Get to Know 6 Great Grains
If you're still spreading peanut butter and jelly on colorless Wonder bread or heaping your stir-fry on top of a pile of Uncle Ben's, it's time to wean yourself off the refined stuff and explore whole grains. Kudos to you if you've already made this trade-in; whole grains are higher in nutrients and will raise your blood glucose less than their refined counterparts do. Plus, unlike refined grains, they may protect your heart and help you maintain weight loss.
The reason for the nutritional disparity between refined carbohydrates and whole grains lies in the processing. Whole grains contain an outer bran layer, a middle endosperm, and inner germ, but refined grains are stripped of everything—including protein and many key nutrients—save for the endosperm. Because they're less processed, whole grains have a lower glycemic index value than refined grains.
Another point in the whole-grains column is their relatively high fiber content, which can help lower cholesterol levels, control blood glucose, and keep you feeling full long after eating. "It's really important to eat foods that are going to fill you up and not leave you hungry an hour later," so you don't binge post-meal, says Elisa Zied, MS, RD, CDN, a registered dietitian-nutritionist and author of the book Nutrition at Your Fingertips. Zied suggests gradually replacing your current processed foods, such as regular pretzels, with whole grains like air-popped popcorn (sans butter, of course, and not the microwave stuff). "You just really have to be aware," she says. "You need to think, 'Where am I willing to compromise?' "
Simple and Easy
|Many of these grains can be cooked just as you prepare rice. To do this, boil water or stock—look to your grain's packaging for grain-to-liquid ratios since adding too much water can turn your dish into porridge. Once the liquid has come to a boil, add the grains and turn the heat to simmer. After several minutes (see the cooking times, below), the grain should absorb most of the liquid. Fluff the grain with a fork and serve.|
|Bulgur||10 to 15 minutes|
Spend an afternoon at the grocery store, and you'll soon learn that many packaged products claim the health benefits of whole grains. But remember: Just because a brand advertises whole grains doesn't mean you're getting any benefit. Plenty of products use the expression "made from whole grains" as a marketing ploy when they really contain insignificant amounts. Another buzzword you can forget: multigrain. The term may be describing a product made with a handful of different refined grains. To know you're truly getting a whole-grain product, look for the words whole grain before the first ingredient listed. If a product says it's made with 100 percent whole wheat or stone-ground whole wheat (describing how the grain was milled), you're most likely getting a true whole-grain product.
Subbing whole wheat bread for white—or whole wheat crackers for regular—is a good first start. The next step is to fill your daily carbohydrate allotment with fruits and whole grains instead of refined carbs. Doing so doesn't have to be boring. A number of grains are experiencing somewhat of a revival, which means you're not limited to brown rice. Part of the fun is in taste-testing new grains, learning to cook them in innovative ways, and discovering how to replace old standbys with these healthier alternatives. "It's an adventure," says Robin Asbell, a private chef in Minneapolis and author of The New Whole Grains Cookbook. "I think we all get stuck in ruts eating foods over and over. Life is boring enough already without limiting your food. You'd be surprised with how different all of [the grains] taste and how different they are."
If you don't know buckwheat from bulgur, read on for information about some of the lesser-known grains (and a few pseudocereals) that you'll love to cook with.
The burgundy amaranth plant was a major crop of the ancient Aztecs, but it virtually vanished until the 1970s. Today, the plant's tiny blond seeds are reappearing as an alternative to cereal grains like wheat and oats (amaranth is a pseudocereal, but thanks to its high protein content and similar use, it's often grouped in the same category). The slightly grassy, earthy flavor is somewhat stronger than that of rice, so it helps to use flavorful spices when cooking with amaranth. "You can toast it to bring out a more nutty, toasted flavor. Just swirl it in a dry skillet [before cooking]," says Asbell.
• Key nutrients: The seeds are between 14 and 16 percent protein, packed with the amino acid lysine, and have about 8 grams of fiber per cooked cup. They're also gluten free.
• How to cook with it: Amaranth seeds can often be sticky, so they're not ideal for a pilaf dish. Instead, Asbell suggests using them as a thickener in soups or cooking them as a breakfast porridge. She also creates a half-amaranth polenta, mixing it with millet or corn. You can pop the seeds to create a smaller-than-popcorn snack. Or try amaranth flour in cookies, breads, and muffins—just be sure to mix it with wheat flour since the grain is gluten free and won't rise.
It's likely you first tasted buckwheat flour in a pancake. But the crop—a pseudocereal that's really part of the rhubarb family—is also what gives Japanese soba noodles, French crepes, and the Russian porridge kasha their wheaty taste. "It's got a really strong flavor," says Asbell. "It's a little stronger than whole wheat flour. It's a wonderful, toasty flavor."
