Cooking with Whole Grains
Whole grains are an important source of complex carbohydrates, protein, vitamins, minerals, and dietary fiber. The Whole Grains Council (wholegrainscouncil.org) defines “whole grains or foods made from them [as those that] contain all the essential parts and naturally-occurring nutrients of the entire grain seed in their original proportions. If the grain has been processed (e.g., cracked, crushed, rolled, extruded, and/or cooked), the food product should deliver the same rich balance of nutrients that are found in the original grain seed.” For these reasons, when we choose to eat grains or foods made from grains, whole grains are the best option.
Wheat is the largest and most important grain crop in the world. Wheat berries, cracked wheat, bulgur, wheat germ, wheat bran, and couscous are examples of wheat-based grains used for cooking. They form the base for many foods including bread, pasta, noodles, cakes, muffins, cookies, salads and breakfast cereals. Wheat berries are whole-wheat grains with their husks removed. Chewy, nutty, and a little sweet, wheat berries make a great addition to soups, stews and salads. Cook wheat berries like you would pasta, in a large pot of boiling salted water. Allow them to simmer for about 45 minutes or until slightly chewy in texture. Drain and serve.
Corn is used to produce whole grains such as corn meal, hominy, popcorn and grits. I use corn meal to make polenta, which is a delicious gluten-free alternative to pasta for a variety of dishes. I add hominy to soups and stews, munch on popcorn for snacks, and enjoy grits with traditional Southern recipes.
Oats come in a variety of options including steel cut, rolled, or flaked. I usually buy rolled oats, which means the whole oats have been heated and pressed flat, making them easier and quicker to cook than whole oat groats (commonly sold as steel cut oats). For breakfast, I put ½ cup rolled oats, ½ cup unsweetened almond milk, ½ cup water and a pinch of salt in a saucepan. I let it simmer for about 5 minutes. I flavor it with vanilla and ground cinnamon, transfer the mixture to a bowl, and top it with fresh sliced banana. Warm and satisfying, cooked rolled oats for breakfast sustain me until lunch – no problem.
Quinoa (pronounced keen-wa), technically a seed but treated like a grain, is a favorite of mine. I have many recipes on my web site that feature quinoa in a variety of gluten-free dishes including salads, soups, and entrées. Quinoa is one of the few vegetarian sources of complete protein, making it a nutritional powerhouse.
Brown rice is another favorite of mine. Brown rice includes the whole grain, complete with the bran. Only the husk has been removed. It takes a little longer to prepare than white rice, which has had the husk, bran and germ removed. Brown rice has a pleasant, nutty taste and a slightly chewy texture. I use brown rice as a gluten-free base for grilled vegetables, as a stuffing for peppers, and as a base for salads and pilafs. A rice cooker is a very popular appliance commonly used to cook rice (and other things too!). Wild rice is another wonderful way to enjoy whole grains. Boiled like pasta until the grains “butterfly” and are slightly chewy, wild rice makes a different and delicious base for salad or stuffing.
Whole grains are used to make flours for baking by grinding them into a fine powder form. I regularly use whole-wheat pastry flour for baking muffins, brownies, scones and cookies. I use brown rice flour and almond flour for gluten-free baking. I use other specialty flours such as spelt flour, oat flour and chickpea flour for flat breads, muffins and quick breads. If you seek out whole grain flours for baking, you will enjoy the benefits of whole grains.
No discussion of grains would be complete without mentioning gluten. The proteins found in wheat, barley and rye form a mixture called gluten, to which some people are intolerant. Oats are sometimes included on this list of “gluten-full” foods, but only because they are often processed on equipment used to process wheat, barley or rye. If you are concerned, seek gluten-free oats, which have been milled in a gluten-free environment. As you can see, there are many gluten-free ways to enjoy whole grains as a healthy part of any diet.
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