#1 – Rye – Healthy, Sharp and Filling
Isn’t it funny how so many of our best foods were once considered food for the poor? Tomatoes, potatoes and rye are on that list. Perhaps it’s rye’s distinctively sharp flavor that prompted the Roman philosopher and author Pliny the Elder to call it food “only fit to avert starvation.” Alas, rye has always had its detractors but it’s long been a staple from Germany through Poland, Ukraine and into central and northern Russia. It’s extremely nutritious with close to 50% your RDA or iron and has lots of those hard to get minerals and vitamins like selenium, phosphorous, magnesium, copper and zinc. One serving even has 4 grams, 8% of RDA protein and 28% insoluble fiber, meaning you’ll probably want to add it to the holiday table to stave off the holiday bloat.
Boil some whole rye and all you need is the time it takes to boil it (about an hour) and a little imagination. It’s very satisfying thanks to all that fiber and that sharp distinctive rye flavor we’ve come to know from the bread is very much a characteristic of the grain. If you’re nuts that rye flavor, try toasting it with a little peanut oil and maybe add a little garlic and onion. After that, just add water and simmer just as you would most any other grain. You can serve it as is, spiced up with maybe a little chopped flat leaf parsley and fresh cracked black pepper or really make it sing by pairing it with anything dark and green like cooked spinach, kale, broccoli rabe, mustard greens, rapini, you get the gist. Rye works perfectly with the soy and umami flavors of Asian cuisine. Want to do a chop suey sans the noodles? Throw some cooked rye in that wok and just a dash of sesame oil along with your vegetables. Or, go for a full on taste explosion by tossing it with some fresh arugula, dried apricots, slivered almonds and a few dried cherries.
#2 – Millet – Plays Well with Others
Not into rye’s acerbic personality? Try millet. This ancient, and I mean ancient grain is probably the earliest of cultivated grains in human history. It was downright sacred in China and is mentioned in the writings of ancient Greek philosopher Herodotus, the Old Testament and the writings of Marco Polo! Had enough of the history lesson?
If you want to improve your diet and/or have a sensitive stomach, millet is definitely one grain you’re going to want to look into. It has a mild flavor that can go sweet or savory and it’s also gluten free so that should make everyone pretty happy. You can do virtually anything from hot cereal with honey and raisins to fritters with roasted peppers to vegetable stew with millet in lieu of noodles. You can even make Spinach and Lemon Arancini, cute little Italian balls, usually made of risotto. Perfect for entertaining too!
#3 – Farro – The Classic
Rumor has it farro also spelled faro and farrow is the very thing the Roman armies subsisted on in times of war. Most likely, our aforementioned Pliny the Elder ate farro too! Full of protein(7 grams per serving) and magnesium, this ancient grain comes in a close second to rye in terms of nutritional value alone. As for the flavor, it’s has a mildly nutty wheat flavor, since it is part of the wheat family. It goes with anything, from sweet to savory. Modern day Italians mix it with rice or use it in lieu of rice. It’s also a common ingredient in soups, stews and porridge. Cooked in water or chicken or vegetable stock, farro makes a wonderful salad with fresh mozzarella balls, plum tomatoes, basil, salt, olive oil and maybe a few capers or olives. You can combine it with cubed carrots and peas or serve it with black beans and cooked greens for a complete, super healthy meal.
If you want a bit more dimension to your farro, you may want to try the one sold by Anson Mills. They slow roast a particular long-grained variety of farro to replicate an age old threshing process whereby the outer hull was removed by dragging and smacking the long grains of wheat over a burning fire. Uh… probably NOT something you’d want to try at home! Long time farro lover that I am, I’ve already written up a slew on this still under represented grain at this blogpost. I’ve also started making my Christmas Porridge* (an old Ukrainian recipe) with farro since no one can agree which wheat berries are the most traditional and I find farro to be the most consistent and have the best flavor.
#4 – Buckwheat – The Iconoclast
Did you know buckwheat isn’t a wheat? In fact it isn’t even a grain. Technically it’s the fruit or seed of the beech tree, a close relative to rhubarb and sorrel. It’s loaded with all the essential amino acids and has 6 grams of protein per serving and is known to reduce high cholesterol. It’s also gluten-free, safe even for people with celiac disease, making it an ideal substitute for other grains. Toast it and it’s got lots of nutty flavor too, so basically it’s in a class of its own.
You can plop buckwheat into the slow cooker on low and cook in water and condensed milk for a creamy breakfast. Add raisins, nuts and honey and you’ll have lots of complex carbs and protein to keep you going strong for hours. For dinner, try using buckwheat as a stuffing for bell peppers, tomatoes or even pumpkins or acorn squash. Cubes of sweet squash complement the nutty flavor of buckwheat beautifully as does fennel, parsley, celery and frisée. Also look for kasha which is nothing more than buckwheat that’s already been toasted. Recipes are abundant so have fun getting to know your buckwheat!
#5 – Barley – Heartsmart
A recent USDA study found that participants who ate a half-cup serving of whole grain barley during a 5-week period lowered their cholesterol levels by nearly 10% as compared to participants who didn’t include barley in their diets. Studies are also being done on barley and oats to see if they can help correct hyperinsulinemia, a condition that occurs when the body produces too much insulin after eating. Better yet, whole grain barley is the quintessential fall and winter grain. Beef and barley stew is one satisfyingly traditional way to make the most of it. Barley is also enjoyed throughout the Mediterranean and Middle East, so yes, you can make it like tabouli with diced flat leaf parsley, diced tomatoes, lemon juice and kosher salt. Do that and you’ve got one easy, healthy side or top it with chicken or steak and dinner is served!
Sources: History of Millet from Bob’s Red Mill at https://www.bobsredmill.com/hulled-millet.html
*Kutya Kutya– Eastern European Christmas Porridge