was called hareesa in medieval Baghdad, and it’s called herise in many parts of Turkey, where it is served at weddings. In Lebanon, hreessey is a comfort food in the villages when the weather turns cold. Various versions of this porridge made with wheat, barley or semolina were prevalent wherever Arab traders traveled, from Morocco to Muslim Andalusia.
“From the 7th century until today, harisa was a kind of porridge made from pounded wheat, butter, meat, and spices” writes Clifford A.Wright in his article “Gruel, Porridge, and the ‘First Foods’ of Tunisia.” As they break the fast during Ramadan in the Middle East, there are certain dishes that are always served, h’riss being one of them. In her article “Breaking the Fast” in Saveur, Anissa Helou writes: “This deeply satisfying dish of spiced meat and creamy wheat berries is most often made with lamb, but it’s particularly delicious when made with chicken. The version we ate was drizzled with ghee blended with bzar, which gave the h’riss a warm, toasty flavor.”
And harisa of the Middle East became alissa in Kerala. A more elaborate version, called haleem, is popular in north India.
The following recipe for alissa is adapted from Malabar Muslim cookery by Ummi Abdulla.
For the alissa:
1½ cups skinless wheat
1 large onion cut into slices
Salt to taste
2 pounds of chicken or mutton cut into pieces
1½ inch piece of cinnamon stick
For the garnish:
2 tablespoons ghee, plus extra for serving
½ shallot thinly sliced
1 tablespoon raisins
8 to 10 cashew nuts
1. Soak wheat in water for an hour and drain.
2. In a stock pot, combine wheat, chicken or mutton, sliced onion, cinnamon and salt along with 10 to 12 cups water and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to medium and cook until the wheat is very tender and broken down.
3. Remove from the stove and mash well until it reaches porridge-like consistency.
4. Heat ghee in a small skillet and add cashews. As the cashews begin to change color, add the raisins. Toast until cashews are golden brown and raisins have plumped up. Remove the fried cashews and raisins from the skillet and set aside.
5. In the same ghee, fry shallot slices until golden. Combine with fried nuts and raisins.
To serve, ladle alissa into serving bowls and top with fried onions, raisins and cashews. Drizzle more ghee over the top and serve hot.
Photo: Alissa. Credit: R.V. Ramachandran
In Kerala, India, versatile and nourishing finger millet features prominently in Hindu celebrations of the life of a newborn. These rituals begin with Irupathettu, on the 28th day after the birth of the baby.
The child is given its name, its first meal of sweet porridge, its first piece of jewelry, and even eye makeup. After adorning the baby with traditional jewelry pieces (a chain for the midriff, bangles and anklets) the baby is first fed a small spoonful of a freshly prepared herbal concoction called vayambu, which is believed to stimulate good digestion. Then the baby is given a sweet porridge of finger millet (called kora or ragi in India) cooked in milk with a touch of sugar.
Finger millet, Eleusine coracana, also known as African millet, is a staple grain in many villages across South India. It originated in east Africa and traveled through the Indian Ocean trade routes to India around 1000 B.C.
Purnanuru, the ancient Sangam poems of South India dating to 100 BC, describe how people of the mountainous region cooked their freshly harvested millet. “Pour in sweet foaming milk from a wild cow into a pot that smells of boiled venison, its broad sides white with fat. Set it on a wood burning stove that uses sandalwood for firewood. When it begins to boil stir in freshly harvested millet and let it cook. When it is cooked, serve it on wide plantain leaves set outside where wild jasmine and nightshade flowers grow.”
Loaded with nutrients
Finger millet gets its name from the head of the plant, which resembles a splayed hand. It is an ideal crop for dry lands because its seeds are able to remain dormant for weeks. Once the rains come, the grains sprout to life, and the crop can be harvested in just 45 days. It is resistant to rot and insects and keeps well in storage. Finger millet crops are often grown with legumes like peanuts, cowpeas and pigeon peas.
Finger millet is high in starch, low in fat, rich in fiber, non-glutinous and easy to digest. With a mild nutty flavor, finger millet is a grain rich in calcium, protein and other nutrients. It has the third-highest iron content of any grain, after quinoa and amaranth.
