File Under ‘G’ for Grains

Frequent visitors to this blog will know that I like to start with some kind of opening salvo: a punchy start to grab the attention. This blog is no exception; in fact this blog will start with two such shots.

1 – I didn’t start this blog to write recipes, and I’m not about to start, but this post is all about food and what I like to do with it. If that’s your thing, pour a cuppa and I’ll tell you all about what I know.

2 – Can we all just strap on a pair and grow up about grains? There has been so much hype, so much over-promotion, about whole grains as superfoods that the fightback was always going to be severe. I would like – once and for all – to put all of that to one side and have a grown up conversation about grains. I will not be proselytising, nor will I extoll “health” benefits: I will tell you about food I like.

A few years ago my partner and I realised that we were done with simple carbohydrates: potatoes, white rice, white pasta. Pasta had failed me once too often, becoming limp, I could never cook white rice to save my life, and spuds had just become background noise. They were all just reflex reactions to filling plates every day, and that wasn’t good enough. There was only one answer to us: Grains.

We did not get in to cooking and eating grains for some kind of health food; I’m sorry, but all of the hype and the fascination about “Superfoods” and “Clean eating” can be filed under ‘B’ for Bollocks. What we were looking for was something tasty and different; something to put a new spark in to our meal times. We certainly found it, but not with every grain. There were trials and tribulations along the way, new techniques to learn, and new thought processes to adapt to. Good things are not easy.

First up was quinoa. You may or may not know how to pronounce it. I go with “Keen-Wah”. It’s not important. Rinsing, however, is. If you do not rinse quinoa thoroughly you will get a bitter pile of waste; for the rinsing, treat like sushi rice, changing the water frequently, and you’ll be fine. The cooking is easy enough: one part rinsed quinoa, two parts cold water, one stock gel, and simmer until the liquid has been absorbed. Serve immediately, or it will turn in to a block of rubber. The end result should be fluffy, tasty, and a perfect accompaniment to a piece of fish, some meat or a pile of vegetables.

A note on colour: We started with white quinoa, and kept with it because it is easily available and it’s very tasty. There are also red and black varieties. We tried black, and were left with mouths full of sand. It was not a pleasant dining experience, so we’ve not moved to red yet. We will, though.

Failure time: sorghum. I cannot cook sorghum to save my life. I have tried several times; I don’t know if I had a duff batch or if I’m not following recipes correctly. It did not work for me at all.

One thing which does work for me, but which catches me out every time is buckwheat. Like its white pasta counterpart Couscous, particularly the Israeli version, buckwheat is a superb addition to any salad. The grains are little tetrahedra, and very easy to cook. I would advise rinsing first, but only to avoid the pink goo which emerges from it during cooking. It is very off putting to begin with, but it all washes off, and doesn’t affect the taste at all. I rinse the buckwheat, then boil it in plenty of water until tender – about 15 minutes or so – I then drain and rinse thoroughly. Add to any mixture of salad vegetables (and fruits), dress and enjoy. It’s a tasty grain, so don’t be put off by it cooking.

Next up is one of my favourite grains, and something I had for dinner last night: freekeh. Cracked green wheat, originating in the Middle East, freekeh requires only very simple cooking and tastes absolutely wonderful with nothing added to it. I have it as a starchy component in salads, as an accompaniment to meat or fish, or even by absorption in a pan of mince. I kid you not, people.

I was genuinely surprised that freekeh came complete with its own superb flavour; I was expecting it to behave like one of the myriad dull health foods of yore, all insipid and vehicular. As it stands, it’s not a particularly good vehicle for anything else, but it is a superb thing to eat as it comes. I could happily replace any portion of carbohydrates with a spoonful of freekeh, and I suggest you do too.

Another cracked wheat, albeit with a far more familiar face, is Bulgur. Our house is divided on this one, but I’m typing, so you’re getting my view. I think that Bulgur Wheat is very similar, once cooked, to Couscous. My partner disagrees. Either way, once cooked – soak in boiling water for half an hour or boil for 15 minutes, then drain – it is a light, fluffy bowlful of joy. It can be used in many ways.

Mostly salads or accompaniments, but it is versatile in those guises. Unlike freekeh, Bulgur Wheat is a great vehicle for other flavours; whether parsley, red onion and pomegranate (Tabbouleh), chilli, coriander and lime (for a Mexican twist) or spring onions, chilli and sesame (erring towards the Orient) it can make a meal sing from the rooftops. Alternatively, it replaces rice very well indeed.

Last but not least is my favourite of them all: spelt. Oh how I love a bowl of lovely spelt, cooked as if a risotto, on a cold Autumnal evening. It is deep, rich and satisfying beyond words. I tend to shred a handful of celery, onion and carrot, cook down with some cubed pancetta or chorizo, then add a mug of spelt and a pint or so of stock, and cook for 20 minutes. It can then be eaten on its own, as an accompaniment to a piece of meat or roast vegetables, or it can be enriched by running a puree (carrot, sprout, fennel or pea would be my advice) through it to make a wholesome, tasty meal for two.

As with all of the rest of the grains in this post, spelt can also be cooked plainly (boil for 20 minutes and drain) and used in a salad, but “Speltotto” is my idea of a perfect English stew. Go on, try it.