Waves of Exotic Grains

As customers and chefs seek healthier menu optins, nontraditional grains such as quinoa, bulgur and others get more attention.

FoodService Director - ingredients - exotic grains - Cary Neff, MorrisonOperators like Chef Cary Neff, vice president of corporate culinary services for Atlanta- based Morrison Manage­ment Specialists, are highlighting exotic grains, such as bulgur, quinoa, wheatberry, farro and amaranth, on menus rather than proteins.

“We serve an artichoke and truffle risotto with pan-seared, naturally raised chicken and a lemon thyme pan gravy [but] the chicken is secondary,” Neff says. “For the risotto, which is a technique rather than a dish, we can use farro or barley. We also do butternut squash with farro and Brussels sprouts. We make the dish more affordable when the grain and the vegetable are three quarters of the dish. No one should eat a pound of meat.”

Chef Travis Perez of Feather River Hospital, a 101-bed cancer center and birthing facility in Paradise, Calif., believes the trend in the market toward a more general acceptance of grains is due to the increased education of the general public from magazine articles and TV cooking shows.

“Education has opened people’s perspective toward unaccustomed grains,” he says. “You don’t buy it unless you know what to do with it. When you see it prepared on TV you’re willing to try something new.”

Perez claims that grains are more popular at Feather River than at any other place he’s worked.

“We have a pretty unique clientele here, with lots of vegetarians; grains are more widely accepted,” he says. “We can serve a lot of great things here, from pilafs of bulgur, pearl barley or quinoa, to stuffing a bell pepper or squash. We also like to pair these with a legume for a balanced profile.”

FoodService Director - ingredients - exotic grains - Cary Neff, MorrisonThe hospital features whole-grain pasta at every station with choices of sauce like marinara, pesto or Alfredo.

“The wheat flour doesn’t have the gluten of the regular semolina pasta; it falls apart easily if overdone, but it goes over really well,” he says. “People are preferring a variety of foods in their diet more than ever. We also have a baker here who does a great job and is very willing to try healthier options. We make our own granola for hot cereals and parfaits. People say it’s so good they want us to package and market it. It has nuts, raisins and oatmeal, and we’re thinking of going to grapeseed oil because of the [added] health properties.”

Pam Edwards, assistant director of Dining Services at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln, also attests to the recent trend toward more grains.

“Society is more accepting today,” she says. “Ten years ago, we tried whole-wheat pasta and it was rejected. Now we have it at every station. It’s definitely become an easier sell. Some of the students who are a little older are more receptive, but it’s not just a niche, like vegetarians, it’s across the board.”

Edwards says the department makes a typical tabbouleh regularly, using bulgur, tomato, cucumber, parsley, onion, garlic, olive oil and lemon juice.

“We also use whole wheat, brown rice, couscous, quinoa and black wheatberry in salads, side dishes and different mixtures. With spinach or nuts, in breads, rolls and desserts, we serve them in a variety of ways,” she says. “I can’t say it’s saving money, but it’s something we’re encouraging because it’s about health. We’ve been in­forming the students about the nutrition of whole grains.”

The healthier option: Kurt Kwiatkowski, corporate chef of the Culinary Services division of Residential and Hospital­ity Services at Michigan State Uni­versity in East Lansing, cites health reasons for the recent growth in popularity of grains.

FoodService Director - ingredients - exotic grains - Cary Neff, Morrison“I believe that there is an increasing trend to use more grains in dishes as people look to healthier options, especially for vegetarians and vegans,” he says. “Barley seems to be the most popular with our guests at MSU. We use it on a regular basis in soups and side dishes for numerous entrées, but we are also using quinoa and bulgur in some of our vegetarian platforms. Several of our regular menu items also use red and white quinoa. We use quinoa in traditional pilafs and barley in soups, stuffings and risottos.”

Kwiatkowski promotes these exotic grains and other dishes through Michigan State University’s Health4U program, which involves a partnership between Culinary Services and the on-campus health center.

“This program features a different ingredient each month, and we serve a dish using the ingredient across campus in the dining halls,” he says. “Through the program, we have already featured barley in a risotto with shiitake mushrooms and basil pesto quinoa in the residential dining halls.”

Quinoa is an ancient grain that was known to the Incas as “the mother grain,” according to The New Food Lover’s Companion. Quinoa is considered the perfect grain because it contains all nine amino acids, making it a complete protein that also is gluten-free and high in fiber.