It is an ideal grain for people with diabetes because of its low glycemic index. It also contains amino acids lecithin and methionine, which help in bringing down cholesterol level. In the past few years, health concerns about diabetes and high cholesterol have made people in India turn to more traditional and less processed cereals such as finger millet and other millets like jowar and bajra.
When cooking ground millet powder for homemade baby cereal, use about ¼ cup of powder for every 1-2 cups of water and milk combined. You might use more or less as you see fit. Add a touch of sugar and whisk continuously as you are cooking to avoid clumping.
Finger millet a perfect curry accompaniment
Besides its use as a baby food, finger millet is also used in making several south Indian savory breakfast dishes as well as sweets. In the South Indian states of Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh, it is cooked as ragi mudde and ragi sankati by cooking the flour with water until it reaches dough-like consistency. It is then rolled into balls of desired size and served along with a spicy curry.
Ragi dosa is another popular dish. It is also rolled into flat breads, but it does not work well alone in yeast-based breads because it is gluten-free. It is not a commonly used in the United States, though it is beginning to gain in popularity because of its gluten-free nature.
Ragi puttu, steamed millet flour mixed with fresh coconut and salt, is a version of the popular Kerala breakfast dish rice puttu. Traditionally, puttu is steamed in a log-shaped steamer. This method gives the dish its cylindrical shape. In old times, puttu was steamed in bamboo logs, which gave it an earthy aroma.
Puttu can also be prepared by steaming the flour-and-coconut mixture in a steamer basket. The flaky puttu is traditionally served with kadala curry, a spicy curry of brown chick peas simmered in a sauce of fresh roasted coriander and red chilies, seasoned with curry leaves and cilantro and/or bananas and fried pappadum.
Puttu (Steamed Finger Millet Flour and Fresh Coconut)
2 cups finger millet flour
1 cup freshly grated coconut
Salt to taste
½ cup water
1 tablespoon ghee
1. In a heavy skillet, dry roast the flour over medium heat, stirring continuously, and let it cool.
2. After it has cooled, add one cup of the grated coconut and salt, and mix well.
3. Sprinkle the water over the flour, and mix well with hand. This mixture should be wet, but not lumpy. Add a few more spoons of water if necessary. Take a little of the flour mix between your index finger and thumb, press gently and let it fall gently. If it holds its form as it falls, the flour is damp enough.
4. Add ghee and mix well. Though not called for in the traditional recipe, it adds a flakier texture to puttu.
5. Spread a piece of wet cheesecloth in the steamer insert, and spread the flour and coconut mixture on top. Cover and steam for 10 to 12 minutes.
6. Serve hot with brown chickpeas curry or banana.
Photo: Roasted finger millet flour and coconut. Credit: R.V. Ramachandran
Thanksgiving was not my favorite holiday when I was a child. First of all, no presents: Who needs a holiday with no presents? And then, the food: so boring, so mind-numbingly uniform in texture — dry turkey, mashed boiled squash, mashed boiled turnips, mashed boiled potatoes, boiled white onions in cream sauce, cranberry sauce from a can, Jell-O salad. This was not my idea of feasting. My mother was an excellent cook but somehow Thanksgiving seemed to try her skills — possibly she didn’t like that food any more than I did, but felt she had to prepare it, for tradition’s sake.
Turkey and Chex Mix
Every now and then, something delightfully different would happen, like the year she decided on a succulent pork roast instead of turkey, or the time we all voted for lobster and no cranberry sauce for the feast. But when I think back, the best part was in the cut-glass relish dish handed down from Grandmother Hathorne. One side held celery sticks filled with a mix of blue cheese and cream cheese and the other had pimento-stuffed olives.
Later another innovation, served in an equally time-honored heirloom, was a curious salty – savory mix of mini pretzels, peanuts and cereal bits that I thought for a long time my clever mother had invented. But no, just now, while surfing the blessed Internet, I discovered it has a name, this mix, moreover a “registered” name: it’s called Chex Party Mix (check it out at Chex.com). The original was developed by the mythical Betty Crocker, doyenne of General Mills, back in 1955. That original has since mutated and you can now find recipes for Gluten-Free Tropical Island Chex Mix and Kentucky Bourbon Bacon Chex Mix along with a host of others. But I like to think the original, with its elusive flavors of Worcestershire, seasoned salt, and garlic and onion powder, is the true classic of American Thanksgivings.
