A Whole New Scene Grain Gourmet

Pop Quiz: 1. The develop- ment of civilization began ____ years ago in the Middle East, when people discovered it was possible to cultivate and harvest ___________. 2. __________ are grown on more than half the arable land on earth. 3. Almost half of the ____________ crop in America is used for brewing beer. 4. The ability to grow enough ___________ to feed its population is the barometer of a nation's viability.

If you answered "10,000," "grains," "grains," "barley," and "grains," then you are very knowledgeable about the Newest In Thing. Haven't you noticed the change in restaurant side dishes in the past couple of years? What was almost always potatoes or the occasional ho-hum rice pilaf has become risotto, polenta and grits, couscous, bulgur, quinoa, barley, and amaranth. Grains are not just boring, high-fiber dishes in vegetarian restaurants or fillers in the bulk bins at health food stores. Interesting, tasty, and healthy grain dishes have moved right out into the center of the plate.

There are two prominent reasons for this change, and they are closely connected. First, the average American consumer has become more health conscious in the past few years. The recent popularity of the healthy cuisines of the Mediterranean rim, with their reliance on grain dishes, is reason number two. Regular publicity about the incredibly low incidence of heart disease and increased longevity of peoples in the Mediterranean rim has made the American public more curious about eating grains.

Not all the "new" grains are Mediterranean in origin, of course. Corn, quinoa, and amaranth were all staples of ancient New World cultures, with the last two returning to prominence only in recent years. Known as the Incan "supergrain," quinoa comes closer than any other food to providing all the nutritional elements needed to sustain life. Though it is really the fruit of an herb, quinoa falls into the grain category and can be purchased in both flour and whole-grain forms. It's a good wheat substitute for allergy sufferers because it's gluten-free.

The Spanish conquerors of Mexico did their best to destroy the Aztec amaranth crop, which was believed to have mystical powers to produce a race of warriors that could not be vanquished. Cortez's obliteration of amaranth is considered by many historians to mark the end of the Aztec empire. However, the truly amazing power of amaranth is the fact that it sprouts indefinitely. Seeds recovered from thousand-year-old Aztec ruins have set down roots in this country. The Greek root for "amaranth" means "immortal," and the resurgence of high-protein grain would seem to indicate that Cortez was ultimately the one who was vanquished. An all-purpose grain, amaranth can be milled into flour, made into pasta or breakfast cereal, and even popped like corn.

Imagine the surprise of most Southerners when they are first served an elegant polenta dish in an Italian restaurant only to discover they are basically eating grits! But why should we be surprised that the cornmeal mush that has always been the comfort food of the American South would comfort Italians equally as well? Various polenta dishes can be found on Austin restaurant tables, from fried polenta sticks with fresh tomato sauces to the serving of creamy polenta in a pool of red pepper coulis that I fell in love with the first time I ate at Louie's 106.

If you're trying to make good polenta at home, remember these tips from cooking teacher Joanne Weir's excellent From Tapas to Meze (Crown, $27.50 hard). She suggests the following: Use a ratio of four cups of water to one cup polenta and cook in a very heavy pot. Bring salted water to a boil and stir or whisk with one hand as you pour the grain into the pot in a steady stream. Once the mixture boils, reduce heat and stir periodically with a wooden spoon until the polenta thickens to the point that the spoon will stand alone. Mangia, y'all.

I owe my introduction to cooking grains to the late Bert Greene, food writer, cookbook author, raconteur, and all-around great guy. The Grains Cookbook (Workman, $25 hard), published after his death, inspired me to try grain dishes I'd never heard of and many that I had previously considered boring health-food fare. All his books are wonderful in that way; his love for cooking is infectious and his avuncular style just invites you right into the kitchen. I tried kasha, bulgur, millet, quinoa, and amaranth on Bert's recommendation. If you are looking for new and delicious ways to get grain dishes on to your family table, The Grains Cookbook is a wonderful place to start.

While most of the barley grown in this country ends up in beer or livestock feed and most of the millet crop is still fed to birds, there are plenty of recipes that will bring them both to your table. Most of the barley eaten in this country is pearl barley, the hulled and polished endosperm of the grain. While the refining process robs barley of some of its nutritional value, a cup of cooked pearl barley will provide you with the same amount of nutrition as a glass of milk with a ration of niacin, thiamin, and potassium thrown in for good measure. Pearl barley makes a good pantry staple that will keep several months in an airtight container.

Until recently, the only people of my acquaintance who actually cooked millet were two friends who cook it for their pets. It just isn't all that well-known or popular in Western diets, but it is a vital crop in China, Africa, and India. The research for this article turned up so much millet information that I was inspired to try it myself with pleasant results. The good news is that millet is rich in phosphorous, iron, calcium, riboflavin, niacin, and the amino acid lysine, a necessary element for the immune system of the human body.

Bulgur wheat is not an entirely new grain to the American palate. For many years now, variations on tabbouleh, a Middle Eastern grain dish with scallions, mint, and tomatoes, have been popular in delis and health food stores. My current favorite bulgur dish is the bulgur wheat with vegetables served at Ararat, a satisfying dish for vegetarians and meat-eaters alike.

Couscous, while primarily a Middle Eastern and Mediterranean dish, is showing up in local restaurants. Recently, the most complete dining experience I've had in Austin this year featured couscous as a side dish with a perfectly cooked lamb loin at Jeffrey's. The couscous controversy I've found in cookbooks and magazines of late deals with the relative merits of regular couscous, which requires a lengthy steaming process, as opposed to instant couscous, which can be reconstituted very quickly in boiling stock or water. I've come to depend on couscous plain as a side dish, tossed with marinated vegetables in a cold salad or cooked with vegetables in a casserole. I'll have to admit that, expert opinion notwithstanding, I always go the instant route.

Italian food may not be the first cuisine that comes to mind when the subject turns to rice, but Italians love their risottos made only with short-grain Arborio rice. According to a menu for Casiraghi's Italian restaurant from the Austin History Center, risotto dishes are not really new to Austin restaurants. From what I've read and heard, during the Fifties, Sixties, and early Seventies, the Casiraghis served excellent Italian food in the Clarksville building that was demolished to make way for MoPac. The menu I read leads me to believe that Casiraghi's could hold its own with our current crop of Italian eateries. One of the best local versions of risotto can be sampled at Sfuzzi, where chef Louis Halfant serves the perfectly cooked Arborio rice with shavings of parmesan cheese.

If, with several months of murderously hot weather ahead, the idea of great-tasting, nutritious meals that can be prepared on top of the stove appeals to you, there are plenty of good cookbooks to show you the way to satisfying grain cookery. My personal favorite is the afore-mentioned The Grains Cookbook, but I am also partial to The Versatile Grain and the Elegant Bean by Sheryl and Mel London (Simon & Schuster, $27.50 hard) and both of Paula Wolfert's Mediterranean cookbooks, notably the award-winning Cooking of the Eastern Mediterranean (Harper/Collins, $30 hard).n

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