You've no doubt seen them cropping up on restaurant menus in
recent years; a variety of strange sounding or exotic names
intermixed with more recognizable terms - quinoa risotto, millet
pilaf, kamut flatbreads. You've probably also found them at the
grocery store, as cereal boxes boast "ancient grains" which seem to
include a long list of difficult-to-pronounce names, and health
food sections stock a growing number of strange-looking seeds.
But more than sounding exotic or fancy these grains may provide
the much needed variety in our diets our digestive systems are all
craving; whether we know it or not. While some of the names may
sound intimidating, these grains are all delicious in their right
applications and provide the much needed variety of nutrients our
bodies crave including complex carbohydrates, fibre, B Vitamins,
Vitamin E, polyunsaturated fats and minerals. Other good news about
these alternative grains is that, since their recent popularity
owes its success in large part to the health food movement, they
are almost always whole grains; i.e. they still have the bran, with
all its wonderful fibre and vital nutrients in tact. Let's take a
closer look at some of these oft overlooked grains.
A close relative of wheat but containing a higher nutrient
profile and 30% more in protein, Kamut has a rich, buttery flavour.
Despite its similarity to wheat, Kamut is tolerated by many people
with wheat intolerance or allergy. Kamut is considered an "ancient
grain" since it has remained unaltered by modern plant breeders. As
well as being able to purchase the whole flour for baking or the
grain itself for porridges or side dishes, Kamut can be found in
wheat free breads, pastas, cereals and crackers at most health food
Another "ancient grain", spelt has been cultivated in Europe for
the last 9,000 years. Like Kamut, spelt is similar to wheat, but is
sweet and nutty in flavour. Although it does contain gluten, it is
often tolerated better than wheat by gluten-sensitive individuals.
Spelt is higher protein than wheat and contains more fibre and
nutrients than both Kamut and wheat. When substituting spelt flour
for wheat flour in a baking recipe, use only 3/4 of the required
liquid since spelt is more water soluble.
Rye is most often used in breads, which have a distinctive,
unmistakable flavour, but it can also be used as a side dish, a
breakfast cereal or put into soups or stews. Most rye breads are
actually a combination of rye flour and wheat flour, however, 100%
rye bread can be found in some bakeries and health food stores. Rye
has more fibre than wheat and also contains about double the amino
acid lysine, which is helpful in protecting against viral
infections. Because of its strong flavour, rye is usually mixed
with other milder grains when cooking it as a side dish or
Known as the smallest grain in the world, teff has a mild
flavour and pleasant sweetness. Teff is a staple of Ethiopian
cuisine where it is used to make the delicious crepe-like bread
called injera. Teff is gluten free and can be used in non-rising
breads, pancakes or waffles, or in stews, soups or for thickening
Buckwheat is actually not related to wheat at all and is
technically not a grain, but a fruit. It is most often found in the
form of kasha, which are buckwheat groats that have been hulled and
roasted to give them a distinctive smoky, nutty flavour. Buckwheat
is gluten free but buckwheat flour can be added to glutinous flours
in yeast breads to change up their flavour without affecting their
ability to rise. Buckwheat is also popular as a side dish or in
soups and stews.
Touted by the vegetarians as a super-grain due to its very high
nutrient value, like buckwheat, quinoa (pronounced KEEN-wah) is
actually not a grain but a fruit. High in protein and iron, two
nutrients of particular concern to the vegetarian, quinoa has risen
dramatically in popularity in the west over the last decade. Quinoa
has a delicate but distinctive flavour and can be substituted for
most other grains and cooks very similarly to rice.
Although most often used as birdseed in North America, millet is
actually a very mild tasting cereal grain. In cooking applications,
millet has a tendency to take on the flavour of whatever else it is
being cooked with, making it very versatile. Its texture is similar
to that of rice and therefore can often be substituted.
High in protein and fibre, this Central American "grain" is
actually considered a vegetable. Amaranth has a very distinctive
flavour and may not be enjoyed by everyone. It can be used in
soups, stews, breads, or as a breakfast cereal.
It is a little known fact that grains can go rancid in
relatively short periods of time. Storing in air tight, opaque
containers and keeping grains in a cool place is the best way to
prolong their shelf life. Bulk food stores that don't have a high
turnover and are not in the practice of cleaning out the bin before
adding new product should be avoided. Also, rather than buying
large quantities of grains, buy smaller quantities more often and
try to shop from places that keep their grains in the fridge. Also,
whole grain flours, which are more exposed to air and may go rancid
even faster, should be kept in the refrigerator or freezer once
they have been opened to prevent them from going rancid.
Doug DiPasquale is a trained Chef and Holistic Nutritionist
practising in Toronto.