Squash was the most problematic part of the meal, the unpleasant pablum texture of that boiled mash so integral to the Thanksgiving table. And don’t try to tempt me with pumpkin pie, similarly mashed to a sticky texture and ineptly disguised with an overlay of sugar and spice. To misquote that old New Yorker cartoon about spinach, I say it’s squash and I say the hell with it!
Squash, it turns out, is just another name, a Narragansett name in fact, for Olde English pumpkin, and it has an ancient, even venerable, history on these shores. For John Jocelyn, writing “New-England’s Rareties” back in 1671, squash or pumpkin was already “The Ancient New England standing dish.” Sliced diced squash or Pompion, he said was put in a pot on a gentle fire all day until it had sunk into a pottage, after which New England housewives “put to it Butter and a little Vinegar (with some Spice as Ginger . . . ) . . . and serve it up. . . with Fish or Flesh.” “It provokes Urin extremely and is very windy,” Jocelyn said. I rest my case.
Squash (aka pumpkin) redeems itself
It has taken me the best part of my life to learn to appreciate this vegetable of the unfortunate name. I’ve discovered only recently that great things could indeed be done with squash. Cut into French-fry sized fingers, rolled in a little seasoned flour, and deep-fried in olive oil, it reveals a whole new dimension of flavor. Sliced a little thicker and layered with onions in a baking dish, sprinkled with garlic, salt and pepper, plenty of olive oil and a thick dusting of grated parmigiano and bread crumbs, it bakes into a gorgeous gratin. Made into a pumpkin risotto (recipe below) or pumpkin-filled ravioli served with melted butter and sage, it brings glamour to the table.
Which squash is which? This is a question for your local Ag Extension Service. Because we’re talking about November, we’re talking specifically about winter squashes, which includes an enormous variety from small thin-skinned Delicata to pale blue and warty Hubbards to so-called Cheese Pumpkins, a paler version of the Halloween treat. Acorns, Butternuts and Buttercups are probably the most familiar varieties in supermarket produce sections, but farmers’ markets will provide a much greater spread, including some Asian varieties, such as Kabocha (Japanese for pumpkin), that are delicious. Just steer clear of “pie pumpkins” or “sugar pumpkins” which have sweet flesh and are intended strictly for dessert.
My Thanksgiving table this year will be graced with this beautiful pumpkin (or squash, if you insist) risotto as a starter (after, of course, the platter of cheese-filled celery sticks and pimento-stuffed olives, plus the obligatory Chex Party Mix). My favorite cucurbit for this is a pumpkin called rouge vif d’Etampes, a French variety that is widely available in farmers markets. But butternut, acorn, Hubbard or other types of dark-yellow winter squashes will be fine too.
Makes 6 to 8 servings
6 cups of chicken stock
¼ to ⅓ cup extra virgin olive oil
2 medium yellow onions, halved and very thinly sliced
1 small pumpkin or squash, peeled and coarsely chopped to make 2 to 3 cups chopped squash
2 or 3 sprigs fresh sage, slivered (optional)
2 cups arborio or similar rice for risotto
¾ cup freshly grated parmigiano reggiano cheese
1 or 2 tablespoons unsalted butter, or more if you wish
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
1. Heat the stock to a bare simmer and keep simmering very gently while you prepare the risotto.
2. In a heavy kettle or saucepan large enough to hold all the rice when cooked, gently sauté the onions in oil over medium-low heat until they are thoroughly softened but not browned. Add the pumpkin and stir well to coat the pieces with the oil. Cover and cook gently for about 5 to 10 minutes, until the pumpkin is soft enough to break it up with a spoon. If it starts to scorch, add a little water or stock. The pumpkin should be very soft, almost a purée.
