Carbs Worth Craving: Whole Grain Recipes
Everything from oatmeal to risotto is getting a whole lot tastier thanks to whole grains. Here are three delicious, nutritious recipes from chefs Marco Canora of Manhattan’s Hearth, Steve Redzikowski of Denver’s Acorn, and Karen and Quinn Hatfield of the Sycamore Kitchen in Los Angeles
By Betsy Andrews in the Wall Street Journal
MARCO CANORA was in the kitchen of his Manhattan restaurant Hearth, bent over a pot he’d been tending for half an hour, stirring its thickening contents. Now he was lavishing on golden olive oil, a dust storm of Parmesan, crank after crank of fresh-ground black pepper—typical garnishes for a lovingly prepared batch of polenta. Only this wasn’t any old polenta; it was made with amaranth.
A minuscule Mesoamerican grain with mighty culinary potential, amaranth can be cooked in porridge, fried into fritters, puffed like popcorn or bound with honey and pressed into sweet cakes as in the Mexican street snack alegría. It’s just one of the whole grains that chefs across the country are currently enthralled with.
Barley, buckwheat, millet, rye—the trendiness of New Nordic cooking has helped make whole grains like these hot now. In Northern Europe, where grains grow well, they’ve always been staples. Current health trends have also had an influence: Rich in minerals, antioxidants and fiber, and often low in gluten, whole grains are among the stars of the U.S. government’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans.
For chefs like Mr. Canora, who chronicles his own turn to healthier eating in the new cookbook “A Good Food Day,” quinoa and kamut, sorghum and teff provide tastes, textures and loads of nutrition beyond that in side-dish standards like white rice or corn. In the hands of chefs, they’re grains of invention.
“Amaranth is so tiny, it reminded me of coarse cornmeal, so I thought, why not try to treat it the same?” said Mr. Canora, spooning up a taste. “And, god, it’s so good.”
‘It reminded me of coarse cornmeal, so I thought, why not try to treat it the same? And, god, it’s so good.’
He wasn’t kidding. Set on a table by a sunny window, bits of Tuscan kale swirled in, the amaranth glistened like blonde caviar. It had the sweet, grassy taste of raw peanuts, and a bouncy chew that made it fun to eat. It also proved a nimble partner to its fellow ingredients, picking up the bitter notes of the kale, the luxuriousness of the Parmesan and the oil, the snap of the pepper.
Farro is another versatile whole grain standing in for other starches in classic preparations. A class of Mediterranean wheat that encompasses einkorn, emmer and spelt, farro is popular because it’s easy to prepare and luscious in texture. Often lightly “pearled,” or abraded, so that its starchy germ is exposed, the mild-tasting grain cooks quickly, turning cooking liquids creamy as it soaks up their flavors. It’s showing up in risotto-like dishes ranging from the red wine “farrotto” with spiced pears, black trumpet mushrooms and Castelmagno cheese at Manhattan’s Riverpark to the version at Harvest in Cambridge, Mass., loaded with dried cranberries, chickpeas and feta.
At his Denver restaurant Acorn, Steve Redzikowski serves a farro salad that changes with the seasons. Right now it includes lemony braised artichokes, hunks of sweet delicata squash and rich burrata cheese that relaxes into a milky sauce in the warm grain; a pesto of basil, garlic and mint adds pizzazz.
“Farro is like a sponge to all the other flavors. It really picks up everything,” said Mr. Redzikowski, who tosses in grilled chicken to round out a hearty lunch.
It’s All in the Grist // Pro tips for cooking whole grains
Cook in broth: For added flavor in savory preparations, Marco Canora suggests using chicken broth instead of water as the cooking liquid.
Season at the end: If you salt grains like farro too heavily at the start of cooking, “they will soak up the salt and burst open,” said Steve Redzikowski, “and by the time they reduce down, they’ll be 3 inches of salt bomb.” Instead, salt lightly at first and season to taste at the end of cooking.
Soak and toast: “Grain seeds evolved to be protected; they have that bran coating on them,” said Dan Barber, co-owner of Blue Hill in Manhattan and Blue Hill at Stone Barns in Tarrytown, N.Y., and author of “The Third Plate.” Before cooking, try soaking them overnight so that they start to sprout, and then lightly malt them by drying them in the oven so that they stay stable. “This brings out all the sugars and nutrition,” said Mr. Barber.
Mix it up: Karen Hatfield likes to switch up the whole grains in her porridge, swapping out barley for wheatberries, for instance, or using oat groats instead of rolled oats. Each grain brings a different texture and flavor to the dish. “Don’t be afraid to substitute different grains and try to find a mixture of things that you like,” she said.
Even breakfast standards like homely oatmeal are being gussied up with the addition of less-expected whole grains. At New York City’s Cookshop, you can start your day with a ten-grain porridge that’s like the alphabet soup of cereals, including everything from corn to the rye-wheat hybrid triticale.
At Karen and Quinn Hatfield’s Los Angeles cafe the Sycamore Kitchen, the three-grain porridge of oats, barley and quinoa is sweetened with gooey Medjool dates and spiced with a heavy flurry of cinnamon. Mr. Quinn, a racing cyclist, developed the dish to fortify him for his workouts. “But we were eating it and saying, ‘This is amazing!’ So it had to go on the menu,” said Ms. Hatfield, who likes the way the creamy oats, mild barley and earthy quinoa work together.
“The grains balance each other out,” she said. And if quinoa, that darling of the post-yoga salad, seems like a strange thing to eat first thing in the morning, Ms. Hatfield affirmed that, like the rest of the new wave of whole grain cooking, it’s a habit that’s easy to form.
“Honestly I eat it so regularly,” she said, “I can’t even remember what plain old oatmeal tastes like.”