“We’ve been offering quinoa for about eight years, before it became popular; now it’s more mainstream,” says Julie Lampie, nutritionist and marketing specialist at Tufts University in Massachusetts. “We’re using it in stir-fry paired with pineapple and maple syrup. The sweetness gives it a nice flavor, so it is not as bitter as it can be.”

Lampie points out that all the grains the department uses are organic.

“People are interested in organic, and it doesn’t break the bank,” she says. “We like to pair grains and legumes, which are less expensive than meat and fish. We’ve been using bulgur and barley for many years, paired with mushrooms in pilaf and soups.”

Still, Lampie says, the healthier grains are slow to catch on.

“The more exotic grains are probably not embraced by the masses; it’s more the health conscious,” she says. “We [still] go through more white rice than brown rice, at maybe four to one.”

Gabriel Gomez, executive chef at Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center in Los Angeles, uses brown rice every day.

“People love brown rice,” he says. “We try wild rice mixed with another type of rice, like basmati, but customers don’t go for it. The favorite is brown rice and sometimes jasmine rice.”

Gomez also finds use for barley in soups and sides, with beans, like lentils or black barbecue beans.

“Grains are really good for you, especially brown rice, especially in hospitals,” he says. “We use brown rice in all the diets for patients.”

Education is key: Robert Serafin, foodservice director for Restaurant Associates at Random House in New York City, offers a self-serve grains and bean station.

“We serve four different salads every day,” he says. “We offer a variety of grains with marinated or roasted vegetables— bulgur, cracked wheat, wheatberries, black rice, red rice, wild rice, lentils, curried chickpea salads and tabbouleh. We’ve even used amaranth as a rice bowl.”

Serafin says education is key.

“Specific to our location, we have a high population of women, young, just out of college, book-savvy type people who are looking for organic, healthy food,” he says. “You can be very improvisational at these stations, and it makes you feel like you’re not weighed down. Sometimes, with meat and grease, you feel like there’s a brick in there.”

Peter Bove, executive chef of catering at New York University, also notices grains becoming a more popular choice.

“People are looking for a healthier form of living,” he says. “We have to get away from the more typical starches, like barley as an alternative for rice, for use in risotto. Quinoa is a good filler in wrap sandwiches. We also do a grilled lamb loin with toasted wheatberry, kale, succotash and a pepper sauce.”

Among the more exotic dishes Bove prepares is a quinoa salad with citrus, chunked Parmesan, jicama, cherry tomato and shredded radish inside a Boston lettuce cup.

Karen Dougherty, manager of the Wellness Information and Nutrition Program at Yale University in New Haven, Conn­., acknowledges that grains go a long way in satisfying vegetarians.

“They get tired of hummus, peanut butter and tofu,” Dougherty says. “We started using farro to make the menu more culturally diverse and we use barley on a regular basis in soups and side dishes for numerous entrées. Quinoa is popular with students in general but especially the vegetarians. It’s very nutritious, and the students recognize that and appreciate that we serve it. We’ve served it like a pilaf with almonds, roasted veggies, asparagus, black bean and corn or with mangoes. Rice is an accompaniment with meat, fish and poultry; quinoa is an entrée.”

Not always easy: For Dianne Wortz, project manager for Nutrition Services at St. Paul (Minn.) Public Schools, grains are a tough sell.

“Pushing whole grains on kids is challenging,” she says. “Integrating something new, from a practical standpoint, is always difficult. We use whole grains now in our bakery and were able to come up with a pizza crust. There wasn’t much complaining because the ultragrain doesn’t change the color or texture.”

Wortz also told of a contest that included the student selection of a grain dish out of three choices. Pitted against tabbouleh and wheatberry pilaf, the corn and barley ensalada with cilantro, lime was the popular choice.

The infiltration of grains into the diet has been an act of frustration for other operators, as well.

“Customers want healthy choices, but at the end of the day they’re not ordering healthy choices; they’re buying what they want to eat instead of what they should be eating,” says Lee Raynor, head chef at Shands Hospital in Gainesville, Fla. “We’ve done tabbouleh with Greek salad, but it doesn’t do very well. We do fried chicken and they eat the heck out of it. For us, it’s like forcing people to eat healthy. There’s just not that big of a demand.”