3. Add the sage and stir into the squash.
4. Add the rice and stir to mix well while the rice starts to change color and become almost translucent. Now add a ladle or two of simmering stock and stir. As soon as the rice has absorbed the liquid, add more, and continue adding simmering liquid, ladle by ladle, stirring as you add. There should always be liquid visible in the pan. Do not add all the liquid at once; this will produce boiled rice instead of risotto. The rice is done when it is al dente, with a bit of a bite in the center. Each grain should be well coated with brilliant yellow sauce, which should be dense and rather syrupy looking. When it is done, the risotto should be thick enough to eat with a fork and not at all soupy. (You may not need to use all the stock.) Total cooking time varies from 20 to 30 minutes, depending on the degree of doneness that you’re looking for.
5. When the rice is cooked, remove the pan from the heat and immediately stir in about ¼ cup grated cheese and the butter. Add salt and pepper, cover the pan, and let it sit for 5 minutes to settle the flavors. Serve immediately, passing the rest of the cheese at the table.
For a holiday garnish take some fresh sage leaves and fry them in extra virgin olive oil, making sure the leaves are thoroughly dry before slipping them into the 360 F oil. Fry till crisp and drain on paper towels. Add a couple of fried sage leaves to each serving of risotto.
Photo: Halved Tuscan pumpkin. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins
It was that time of the week. The servant had swept and mopped the floors around the house and then headed for the bathroom where she soaked the soiled clothes in a red bucket filled with soapy water. Then she grabbed the baseball bat-like stick and thrashed the fabrics with a rhythmic beat. Soon they made their way into a white plastic bucket filled with clean water for rinsing. Each piece of clothing was twisted dry, except for the cotton saris that lay, beaten clean, in a twisted pile on the bathroom’s white-tiled floor.
Meanwhile my mother, Amma, was in the kitchen heating up a large, stainless steel pot of water on a kerosene-fueled stove. She threw in a bowl of long-grain rice from a newer crop sold by the rice vendor who came to our door once a week with a large gunnysack trailing heavily over her left shoulder. The fresher the crop, the starchier the rice, I later found out, and this was important for my mother’s impending chore.
The water came to a second boil and the rice kernels rose to the top with each rising bubble, puffing up with heated pride. The cooked grains clouded the water sticky-white. With a slotted spoon, Amma scooped out a few grains, squishing one between her thumb and forefinger to test its doneness. Pleased to see it give in with no residual hardness, she placed a tight-fitting lid on the pot, lifted it off the stove and turned it on its side. With the lid slightly held back, she poured the starchy liquid into a large bowl in the sink. She didn’t have a colander.
Rice, starch and saris
My mother grabbed the starch-filled bowl and shuffled to the bathroom. She dunked the saris, one at a time, in the rice water, coating each with the starch and letting it soak through. After 15 minutes, each was lightly rinsed and wrung dry by hand. Akka, my grandmother, awoke from her nap and grabbed the saris that now lay in a bucket, waiting to be dried. She hung them out under the hot sun on a clothesline pulled taut between two hooks nailed on each end of the balcony’s wooden ledge.
Once dry, the saris were picked up by the ironing vendor. They came back into our home the same day, all starched and neatly pressed, smelling like hot, steamed, nutty rice.
There are many ways to cook rice, especially one as refined as basmati. The absorption/steeping method and the open-pot pasta method are ideal. Some people use rice cookers and even pressure cookers to cook this delicate grain, and I find that they generate too intense a heat, resulting in a mushy, overcooked texture.
To salt or not to salt the rice is the Shakespearean query. In my recipes for curries, stir-fries and chutneys, I use just enough salt to bring out the flavors, so I do recommend salting the rice you’ll be serving with them. If you don’t salt the rice, you may want to add a bit more salt to the dish you are serving with the rice.
Cooking Rice With the Absorption/Steeping Method
Makes 3 cups
1 cup Indian or Pakistani white basmati rice
1½ teaspoons coarse kosher or sea salt
1. Place the rice in a medium-size saucepan. Fill the pan halfway with water, to cover the rice. Gently rub the slender grains through your fingers, without breaking them, to wash off any dust or light foreign objects, like loose husks, which will float to the surface. The water will become cloudy. Drain this water. Repeat three or four times, until the water remains relatively clear; drain. Now add 1½ cups cold water and let it sit at room temperature until the kernels soften, 20 to 30 minutes.
