Whole Grains can be very tasty!

In this Part 2 of my Cooking Tips series on healthy cooking, I want to talk about one very important thing you can do and that is to eat more Whole Grains. I will not be talking about flours and bread in this Tip. That will be in a future Tip. For this one, I will concentrate on grains we may serve as a side dish. All recipes I note are ones that I have tested and find very tasty. Try these recipes as a way to get more whole grains into your diet in a delicious way but also as a starting point to experiment.

What are whole grains? Grains are the edible seeds of plants and for it to be “whole”, it must contain all of the main three parts of the seed.

  • Bran – fiber-rich outer layer with B vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and phytochemicals. The latter are naturally found in food and are felt to be important in disease prevention.
  • Germ – the core of the seed that is rich in healthy fats, vitamin E, B vitamins, antioxidants and phytochemicals.
  • Endosperm – the interior layer composed of carbohydrates, protein and small amounts of B vitamins and minerals.

When you are shopping, you need to pay attention to the nutritional facts label. It is not always straightforward. A 2013 study by Public Health Nutrition looked at products considered Whole Grain and evaluated them to see what would be most useful for the consumer as far as labeling. What they found was that just looking for the term “whole grain” can be misleading. You should see “whole grain” on the label and try to pick products where it is at the top of the ingredient list. However, also look for products with more fiber but less sugar, sodium and trans-fat.

There are many wonderful whole grains out there. Although you can get all of them online, I am going to limit my discussion to those you are most likely to find in your local supermarket. Some of these are gluten free and others are not. I will note that in the description.

Before discussing the individual grains, I want to talk about cooking them. I tend to cook whole grains with the “pasta method.” Cover the grains with liquid, bring to a boil, cover, reduce to simmer and cook until done. Here is a chart from the Whole Grains Council that will give you more specifics. If you are one of us that lives at high altitude, review this Tip on Cooking at High Altitude. You will need more water and more time to cook most of these whole grains.

To liven up the final dish, here are a few ideas.

  • Cook using low/no sodium broth. Can also cook in fruit juice but those are high in sugar. Vegetable juice is another alternative.
  • Toasting the grains before you cook them heightens the flavor. Those that take toasting well are amaranth, millet, oats, quinoa & wheat berries.
  • Add nuts, seeds, citrus zest and/or dried unsweetened fruit.

Now to the actual grains.

  • Amaranth
    • Gluten Free
    • These are the tiny seeds of the amaranth plant. The seeds are not a true grain.
    • When cooked, they resemble brown caviar and remain crunchy.
    • It has a strong, grassy flavor.
    • Cook it up like grits or make a porridge.
  • Barley
    • Can be whole (hulled) or pearled. The hull is very tough and must be removed.
    • Only the hulled is considered “whole”. However, it is harder to find and takes longer to cook.
    • Can be served as a side dish or added to soups/stews.
  • Bulgur
    • Wheat kernels that are boiled, dried, husked and cracked. Also known as cracked wheat.
    • Because bulgur is precooked, it is quick to prepare. You are essentially just rehydrating it.
    • Often added to soups, stuffed veggies and salads. Tabbouleh is one very characteristic bulgur-containing dish.
  • Corn
    • Gluten Free
    • Whole kernels are ground into cornmeal, which is then often used in baking.
    • Popcorn is a different strain of corn but is still a whole grain.
    • Polenta, toss fresh corn in salads, soups and quiches.
  • Couscous
    • This is not really a grain but a pasta made from semolina flour, and therefore, is not a whole grain. There are whole grain varieties that are made of whole wheat durum flour. They are much harder to find in stores but are readily available online.
  • Farro
    • This is a high-fiber, high-protein wheat that can be found in three forms.
      • Pearled – the bran & outer husk is removed but still retains some fiber. It has the shortest cook time and is the most common in our stores.
      • Semi-pearled – part of the bran is removed. It is sort of a middle ground in terms of nutrition and cooking time.
      • Whole – the whole grain remains intact. It has the longest cook time.
    • It has a chewy texture and a nutty flavor.
  • Millet
    • Gluten Free
    • A small, round ivory grain with a mild flavor.
    • Has a mild flavor and mixes well with other foods.
    • Use like rice.
  • Oats
    • Gluten Free but some companies process their oats on the same machinery as other gluten-containing grains. So, be sure they are certified gluten free.
    • Contains a special variety of fiber that’s felt to be helpful in lowering cholesterol.
    • Both old-fashioned & steel-cut are whole grains.
    • Steel cut is chewier and nuttier.
  • Quinoa
    • Gluten Free
    • A small, light-colored round pseudo-grain. It is not a true grain but is in the same family as spinach and chard.
    • It is naturally coated with a bitter and soapy layer, called saponin, that is to deter animals. It should be removed by rinsing in water before cooking. Some brands will be pre-washed when you buy it.
    • It is quick cooking.
    • Comes in white or red varieties.
    • It has a mild flavor, is chewy and slightly nutty.
    • Good in pilafs, salads, casseroles, soups.
  • Rice
    • Gluten Free
    • Limit your intake of white rice but, instead, choose brown, red, black or wild.
    • Brown rice can be long-, medium- or short-grain. Two of the most popular rices, basmati & jasmine, also come in brown versions.
    • Pigmented rices – black, purple, red, mahogany. The color is caused by the anthocyanin pigments in the outer bran. This makes them very high in antioxidants.
    • Wild rice is not true rice. It is an aquatic grass.
  • Wheat berries
    • The whole kernels of hard red spring wheat before it is ground into flour.
    • Because they are whole and firm, they take a while to cook. It is often recommended that you soak them overnight to shorten the cooking time.
    • Cook them in simmering liquid for anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour or cook them in a slow cooker.
    • It is chewy & nutty.
    • Add to soup, chili, salads, side dishes.

That is quite a bit of information but just scratches the surface on whole grains. I hope you are intrigued and challenged to try some of these whole grains. I know my favorites are bulgur and farro. What about you? Do you have a favorite?