“The goal: find combinations that sing to each other.”
Go ahead. Try. Google “health benefits of whole grains” — in a balanced diet, I hasten to add — and you’ll turn up no fewer than ten pages of articles summarizing studies to demonstrate that replacing refined grains with whole grains has many health benefits, lowering the risks of many chronic diseases like stroke, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease. Whole grains can even be a factor in battling health issues like asthma and high blood pressure.
When my husband’s annual physical unexpectedly turned up higher levels of blood sugar than normal, his doctor sent us to a nutritionist. She took one look at our food journal, and told us that the one factor we needed to adjust was carbohydrate intake: fewer carbs AND better quality carbs. That meant whole grains.
True to my intention to make whole grains the rule rather than the exception, I ordered the brown rice at my local Chinese restaurant, and it tasted like – well . . . cardboard. I disciplined myself to grab food only from the salad bar, so I tried that gorgeous quinoa salad, studded with chopped red pepper, green pepper and burgundy chunks of chopped red onion with my green salad, hurried back home and took the first bite. Much to my disappointment, the quinoa was simply blah, missing the extraordinary flavor profile promised by the colorful presentation.
So much for my first few excursions into the land of whole grains. But in the back of my mind, I carried around a recipe from a rice cooker cookbook which I had encountered years ago. Maybe it could work for whole grains too? I set out to adapt the method from that recipe, and make whole grains not only palatable, but enjoyable for everyone in my family.
The brown rice and quinoa that I tried lacked flavor because adding flavors doesn’t make great grains. Building flavor into every step of the cooking process makes truly wonderful, flavorful brown rice, bulgur, quinoa, or farro. And I promise you, it’s really not difficult.
This blog is more than a recipe
What I outline here is a method that can be used for any whole grain: bulgur, brown rice, farro, whole wheat couscous, wheat berries, and so on. So be patient if it takes a while to get to the actual recipe. I want you to how to make this method work for you the first time you try it.
The key is getting flavor into the grain while it’s cooking and then adding veg, and some combo of fat (like EVOO or butter), and acid (like vinegar or citrus juice) to make it shine. I’ll share other great grains recipes that I’ve served my kitchen as the days go by. Along the way, you’re sure to notice — if you haven’t already — that I am a fan of fuzzy logic rice cookers; I’ve had one for over 15 years in my kitchen.
Rice cookers not only do a wonderful job of making perfectly cooked grains every time, a good rice cooker also allows any cook to set up that part of the meal and then focus on other dishes, knowing that the grain will turn out beautifully. So kudos to my husband for first suggesting we get one when we were newlyweds. That first cooker is still serving us well. Same goes for the husband: his suggestions infallibly serve us well, and I have learned that the best helper a cook can have is a welcoming, receptive audience.
For cooking the grains, I almost always use chicken broth, or half chicken broth and half water. On occasions when I cook for truly vegan friends, I use water only, but double any herbs and/or veg used in the cooking process. Fair warning: don’t be tempted to try cooking whole grains in vegetable broth as most veg broths are made from very starchy vegetables. Put that much starch into a starchy grain, and guess what you get? MUSH. Stick to chicken broth and/or water.
For finishing the grains, I love to experiment by blending different vinegars or citrus notes with nuts, herbs, vegetables, and oils. The goal: find combinations that sing to each other. For example, sherry vinegar and slivered, toasted almonds are meant to be together; red wine vinegar and pine nuts call to each other, while fig-infused balsamic vinegar and pecans dance, just as more classic combinations like lemon zest and parsley – so simple, so perfect. Once you have the method down, have fun and try new combinations while you keep the cooking method.
How do you know if a combination works? One way is to look for typical pairings in a given cuisine. It doesn’t take a genius chef to note that you often see sherry vinegar in Spanish recipes that use almonds, or to note that many Italian recipes calling for red wine vinegar often have pine nuts in them, or to note that figs and pecans are often the accompaniment to a well chosen cheese plate course at a fine restaurant. Then again, you can always use your own nose and palate. When in doubt, one drop of oil, a few drops of the vinegar on the tongue, followed by the nut in question, and you’ll be able to tell if they pair well. I use my demitasse spoons for this tasting purpose.
For color and even more healthy combinations, the list of chopped vegetables you can add to cooked whole grains is nearly endless. I prefer red, yellow or orange bell pepper, but if you like the bite of green bell pepper, go for it. I typically use cherry or grape tomatoes chopped into quarters (as they are my husband’s favorite so I always have them on hand). But plum or romas or heirlooms fresh out of the garden would work as well too. Whole grains are a great platform for garlic and for all varieties of onion. If you have kids and they refuse these very healthy, very flavorful ingredients, try roasting your garlic and using the mildest sweet onions you can find. Or soak the chopped onion in cold water. I love red onion in quinoa, but if that red onion brings tears to my eyes, I ALWAYS soak the chopped red onion in cold water for at least ten minutes to take away some of the harsh burn.
