USING GRAINS THE NEW WAY
Grains are increasingly visible in our menu choices and not just in baked goods or breakfast. An important element in currently popular Buddha Bowls and Poke, they’re now appearing in the salads which are features of modern entrées as well. These salads, which I love and have been writing about for over a year, unlike the classic ‘dinner ’ones, are not designed to stand alone. (See postings for 7/6/17,6/8/17, 1/16/17, 8/12/15 all listed in the Home Page panorama) Rather they evolved to fill a nutritional need for balance which became evident as Millennials and the chefs of that generation began to carve their path in the food world.
Millennials are discriminating ‘foodies’ who will always opt for quality over quantity, especially regarding meat. They want free-range, wild-caught, heritage bred and, when it comes to beef, grass fed, which used to be taken for granted. However, in the ‘90s, breeders realized that production went up and expenses down feeding cattle corn. Sadly, the decision affected the flavor and texture and introduced a hazard. Cattle produce E-coli in their second stomach and dispel it in the third ONLY if grass fed. So corn fed cattle have to be carefully butchered or cross contamination can taint the beef.
Millennials, aware of these facts, and the superior quality of other meats raised naturally, will pay double, even triple supermarket prices to a gourmet butcher for top grade. They compensate by buying lesser amounts and stretching it further. Recipes from gourmet sources now reflect this trend. One pound of meat was considered two servings, at most three and often just one, if it were a steak. Now it’s cut off the bone, sliced thin and four or more servings are directed.
This leaves a large expanse of plate to be filled, as well a need to produce a balanced meal. Salads are the answer. Nothing fills a plate more attractively than a colorful salad or provides more overall nutritional value. Vegetables give fiber, grains are healthy carbohydrates, with some protein value. Add beans and/or nuts and/or cheese to boost the protein and, even with the small amount of meat, it’s a balanced meal. Using leafy greens and lots of herbs make an enticing, flavorful, healthy presentation.
The balancing act isn’t just nutritional. It involves taste and texture as well. Too many beans, peas or heavy vegetables make a salad heavy and unappetizing but the carbohydrate value is necessary for the meal to be satisfying and filling. That’s where grains come in and please note corn is included. They contain carbs, fiber and protein, are very filling and still light enough to be tossed with leafy greens without weighing them down unattractively or overpowering their taste. Since, grains come in a variety of sizes and textures, there’s sure to be one to compliment any combination of ingredients in a salad.
Before getting into a description of the different grains popular in salads, it’s also important nowadays to know the gluten content. For your reference, I’m listing the gluten content of most of the ‘alt’ grains now found in markets below, but I’m only going to describe the ones most often used in salads or as ‘sides’. The others are chiefly ground into flour or made into cereals.
One note before I begin. The taste, and hence, the contribution, of all these grains when used in salads is much improved if they are cooked, or in the case of bulgur soaked, in broth or another flavored liquid. Herbs tossed in with the greens, or replacing them are big flavor additions too. Properly chosen, they can customize the taste of the salad to compliment the meat and its preparation uniting the entrée.
Quinoa and Rice are the two most popular grains in today’s menus as well as being two of the most ancient. Quinoa is indigenous to South America, rice to Asia and both have been consumed for thousands of years. Quinoa is preferred for Buddha Bowls and rice is essential to Poke, but both need a bit of alteration for the dinner salads.
Quinoa comes in two sizes. The ‘pearl’ is favored in Buddha Bowls and for solo appearances, but for salads it should be well drained after cooking and towel dried to allow it to separate before tossing with the other ingredients. The smaller size can be used alone or mixed with another grain for bulk, usually rice.
Rice is great either to serve as bedding or be tossed into a salad. Brown rice which has the hull left on is more nutritious and higher in fiber content than white and therefore, the better choice. The shorter the grain the higher starch content and the more tendency to clump. So for a nice presentation and ease of integrating into a salad, choose a long grain rice.
Wild Rice, though it takes longer to cook, is my favorite grain. It has more nutritional value, especially protein, than any other grain. The dark color makes it stand out, the hull pops open when cooked to give it a decorative look and it never clumps. Perfect for mixing in salads!
Corn also has two forms. The ‘baby ears can be used as a separate vegetable, or the kernels can act as grains. It does have a few shortcomings. Its taste is regarded as more ‘cuisine specific’ and it can easily overwhelm a salad in both flavor and texture but it is excellent for nutritional value and bulk. The small white kernels are more adaptable to various combinations of ingredients than the larger yellow ones.
Bulgur is well-known as a salad grain famous for Taboule. Its beauty is that it needn’t be cooked, simply soaked. The main draw-back is that it’s small and larger amounts are needed to satisfy hunger which may prevent it appearing as a fully integrated part of the salad. Combining it with one of the larger grains, perhaps corn or rice, can solve this problem.
Farro has a long history, especially in Italy, as a grain used in casseroles and salads for substance and flavor. It’s actually a species of wheat that produces grains in three sizes. The medium is the most popular and the one commonly called ‘Farro’. The largest is popular in Germany where it’s called ‘Spelt’(please note the difference in gluten content) Farro is closely related to Barley and the two can be used interchangeably. Wheatberries, another species of wheat, can also be cooked and served as farro is.
Barley isn’t a grain popular in the U.S. and I’m guessing that’s why it has had so little mention in these salad recipes. I’ve always be rather fond of it, especially if cooked in broth to add some flavor. There’s no reason it shouldn’t be listed as a possible salad ingredient.
Oats a grain popular in the U.S. isn’t seen in salads because of its texture when cooked. However, I’m curious to see if it can be combined with butter or oil and cheese or breadcrumbs, perhaps some seeds or grated coconut and baked, much as a gratin crust, then crumbled and tossed in a salad. Anyone care to try this and let me know?
The actual construction of these salads and choice of grain, depends on the individual occasion and meal. Each one is special, because each one is different, reflecting your own tastes and preferences. If you need inspiration or direction, leaf through food magazines or check out my posts of 7/6/17,6/8/17, 1/16/17, 8/12/15. They’re all accessed by clicking the photos on the Home page panorama.
Gluten Free: Almond/nut, Amaranth, Buckwheat, Corn, Millet, Oat, Quinoa, Rice, Sorghum, Tapioca/ Cassava, Teff
Barley, Rye. Spelt
Bran, Bulgur, Durham, Einkorn, Farro, Freekeh, Graham, Kamut, Semolina, Triticale, Wheat