Amaranth, barley, buckwheat, bulgur, lentils, chia seeds, couscous, cracked wheat, freekeh, millet, oats, polenta, quinoa. Do you ever get the impression that today’s modern quest for the next gluten-free “super-food” is to leave no grain unturned?
These simple grains are not exactly ‘new’, having been around for over 3,000 years, but I really don’t see them going out of fashion.
There are a number of compelling reasons for this.
For one, these types of grains are exceptionally versatile for salads, burgers, falafel, risotto, pilaf, granola or breakfast bars. Nutritionally, they are high in fibre, packed with protein, vitamins and minerals including vitamin E, zinc, iron and a wide range of antioxidants. Thirdly, they can often leave people feeling energized, can prevent anemia and improve digestion. So it’s a ‘win-win’ – both for vegetarians or vegans and also for meat eaters who want to cut down on their meat intake, whilst still getting the required nutrients.
The book ‘Amazing Grains’ by Ghillie James is a great resource for looking at the history of grain production. James describes each grain in excellent detail, from amaranth to wheat berries, and offers up some fantastic recipes too, both savoury and sweet. After looking through this book I thought I’d pen a blog post around two or three of the main ingredients. But which ones? There are so many!
What about ‘Teff’ – the world’s smallest grain, also the National staple of Ethiopia, used to make the Ethiopian injera bread… Or the fantastically named ‘Freekeh’ – an ancient Arabic grain made from green wheat… Or perhaps the more mainstream and recognisable ‘Couscous’ – which I love; mainly for the fact that it comes in two varieties: normal couscous or ‘Giant’ couscous. The taste isn’t bad either.
All of the above are worth a look.
Upon reflection, though, I thought I’d focus on two of my favourite: lentils (technically described as a ‘pulse’) and quinoa (pronounced ‘keen-wa’)
I eat lentils all year round but I find them to be especially valuable in winter when fresh home grown vegetables aren’t so abundant. My favourite variety are french puy lentils or lentils de puy. These tiny, mottled, greeny-blue flying saucers have a distinctive earthy flavour and incomparable nutty texture. Lentils are fantastic in a stew alongside sausages and bacon, in savoury vegetable casseroles, soups, pies or simply as a side dish for fish or chicken (see ‘Salmon’ blog post, 11th Nov, for green lentils and fish recipe).
For me, one of the best uses for lentils is part of a creamy Indian dal formed with sautéed onion, garlic, peppers, Indian spices (coriander, cumin and turmeric) and fresh yoghurt.
Nutritionally, lentils contain a higher vitamin and protein content than all other pulses save for soy. They are fantastic for impromptu meals, last for ages in the cupboard, are easy to cook and Hugh Fearnly-Whittingstall is a fan. Now there’s a solid endorsement if ever you need one.
Quinoa is a wholegrain originating from South America, commercially available in most UK supermarkets in white, red and black varieties.
Nutritionally, quinoa’s credentials are beyond reproach. As well as containing a good carbohydrate source, quinoa also helps to meet your daily needs for protein, fiber and B vitamins. It is gluten-free, cholestoral-free and yet contains the highest protein count* of any grain; often being described as “the complete protein” – meaning that it contains all 9 amino acids that cannot be produced by the body, and so must come from food.
*Approximate values of protein per 100g is around 14g (compared to 9g for lentils)
The early Andean people called it “the mother grain” and it’s not hard to see why.
Preparation-wise quinoa can be boiled like rice or barley. It’s always important to rinse in cold water before cooking to remove any dirt from the grains. The end result (after boiling for 20 minutes) reveals an interesting texture. There is a softness not unlike oatmeal; and yet a hardness like brown rice. The first time I tried quinoa I was a little disappointed. It was bland and tasted like some sort of couscous-laden gruel.
Then I got a bit more creative with it (see recipe ideas below).
Some recipe ideas:
- Mix with other grains to make a salad: quinoa goes very well alongside black lentils and pumpkin seeds, with a creamy goats cheese or Greek feta to add creaminess.
- Use as a replacement for rice or bread: in a pilaf or risotto; or for breadcrumbs as a topping or coating for Cauliflower cheese, respectively.
- Keeping it simple: Use alongside some roasted vegetables and a drizzle of olive oil.
The recipe below lends a great combination of flavours, textures and ingredients to make a healthy lunch or supper. I can’t wait to dive in!
Quinoa with black beans, courgette and grilled Halloumi
The quinoa and beans lend a nice punch of protein to this salad alongside the sweet tomatoes, walnuts and ‘squeeky’ halloumi cheese.
Serves 1 – 2
- 75g quinoa
- 75g black eyed beans
- 1 large courgette, cut into 1cm thick ‘strips’
- 1 tbsp white wine vinegar
- 1 tbsp olive oil
- 2 salad tomatoes, quartered
- 2 spring onions, thinly sliced
- a handful of walnuts
- 1 red chilli, finely chopped
- 100g halloumi cheese, sliced
- salt and pepper
- Cook the quinoa and black eyed beans following the pack instructions then drain and rinse under cold water. Drain again.
- ‘Top and tail’ the ends off the courgette, cut into slices. Slice the halloumi cheese to a similar thickness as the courgette.
- Heat 1 tbsp of oil in a medium pan to a medium-high heat and fry the courgette and halloumi for around 5 minutes each, turning continuously to prevent the cheese from burning.
- Whisk together the vinegar with the remaining oil and season to taste.
- Put the rest of the ingredients in a large bowl, then pour over the dressing and toss everything together.