And now the prize you’ve waited for — the first great grains recipe. Get ready to write.
Source: Suzette Jacobs
Serves: 8 – 10 as side dish
Ingredients for cooking the quinoa:
4 baby carrots (or one large carrot cut into 2” lengths)
2 celery stalks, cut into 2” lengths
2 cups quinoa: a mix of white, red, and black (if you can’t find mixed quinoa, just buy the colors separately, and mix equal parts of each)
Enough chicken stock to cook two cups quinoa (see package directions, or use the liquid measure line for “white rice” in your rice cooker)
A generous pinch of salt
½ TBS butter
½ TBS Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Rice cooker directions:
Melt the butter and oil, using the “Quick rice” setting on your rice cooker. Add the carrots and celery and pinch of salt. When heated through (a few minutes), turn off the rice cooker. Add the quinoa, and stir to coat each grain with the butter/oil mixture. Add chicken broth to the two cup fill-line for “white rice.” Set rice cooker for the “regular” cycle or set again for the “quick” cycle (either setting works for most grains except brown rice which has its own cycle), and turn it back on.
Directions for making in a lidded pot:
Melt butter and EVOO together in a pot with a lid. Add the carrots and celery and pinch of salt. When heated through (a few minutes), remove from heat. Add the quinoa, and stir to coat each grain with the butter/oil mixture. Add chicken broth/water as per the package directions, then follow the cooking directions on the package.
Ingredients for adding to the cooked quinoa:
1 yellow bell pepper, chopped
A handful of cherry tomatoes, cut into quarters
Half a cucumber, peeled, seeded, and chopped
Half of a red onion, chopped and then soaked in cold water to cover for 10 minutes
A handful of parsley, chopped
½ cup slivered almonds
2 – 4 TBS of sherry vinegar
1 TBS of white balsamic vinegar
Salt to taste
EVOO, only if needed to make the quinoa flavors marry and make the grains “shine”
While the rice is cooking, finely chop whatever veg suits your taste, and set them aside until needed. I usually use a combination like the above list. And I often use whatever happens to be in my refrig at the moment that needs to be used up.
When the quinoa is cooked, discard the baby carrots and celery pieces –- they’ve given up all their vegetable goodness to flavor the quinoa, they’ve got nothing left to give. Stir, and give the quinoa a taste; it will likely need more salt, but it should already taste like it’s on its way to side-dish greatness.
While the quinoa is still warm, add your chopped veg, and start adding the vinegars. Go slowly here, you can always add another TBS if it needs more “bite,” or acidity, but you can’t take it out. I usually start with 2 TBS sherry vinegar, 1 TBS of white balsamic and a little EVOO and build from there. Keep adjusting the flavors with EVOO, salt, and vinegar until it has the right hit of tang and nuttiness, but you can still taste the vegetables and enjoy their crunch. If in doubt, let the dish set for a minute or two, and then go back to taste again.
Another added benefit of using the rice cooker is that you can now leave your side dish for up to an hour in the cooker if need be on the “keep warm” setting. Yes, the veg will continue to steam, so the longer the dish sets, the more cooked your added vegetables will be. Bright green parsley will wilt, as will cilantro. But it’s good sometimes not to have to worry about timing a side dish perfectly. You’ve got options here: if you like crunchy veg in your quinoa and it finishes the cooking cycle before the rest of your meal is done, leave the quinoa in the cooker by itself and add the veg 10 minutes before you serve. If you don’t mind the veg steaming with the quinoa while you finish the meal, go ahead and mix everything together, leaving it all to keep warm in the rice cooker. And theres’s one last option: we often find that we like whole grains like farro and quinoa just as much at room temperature as we do when they are warm out of the rice cooker, so you can always combine everything and then take it out of the rice cooker to cool to room temp while you finish your meal. And since great grains make great leftovers, if there’s extra, remember to bring it up to room temp again before serving.
And that is how you make a grain grain dish whether you decide to keep it simple and serve the grain without the chopped veg, or you add every veg in your refrigerator.
In my next culinary post, I’ll contrast this very busy, very colorful grain with one much more simple: lemon rice. I’ve actually had guests go back for third helpings of this rice dish. And everyone needs a little help the first time they make brown rice: there’s a reason it has its own setting on the rice cooker.
PS. And yes, switching to whole grains did have the desired effect on my husband’s health!
PSS. My reward to all my patient readers who made it to the end: if you really want to take this dish to the next level, try chopping up a little slab bacon or center cut bacon (say about a cup), cooking it, and then adding it to the quinoa when you add the veggies. You won’t believe how well sherry vinegar, almonds, and bacon go together. Cuz hey! What’s good that can’t be made better with bacon?!?