2. Stir in the salt, and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Cook until the water has evaporated from the surface and craters are starting to appear in the rice, 5 to 8 minutes. Then, and only then, stir once to bring the partially cooked layer from the bottom of the pan to the surface. Cover the pan with a tight-fitting lid, reduce the heat to the lowest possible setting, and cook for 8 to 10 minutes (8 minutes for an electric burner, 10 minutes for a gas burner). Then turn off the heat and let the pan stand on that burner, undisturbed, for 10 minutes.
3. Remove the lid, fluff the rice with a fork, and serve.
Cooking Rice With the Open-Pot Pasta Method
Makes 3 cups
1 cup Indian or Pakistani white basmati rice
1½ teaspoons coarse kosher or sea salt
1. Fill a large saucepan halfway with water, and bring it to a rolling boil over medium-high heat.
2. While the water is heating, place the rice in a medium-size saucepan. Fill the pan halfway with water, to cover the rice. Gently rub the slender grains through your fingers, without breaking them, to wash off any dust or light foreign objects, like loose husks, which will float to the surface. The water will become cloudy. Drain this water. Repeat three or four times, until the water remains relatively clear; drain.
3. Add the rice to the boiling water, and stir once or twice. Bring the water to a boil again and continue to boil the rice vigorously, uncovered, stirring very rarely and only to test the kernels, until they are tender, 5 to 8 minutes. Immediately drain the rice into a colander and run cold water through it to stop the rice from continuing to cook. (The problem with his method is that the grain will go from just-right to overcooked in mere seconds if you are not attentive.)
4. Transfer the rice to a microwave-safe dish and stir in the salt. Just before you serve it, rewarm it at full power, covered, for 2 to 4 minutes.
Photo: Closeup of basmati rice. Courtesy of iStockphoto
Before I incur the wrath of nutritional experts and health advocates due to the title of this piece, I extend an invitation to my kitchen. I serve whole grains all day long, for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Whole grains are what I eat and breathe — yet I never set out a plate or bowl of “healthy whole grains.”
Let me explain. I believe, with our well-meaning efforts to improve our diets and change our fast-food habits, we have done whole grains — from rye and spelt, to kamut, buckwheat and millet — a disservice. For the longest time, we have labeled them as wholesome, nutritious and “oh so good for you.” I’m hard-pressed to think of any other food group that has been marked as “healthy,” and not much else. This mantra, repeated for decades, has single-handedly shaped our perception of whole grains.
Wherever I go and talk about my way of eating, people almost always say: “Oh, you must live so healthily.” Most probably believe I punish myself on a daily basis eating loads of blah grains that would make a regular person shudder — few people associate whole grains with mouthwatering flavorful meals. Which is why, I believe, so many people still don’t eat them. They might at some point have chewed through a bowl of whole wheat berries, cooked with no fat, no salt, no this and no that. And they probably never try again. I can’t blame them.
Healthy can mean indulgent
Imagine, instead, a warm breakfast bowl of citrus-infused millet simmered in milk with a drizzle of honey and topped with a dollop of thick Greek yogurt. Or a mound of comforting parmesan polenta with a dab of butter next to your sizzling steak. What about the gentle chew of nutty bulgur in a tomato-infused soup, combined with red lentils, a classic Middle Eastern preparation? Surprising to most, these delectable starches make exquisite desserts: I love to cook up a stunning burgundy rice pudding, studded with dates, using soft-textured Chinese black rice, or a lifelong favorite, creamy wheat berry fools with Grand Marnier figs (recipe below).
It is high time to end the reprimanding health messages and serve whole grains for what they can be: amazingly versatile and rich additions to our table. Yes, they are healthy — adding fiber, vitamins and minerals to our diet — and that’s wonderful. But they are so much more. My passion is for the distinct character, the subtle flavors, rich textures and even stunning colors whole grains bring to our meals.
