Grains to grace our dinner plates: from farro to freekeh

by Tom Moggach

Until recently, a pile of boiled white rice was perhaps the most far-flung carb to grace our dinner plates. The humble potato was our everyday staple, easily grown in British fields.

But now this culinary landscape is changing, as wholegrains and seeds such as quinoa, buckwheat, millet, amaranth, freekeh and farro jostle for our hungry attention.

Demand is soaring for these on-trend ingredients. Prices of quinoa, for example, have tripled since 2006. TV chefs excitedly laud their virtues and wholegrains feature on the menu of many a fashionable restaurant.

Chef Simon Rogan, whose L’Enclume restaurant was recently voted Best Restaurant in Observer Food Monthly, makes a divine millet pudding (a kind of risotto), with grains, burnt pear and Isle of Mull blue cheese.

Anthony Demetre of Arbutus, another huge fan, has created both a quinoa ice cream and buckwheat ravioli, while Yottam Ottolenghi works his magic with the grains in his various bestselling cookbooks.

Grains are good for you

So what are their virtues? Well, their exotic diversity is obviously part of the appeal. Wholegrains have been humble foods for millennia in different corners of the world, each forming a cornerstone of the daily diet.

Moreover, the grains are extremely healthy. “They are superfoods which are very high in nutrients and are a healthier option to rice, potatoes, couscous and pasta,” explains Martin Morales, a Peruvian chef, restaurateur and author of Ceviche (Weidenfeld & Nicholson, £25).

As their name suggests, the grains are brought to market without the refining process that is common with many modern foods.

“We are gradually becoming more aware of the benefits of eating wholegrains over processed ones that have often lost many of their nutrients during refining,” confirms Ghillie James, author of Amazing Grains (Kyle Books, £25).

She notes that grains are also easy and versatile to cook. As a rule of thumb, just rinse two or three times to remove any dust and excess starch. Then cook according to the packet instructions ( typically at a simmer in boiling water) before draining. They can also be cooked in stock for extra flavour.

Another benefit of wholegrains is that they maintain their bite after cooking, unlike overcooked rice and can be cooked in advance and then refrigerated before serving, dressing or reheating.

Serving suggestions

“Wholegrains really soak up flavours,” says James, so one tip is to dress them in a high quality oil, such as extra virgin olive oil, as a foundation before then adding other ingredients.

“Be generous with your dressings,” she says. “Feel free to [mix] them earlier in the day to let the flavours really mingle. Add your chopped herbs just before serving to prevent them from going brown.”

At Morales’ Ceviche restaurant in London, one of his most popular dishes is a quinoa salad seasoned with red onion, tomato, lime juice, chilli and coriander, then layered with avocado and butter beans and surrounded by a sweet physalis coulis.

You can also sauté cooked grains to serve warm, adding spices, garlic, onion, herbs or any extras that you fancy.

“We are at the beginning of learning how quinoa, cañigua and kiwicha can be used,” believes Martin Morales, and the same can be said of all these wonderful grains.

Try these

Here’s a breakdown of some to try:

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1. Quinoa

Pronounced ‘keen-wah’, this grain from Peru is one the most protein-rich foods available, with all eight essential amino acids, healthy fats, antioxidants and double the fibre of most grains. It is also gluten free. Red and black quinoa are now the height of foodie fashion.

2. Buckwheat

Typically grown in the countries of the former Soviet Union, this gluten-free seed is excellent made into an alternative porridge. The flour is used to make Japanese soba noodles and Russian blinis. Try dry toasting it first to intensify the taste.

3. Millet

This small, firm yellow grain is delicious in a risotto or cooked in the same way as rice. Again, dry-toasting before cooking is recommended.

4. Amaranth

Known as ‘kiwicha’ in Peru, this grain is high in vitamins A, C and E, gluten-free, and helps to lower cholesterol. It is also widely used in Mexican cuisine, where it is sometimes popped, like popcorn, and mixed with honey and spices.

5. Freekeh

Pronounced ‘free-kah’, this is young green wheat dried in the sun then set on fire to clean off the chaff – hence its lovely smokey taste. It often features in Middle Eastern cuisine.

6. Farro

A nutty grain sometimes used in Italian dishes and popular with the Ancient Romans, try in a salad with roasted vegetables or add to stews and soups.

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