Whole grains are ‘in’ right now and for good reason; they are full of vitamins, minerals and the all-important fiber. they taste pretty good too. I an often asked by cooking class students or clients what whole grains are, because, as usual, the media and marketing tend to confuse or misrepresent information.
The definition of a whole grain as stated on the Whole Grains Council website is as follows:
Whole grains or foods made from them contain all the essential parts and naturally-occurring nutrients of the entire grain seed. If the grain has been processed (e.g., cracked, crushed, rolled, extruded, and/or cooked), the food product should deliver approximately the same rich balance of nutrients that are found in the original grain seed.
This definition means that 100% of the original kernel – all of the bran, germ, and endosperm – must be present to qualify as a whole grain.
The less processing that occurs with the grain, the better too. You might read a label that breaks down and then reconstructs the grain such as ‘oats, oat bran and oat flour’. Sure oats are present, but a label that reads ‘whole oats’ is better because all of the necessary components are present without any breakdown and reconstruction.
So what are some other whole grains besides oats? According to the Whole Grains Council, the following are classified as whole grains:
- Amaranth: Prized by the Aztecs. Contains 13-14% protein, is considered a complete protein due to the presence of lysine, and is gluten-free.
- Barley: Used to make beer, yes! Contains the most fiber of any grain and is found throughout the entire grain and not just the hull. Barley can be cooked ‘risotto-style’ in place of rice for a delicious and nutritious dish.
- Buckwheat: Not a true wheat or grain—it’s related to rhubarb! BUT, it contains higher levels of zinc, copper and manganese over other grains, and it too is considered a complete protein. Buckewheat is gluten free and it’s nutty taste is delicious in baked goods. Of course, it’s most famous in Japanese soba noodles; one of my favorites.
- Corn, including whole cornmeal and popcorn: Did you know that corn is really a type of grass? You may be asking why it’s listed as a grain here. It’s considered a vegetable when it’s fresh and a grain when it’s dried. Cornmeal, polenta, grits and popcorn are all part of the grain family. Corn has been abused by our food system, so be sure to buy organic, non-gmo and/or local corn products.
- Millet: A popular bird food, but rarely seen on American tables. Millet is very popular in India and China and believe it or not, was the primary grain in those places before rice came along. Millet is another gluten free grain and contains many antioxidants.
- Quinoa: The new darling of the culinary scene, Quinoa is also considered a complete protein. Botanically, it’s related to beets and Swiss Chard, so it’s not a true grain, yet it is the most important food of the people who live in the Andes. In fact, it’s popularity has driven the prices so high in countries like Bolivia and Peru, many of the farmers can no longer afford to consume it themselves.
- Rice, both brown rice and colored rice: Rice provides about half the calories for about half of the world’s population. It originated in South East Asia and Africa, but is grown on every continent today except Antarctica, and there are literally hundreds of different varieties.
- Rye: Used to make rye whiskey. It was considered a weed when it was first discovered. Afterwards, it became the grain of the poor because it can grow in very poor soil. Rye is very popular in Eastern European countries.
- Sorghum (also called milo): Originating from Africa and probably arrived in the Americas with the slaves, sorghum is gluten-free and has been eaten for about 8000 years. It doesn’t have an outer hull like other grains, so the entire grain can be eaten. It can be popped like popcorn and the flour can be substituted for wheat.
- Teff: A type of millet; it is the primary grain consumed in Ethiopia. Teff has the amount of calcium amongst other grains and is also the smallest: less than 1 mm or the same as a poppy seed. Teff is traditionally used to make the Ethiopian sourdough flatbread called injera.
- Triticale: a hybrid of durum wheat and rye. It is prevalent in Europe.
- Wheat: Once a wild grass, wheat has been consumed for thousands of years. Some ancient varieties such as einkorn and emmer (farro) are still consumed in Central Asia and Europe. Wheat is used to make bread, pasta, rolled into couscous, eaten as berries in pilafs or soups, cracked and served as bulgur, etc. Sadly, it is believed that modern wheat has contributed to the gluten intolerance we see affecting so many people today.
- Wild rice: Not technically a real rice, but a seed from aquatic plants that grow in the Great Lake regions. Collected by Native Americans using stick to beat the seeds into their boats, the rice is then dried by smoking it. Wild rice contains more protein that brown or white rice.
Whew, a lengthy list for sure. How many of these grains are you familiar with and have tried? You can buy all of them from Bob’s Red Mill or most of them in bulk from your local health food store.
Here’s more info on whole grains from The Daily Meal: http://www.thedailymeal.com/beyond-quinoa-7-new-whole-grains-try-slideshow
I’ll leave you with an easy recipe for bulgur wheat pilaf which I love to serve with Chicken Piccata. I know, it’s not traditionally Italian, but it sure is a delicious combination! A presto!
Chicken Piccata with Bulgur Pilaf (serves 4):
2 large lemons (preferably Meyer)
4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts sliced in half horizontally
Sea salt and black pepper to taste
1/2 cup unbleached all-purpose flour or rice flour (for gluten-free option)
4 tbs. olive oil
1 small shallot, minced
3 cups chicken stock, divided
2 tbs. small capers, drained (salted capers are best but need to be soaked first to remove excess salt)
4 tbs. unsalted butter, divided
4 tbs. minced fresh parsley leaves, divided
1 cup whole grain bulgur wheat
3 green onions, sliced on the diagonal
1. Halve one lemon pole to pole. Trim ends from one half and cut crosswise into slices 1/8 to 1/4 inch thick; set aside. Juice remaining half and whole lemon to obtain 1/4 cup juice; reserve.
2. Sprinkle both sides of cutlets generously with salt and pepper. Measure flour into pie tin or shallow baking dish. Working one cutlet at a time, coat with flour, and shake to remove excess.
3. Heat heavy-bottomed 12-inch skillet over medium-high heat until hot, about 2 minutes; add 2 tablespoons olive oil and swirl pan to coat. Lay half of chicken pieces in skillet. Sauté cutlets, without moving them, until lightly browned on first side, 2 to 2 1/2 minutes. Turn cutlets and cook until second side is lightly browned, 2 to 2 1/2 minutes longer. Transfer cutlets to a warm plate. Add remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil to skillet and heat until shimmering. Add remaining chicken pieces and repeat.
4. Add shallot to skillet on medium heat. Sauté until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add 1 cup stock and lemon slices, increase heat to high, and scrape skillet bottom with wooden spoon or spatula to loosen browned bits. Simmer until liquid reduces to about 1/3 cup, about 4 minutes. Add lemon juice and capers and simmer until sauce reduces again to 1/3 cup, about 1 minute. Remove pan from heat and swirl in 2 tbs. butter until butter melts and thickens sauce; swirl in 2 tbs. parsley. Spoon sauce over chicken and serve immediately.
5. Heat remaining 2 tbs. butter over medium heat in a saucepot. Add bulgur, pinch of salt, and toast 2-3 minutes. Add remaining 2 cups stock, bring to boil, reduce heat to low and cover. Cook until the liquid has absorbed; about 10-15 minutes. Fluff with a fork, add onion and 2 tbs. parsley and mix together. Serve with chicken.