Healthy without apology
My perspective has been shaped by my upbringing in Greece and Germany. I was lucky because whole grains were, and still are, part of the culinary fabric in both cultures. No one ever told me to eat them because they are “so good” for me — they were simply on our table as delicious everyday food. I remember the sweet and spicy wheat berries, handed to me at a graveyard after my grandfather died. The tomato-infused bulgur my Greek mom makes. Or the huge whole-grain loaves my German dad would bring home, dark and crusty — with slices almost the length of my arm.
Instead of telling people to eat “healthy whole grains,” I wish we would bring these grains to our tables in all their striking glory, no admonitions on the side. I would love for everyone to discover the versatility and rich variety of these ancient staples that have been part of our diet for thousands of years. Creating memorable meals that are at once tasty and economical, perfect for our hard times, has never been easier. Today, supermarkets across the country carry trendy quinoa, brown rice, whole grain pasta and different whole grain flours, such as whole wheat, white whole wheat or buckwheat. Grain sections in health food stores have never been better stocked.
Finally, I’d like to address three main misperceptions. First, is it difficult to cook whole grains? It is as easy as boiling pasta. But isn’t it too time-consuming? I would like to introduce you to what I call quick-cooking whole grains that can be on your table as fast as a bowl of white rice — among them, delicate quinoa, nutty bulgur and mild golden millet. Slower-cooking grains such as whole wheat berries, rye, farro and hulled barley can easily be prepared ahead. I soak and simmer them while cooking something else, then chill them for later use, or freeze in portion sizes.
Last but not least, many people think whole grains are too chewy. Yes, whole wheat berries, spelt or rye are what I call richly textured and supremely chewy. But if this is not your thing — it certainly isn’t mine all the time — you can comfort yourself with an array of softer grains. Someday, be sure to simmer a side of lightly salted quinoa, bulgur or millet. With a drizzle of olive oil. Or a knob of good butter. You’ll swoon.
Wheat Berry Fools With Grand Marnier Figs
Serves 6 to 8
- Combine the figs and the liqueur in a small bowl and set aside to plump for 15 minutes, stirring once or twice, while you prep the ingredients.
- In a large bowl, beat the yogurt with 2 tablespoons of honey, 1 tablespoon of orange zest, and the cinnamon until smooth. Stir in the wheat berries.
- Using a hand mixer, whip the cream at medium speed in a medium bowl until foamy. Add the remaining 2 tablespoons honey and continue whipping until soft peaks form.
- Drain the figs, reserving their juices. Toss 2 tablespoons of the figs with the remaining 1 teaspoon zest in a small bowl and set aside for garnish.
- Stir the remaining figs into the bowl with the yogurt mixture. Fold in one-third of the whipped cream using a spatula. Fold in the remaining whipped cream in 2 additions until just incorporated. Divide among serving bowls, cover with plastic wrap, and chill for 2 hours.
- To serve, top each bowl with a bit of the reserved figs and their juices.
The dessert can be prepared up to 4 hours ahead. Add a dash more liqueur to the figs reserved for the garnish, if necessary.
This week’s Zester Soapbox contributor is journalist and food writer Maria Speck, author of the whole grain cookbook “Ancient Grains for Modern Meals,” a New York Times Best Cookbook of 2011. Raised in Greece and Germany, Speck has contributed to Gourmet, Saveur and Gastronomica among many other publications in the U.S. and Germany.
Top photo: Maria Speck. Credit: Nika Boyce
* * *
During the lead-up to Halloween and Thanksgiving, Hamptons farm stands practically explode with pumpkins, straw and ornamental corn. All of this abundance inspires some shoppers to trim their walkways, stoops and porches in high-kitsch harvest style. But because I am more interested in eating than decorating, the idea of exploding corn makes me hungry.
Searching online for something fun to do with popcorn this October, I paged through the same old recipes for popcorn balls, caramel corn and cheese popcorn. Was there nothing new under the autumn sun? Then, I came across some information that almost made my head explode. Until a few days ago, I didn’t realize that grains other than popping corn have hard impermeable hulls protecting starchy interiors. When quinoa, millet, amaranth or sorghum are heated, pressure builds up inside the grains until they pop. I immediately got out my jar of quinoa to give this a try.