• Key nutrients: Buckwheat has a high amino acid content and delivers 230 milligrams of potassium and about 6 grams of protein per cup. It is also gluten free.
• How to cook with it: Next time you bake bread or muffins, or cook waffles, substitute half of your recipe's whole wheat flour with buckwheat flour. Buckwheat groats—the plant's seeds—are perfect for pilaf-type dishes. Asbell suggests sautéing the groats in a pan before cooking to amplify the flavor. "Substitute them freely for rice in almost any recipe," says Rebecca Wood, author of The Splendid Grain, who uses the groats in stir-fries.
A favorite in the Middle East, bulgur is a type of cracked wheat kernel that has been precooked and dried. The resulting grain is light tan in color, slightly chewy, with a mild flavor that works well with many dishes.
• Key nutrients: Bulgur packs a lot of fiber per cup (about 8 grams) and close to 6 grams of protein.
• How to cook with it: "Bulgur is very versatile. You can pretty much use it in anything," says Asbell. "It's a classic for tabbouleh and salad." For a quick, pilaf-type meal, Asbell suggests adding sautéed onion to bulgur cooked in chicken stock. Or top a green salad with a heaping portion of fluffy bulgur.
Millet is a staple in much of the world, but in America it's typically used as bird feed. That said, the grain is making a resurgence with humans who appreciate its high protein content and versatility. "It's very mild and soft. It's yellow. It's very pretty," says Asbell.
• Key nutrients: Millet is high in protein (about 6 grams per cooked cup) and gluten free.
• How to cook with it: Its mild flavor means you can cook millet in many ways, so feel free to use your imagination. Boil it with plenty of water and you'll have an oatmeal-type porridge. Use less water and you'll make pilaf. "It makes a wonderful polenta. It's delicious and so much better for you" than traditional corn polenta, says Wood, whose favorite use of millet is alongside buckwheat in a breakfast waffle. "Why limit yourself to pasta and bread?" she asks. "Millet [and] all of these grains have such a venerable history."
Though quinoa (pronounced KEEN-wah) was used centuries ago by the Incas and continues to be a staple of the South American diet, it only started gaining traction in the United States about three decades ago. Since then, the United Nations has praised the crop's ample protein content, and Americans have fallen for its mild, nutty flavor and quick preparation. If you've yet to cultivate a fondness for ancient crops, try quinoa—a pseudocereal that's a relative of Swiss chard and beets—which is a great gateway "grain."
• Key nutrients: Quinoa packs about 8 grams of protein per cooked cup. And, because it contains all nine essential amino acids, it's a complete protein. It's also gluten free.
• How to cook with it: If you can whip up a bowl of rice, you can cook quinoa—it's often eaten as a pilaf and cooks just as quickly. In the past, you'd have had to wash the grains under water before cooking to remove a bitter residue that surrounds each seed. But according to Wood and Asbell, most of the quinoa for sale today has been prewashed to avoid the inconvenient step. You can get creative by trying a recipe Asbell created, which substitutes quinoa for typical breadcrumbs: Dip shrimp in egg, coat with partially cooked quinoa, and bake. As an alternative to pilaf, look for quinoa flakes that you can add to hot cereal or use flakes to create homemade granola.
Many Ethiopians live off this grain, which they use as flour to create a traditional flatbread. The poppy seed–sized seeds are increasingly appearing stateside, thanks to their sweet flavor. "It's incredibly rich, almost chocolate-like. It's wonderfully complex," says Wood, who uses teff flour in baking.
• Key nutrients: The grain is high in iron and contains 90 milligrams of calcium and nearly 10 grams of protein per cooked cup. Teff is a gluten-free grain.
• How to cook with it: The miniature grain's chocolaty flavor is ideal for a cream-of-wheat-type porridge, which Asbell spikes with sweetener and fresh fruit. You can also use teff to create polenta, or sprinkle the raw seeds into baked goods as you would poppy seeds. Baking breads, muffins, and cakes with teff flour changes the flavor of foods that call for traditional wheat flour.
These grains may not all be available at your local supermarket, but you should be able to find most at natural foods stores or online (try Bob's Red Mill or Homegrown Harvest). Once you've purchased a grain—or two or three—you plan to try, make sure you properly store it. Asbell suggests keeping grains in a heavy Ziploc bag or sealed jar away from heat. Store them in your freezer or refrigerator to keep them fresh for up to a year.
Still not ready to create a dish made from one of these ancient staples? "Think of all of these grains like potatoes: You can do a thousand things with potatoes; it depends on how you want to eat them," says Wood. "Think of them as a basic staple that can be used in an endless variety of ways. Eat them plain or embellish them; it's up to you."