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
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