Quinoa is an ancient grain-like crop that has been cultivated in the Andes for thousands of years. Its nutritional value is beyond compare. Not only does it have twice as much protein as corn, but its protein is complete, containing all nine essential amino acids. When it comes to fiber and minerals, quinoa is also a powerhouse. And according to some studies, it may slow atherosclerosis and protect against certain types of cancer. I was excited by the prospect increasing quinoa’s presence in my family’s diet by employing this new cooking method.
I heated a little bit of vegetable oil in a pan and stirred in my quinoa. After a few minutes, a toasty aroma began wafting through the kitchen. I quickly realized that without constant stirring, the kernels on the bottom would quickly burn. Luckily, quinoa kernels are much smaller than corn kernels, and although they will jump a few inches, they won’t fly all over the kitchen the way popcorn will when popped in an uncovered pan.
In less than 10 minutes, most of the kernels had popped and the mixture was nicely browned. It’s better to scrape the quinoa out of the pan when many but not all of the kernels have popped, so it tastes pleasantly toasted and not burnt and bitter. Unlike unpopped corn kernels, unpopped quinoa kernels can be eaten along with the popped ones without risk of broken teeth.
I had a cup or so of popped quinoa. Now I had to figure out how to use it. This wasn’t a fluffy snack I could eat out of hand at the multiplex. It was, however, a crunchy and flavorful addition to my homemade granola. After I enjoyed popped quinoa granola for breakfast, I thought of 10 more ways to use it in my cooking every day:
Ten delicious things to do with popped quinoa:
1. Add to bread dough for a whole-grain boost with no resulting heaviness.
2. Add to oatmeal cookie dough, instead of nuts, for crunch.
3. Use it along with puffed rice cereal in a marshmallow treats recipe.
4. Use along with chopped nuts and dried fruit to make chocolate bark.
5. Stir into waffle or pancake batter.
6. Use as a thickener in Mexican-style mole sauces.
7. Sprinkle onto salads or steamed vegetables, as you would sesame seeds.
8. Knead into tortilla or flatbread dough.
9. Use instead of bread crumbs, to top macaroni and cheese or other baked pasta dishes.
10. Combine with panko bread crumbs, as a coating for chicken fingers.
Granola With Popped Quinoa
Makes about 6 cups granola
- Heat 1 tablespoon of oil in a large, heavy saucepan over medium heat. Add the quinoa and cook, stirring constantly, until it begins to pop. As it pops, stir it frequently to prevent scorching. When the quinoa is mostly popped (many of the grains will be brown), scrape it into a bowl to cool.
- Preheat the oven to 325 F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Combine the oats, almonds, ginger, cinnamon, honey, vanilla and remaining 4 tablespoons oil in a large bowl. Spread in an even layer on the prepared baking sheet and bake until the oats are crisp and lightly colored, about 15 minutes. Let cool completely on the baking sheet.
- Stir together the oat mixture, popped quinoa and apricots. Store in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 1 week.
Zester Daily contributor Lauren Chattman is a cookbook author, freelance writer and former professional pastry chef. Her recipes have appeared in Food & Wine, Bon Appetit, Cook’s Illustrated and The New York Times. She is the author of 14 books, most recently “Cake Keeper Cakes” (Taunton, 2009) and “Cookie Swap!” (Workman, 2010).
Photo: Granola with popped quinoa. Credit: Lauren Chattman
Reto Frei was eating his greens long before Michael Pollan was adjuring us to “eat food, not much, mostly plants.” Frei is one of three brothers who jointly run tibits, an upmarket fast-food vegetarian restaurant chain born in Zurich.
“Upmarket,” “fast food” and “vegetarian” seem like unlikely bedfellows. But tibits is proof they can add up to a winning formula. The restaurant has just celebrated 10 years in existence, with branches in Zurich, Bern, Winterthur and Basel, as well as one close to Regent Street in London’s West End.
