Getting to Know Grains

Exotic grains are becoming familiar at many non-commercial operations.

Flik's black wild rice and cranberry salad.

Exotic grains are undergoing a kind of renaissance due to their healthy qualities and versatility. Also called heirlooms, these nutrition-packed grains—amaranth, teff, quinoa, spelt, millet, wheatberry, barley, bulgur, farro and buckwheat—are being repurposed on dining menus across the country.

Quinoa contains all eight essential amino acids and is high in fiber, so it enables the body to release carbohydrates more slowly, says Jacqueline Sikoski, manager of Nutrition Services and Diabetes Center at Bozeman Deaconess Hospital in Montana.

“All of that is good for people who need to manage their blood sugars,” Sikoski says. “It’s a powerhouse heirloom grain that can be served as a protein replacement.”

The hospital is trying to meet standards set by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the U.S. Department of Agriculture in their 2010 Dietary Guidelines, which recommend that 50% of all grains eaten daily be whole grains. Bozeman Deaconess Hospital is chasing that goal by always having a whole-grain alternative on hand to make it a convenient choice, Sikoski says. “People are more likely to buy [whole grains] prepared rather than cook them,” she adds.

Quinoa is currently on the menu at the hospital’s café, The Bistro, and eventually will be on the patient menu as well, she says. The Bistro serves a teriyaki-glazed grilled salmon with quinoa and roasted vegetables that typically sells out. The department also offers pork tenderloin or fish with a side of quinoa pilaf. Quinoa is served plain and as part of a pilaf as a substitute for rice two to three times a month. Its nutty flavor makes it tasty alone, or it can be made with chicken broth and mixed with fine aromatics like onion and garlic to enhance the flavor.

Grain on the brain: At the University of Colorado at Boulder Paul Houle, executive chef de cuisine, says quinoa and bulgur are student favorites. That is why Sous Chef Ken Davis, known around the CU kitchens as “The Grainiac,” has revamped the campus’s central dining area to add a special Grains and Wholesome Options area to the salad bar.

CU-Boulder serves three different exotic grain salads daily including quinoa, both natural and red, bulgur and barley. One dish, a fruity quinoa with almond salad, includes quinoa mixed with bits of papaya, pineapple, strawberries and grapes, flavored with orange juice, lime juice and sugar, topped with toasted almonds and chopped fresh mint leaves.

Davis also is looking into kasha (or buckwheat), as the weather turns colder because of its heartiness. Davis likes to pair kasha with beaten egg to bind it. He adds that to sautéed onions for flavor and mixes in braised red cabbage, shredded apple, thyme, allspice, red wine and garlic.

At Yale University in New Haven, Conn., students are beginning to favor quinoa and farro over rice, barley and wheatberry, says Debbie Ruocco, head pantry worker. She and her colleague, Sally Notarino, also head pantry worker, developed new recipes for the fall menu cycle at Yale’s 12 undergraduate dining halls by offering salads with grains as part of an initiative to raise vegetable consumption by 50% by 2020.

At least one exotic grain salad is served daily containing farro, quinoa, rice, barley, tabbouleh or wheatberry.

Farro, an ancient Italian grain, has a meaty, chewy texture perfect for roasted vegetables like eggplant, red onion, fresh grape tomatoes, fresh basil and fresh parsley sourced from local suppliers, Ruocco adds. A student favorite is Ensalada de Farro, which includes tomatoes and fennel.

Whole grains and exotic grains are a huge part of the “Slow Cuisine” food lunch program at Flik Inde-
pendent Schools Dining, based in Ryebrook, N.Y., where dining focuses on scratch cooking.

Two Flik-managed schools won top awards last year at the Whole Grains Council’s Whole Grains Challenge, in which original recipes were judged for quality, creativity and special efforts to encourage whole-grain consumption. Executive Chef Joseph Landa of The Jewish Theological Seminary, New York, received the top honor for his Asian wheatberry salad with carrot and ginger, which was made with cooked wheatberries, soy sauce, sesame oil, rice vinegar, Sriracha sauce, ginger, garlic, red and green bell peppers, onions, carrots and grape tomatoes. Executive Chef Erasmo Mejia of The Village Community School, in New York, took second place with a Canadian black wild rice and cranberry salad, featuring diced zucchini, yellow squash, red and green peppers, onion and a dressing of lemon juice, olive oil, salt, oregano and garlic.

Adding beans for punch: Restaurant Associates has assembled a food program that features grains and beans as part of its salad bar for its
100-plus New York City area clients, says Tim Buma, director of culinary operations.

Buma serves three types of quinoa: regular or tan-colored, red and black. RA chefs like to experiment with millet and wheatberry. “In most applications a chef will mix wheatberry with some dressing or herbs [and add that to items such as] artichoke, pepper and edamame and make a nice salad out of it,” Buma says.

For an alternative to hamburger patties, Buma will take farro and toasted millet and cook them, then mash that together with Yukon gold potatoes. After adding chopped red and green bell peppers, carrots, beet greens and diced pear, he spices the mixture with garlic, salt and pepper and binds it all with a whole fresh egg and forms it into patties. Each patty is pan fried with olive oil until golden brown.

Grain innovation: Chefs at Goucher College in Towson, Md., pair grains with heirloom legumes, says Norman Zwagil, resident district manager for Bon Appétit. The school is currently sourcing quinoa, teff, farro and red quinoa and serving them with legumes in the residential dining hall. Goucher’s culinary staff also is sourcing local organic spelt for a Middle Eastern-style bread and is working with local Stonemill Bakery to develop sandwich bread from the same grain.