The name, tibits (no, it’s not a typo, and, yes, it’s all lowercase), was chosen partly because it sounds like “tidbits” but mainly because, as Frei explains, “We wanted a name that suggested ‘light,’ ‘fresh,’ ‘tasty.’ ” It all began when Reto (at the time a student at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich), together with his brothers Christian and Daniel, were the joint winners of two McKinsey-sponsored entrepreneurship awards for a business plan outlining a vegetarian fast-food, self-service operation. Knowing nothing about the restaurant business — Daniel trained as an economist, Christian as a teacher, Reto as an engineer — the brothers searched for a partner with experience in the field. Enter Rolf Hiltl of the eponymous Zurich restaurant, established in 1898 and famous for tasty vegetarian food that is resolutely un-preachy. Hiltl is now actively involved in partnership with the Frei brothers, with plenty of cross-fertilization between the Hiltl and tibits operations.
The lack of missionary zeal is central to the tibits philosophy, and doubtless contributes to the restaurant’s success. “We’re not crusaders,” comments Reto, “we’re into joy, good taste, fun. We wanted a restaurant that offered all that, plus excellent food, a place where non-vegetarians and veggies could meet and eat together.” All too often, says Frei, non-meat options are seen as terminally bland and terribly limiting (not to mention vaguely hippyish) so the fact that tibits serves neither meat nor fish is not trumpeted from the rooftops — the sign outside says simply: Restaurant, Bar, Food to Go. “Plenty of people don’t even realize we’re vegetarian,” he smiles, “and for those that do, my guess is that 90 percent of them would not describe themselves as such.”
All the restaurants are done up in distinctive Designers Guild fabrics, paints and wallpapers with funky color combinations (lots of acid green, turquoise and fuchsia at the moment), big lampshades, low-slung coffee tables and sofas, or high tables with bar stools. At the heart of each restaurant is a huge self-service food bar shaped like a boat. Customers approach from any side (no standing in line) and choose between freshly prepared salads and a range of hot dishes. Influences range from Middle Eastern to Indian, Mexican, Spanish — and, occasionally, Swiss. The offerings change seasonally, as new ideas come in from customers, the chefs — or the Frei brothers, all of whom are keen cooks.
Food is priced by weight: Plates are weighed at the bar. Tibits also serves freshly pressed juices, seriously good Swiss-style coffee, exotic teas (including a heavenly jasmine flower that blossoms in contact with hot water), creative cocktails and a range of interesting wines by the glass and local beers. Takeouts are bagged in snappy little carriers (the only place where you see the word “vegetarian” mentioned), signed with the stylish house logo underlined by a slender, sinuous green bean.
Michael Pollan’s message is finally hitting home. Most of us are prepared to acknowledge in differing degrees that eating less meat would be good — for the planet, for our health, for the animals. But for this awareness to be converted into wholesale dietary changes is a quantum leap. Vegetarianism for most people still equals bland, boring, flatulent and self-denying. How has tibits managed to make eating mostly plants sexy? By producing sassy food in a fun environment, certainly, and also by offering flexible opening hours (astonishingly rare in Switzerland). But above all they’re soft-pedaling the veggie message and tapping into the fast-food/grazing/self-service zeitgeist. Almost without anybody noticing, they’re taking vegetarianism mainstream. It’s a great trend.
Cracked Wheat Salad With Green Beans
from “tibits at home” (AT Verlag, in German only)
For the salad:
For the dressing:
- Put cracked wheat in a large saucepan, add water and 1 teaspoon sea salt, bring to a boil, stirring, and simmer for 8 minutes or until all the water is absorbed
- Tip into a bowl and allow to cool.
- Wash and halve the cherry tomatoes.
- Wash and trim the beans and cut in short lengths.
- Bring a pan of lightly salted water to a boil and cook the beans for about 10 minutes — keep tasting for doneness, they should be just tender.
- Drain beans, refresh with cold water.
- Fork up the cracked wheat and stir in the tomatoes and beans.
- For the dressing, blend together all the ingredients and season with salt and pepper to taste.
- Pour dressing over cracked wheat and garnish with some sprouted seeds or flat-leaf parsley.
Sue Style is the author of nine books, including “A Taste of Alsace and Alsace Gastronomique.” She writes on food, wine and travel from her base in southern Alsace, close to Switzerland and Germany, and for her website www.suestyle.com
Photos from top:
Cracked wheat salad with green beans. Credit: © 2010 Sylvan Müller, AT Verlag Aarau und München.
tibits restaurant in Zurich. Credit: Sue Style