by Jolene Adams, coordinator, LLCC Culinary Institute
With the arrival of the New Year, many people resolve to make healthier choices such as eating more wholesome foods. Whole grains, especially ancient grains, are a great source of fiber and nutrients. Adding these types of grains to your diet is a great way to incorporate healthier foods and variety. Wheat can be commonly found in many diets, however there are a host of other grains out there, each with their own nutritional benefits.
What is an ancient grain? There is no official definition for ancient grains. All whole grains in the larger sense are “ancient” because they all can trace their roots back to the beginnings of time. According to The Whole Grains Council, ancient grains can loosely be defined as grains that are largely unchanged over the last several hundred years. This means that modern wheat, which is constantly bred and changed over time, is not an ancient grain, while farro, kamut and spelt would be considered ancient grains in the wheat family. Heirloom varieties of other common grains such as black barley, red and black rice, and blue corn might also be considered ancient grains. Other grains, largely unknown here in the United States until recently, such as sorghum, teff, millet, quinoa, chia and amaranth, would also be widely considered ancient grains.
Farro is an ancient strain of wheat that was once consumed in the Fertile Crescent and later by the Romans. It was eventually replaced by durum wheat which is widely used to make pasta dough. Farro is a hard grain known for its earthy nutty flavor. It is high in fiber, vitamin B3 and zinc.
Spelt is another ancient variety of wheat. Most often found in its ground form, it can be used in place of wheat flour in many recipes. It has a lightly sweet and nutty flavor. Spelt is also higher in protein than traditional ground wheat flour and is a good source of niacin, vitamin B6, iron and zinc.
Kamut is a trademark name for the ancient Khorasan wheat variety. It is higher in protein, selenium, zinc and magnesium compared to modern wheat.
Quinoa has become popular in recent years. The grain is packed with folate, protein and healthy fats. It is a hearty crop that grows well even in harsh, dry climates. It is often consumed as an alternative to gluten-containing grains like wheat.
Amaranth has been cultivated for nearly 8,000 years. It contains the amino acid lysine which is not often found in most grains. It also has three times the average amount of calcium than other grains. Amaranth is also rich in iron, magnesium, phosphorus and potassium.
Sorghum originated in Africa. In the United States it most often used as livestock feed, but it recently gained popularity due to its gluten free properties. Sorghum is high in antioxidants.
Millet is a variety of small seed grains harvested from plants in the grass family. In the United States it is most often found in bird feeders, although it is making its way into artisan whole grain breads. It is gluten free, and is best when toasted before cooking to bring out its full flavor. Millet is high in antioxidants and magnesium.
Teff is widely used by Ethiopians and is a main ingredient in injera flatbread. It is a tiny grain 1/150 the size of a wheat kernel. Teff is also a gluten-free grain. It contains the most calcium of all the ancient grains and is an excellent source of vitamin C.
Chia seeds, yes those same seeds that grow a lush green chia pet, are edible. This ancient grain was reported as a favorite of the Aztecs. Chia seeds contain omega-3 fatty acid and are high in beta carotene, calcium, phosphorus, zinc and copper.
Incorporating ancient grains into your diet can be as easy as replacing rice with quinoa, farro or amaranth in a dish. Another easy incorporation is blending the grain into a smoothie. I often do this with chia seeds. A fun and interesting way to use ancient grains is in salad. Millet works well since it can be toasted to bring out a rich nutty flavor. Grains in salad offer a unique texture. When the grains are paired with seasonal flavors such as citrus in the spring, strawberry and spinach in the summer, squash, cranberries, cinnamon and walnuts in the fall or winter, they are very versatile. Here are a few recipes I always turn to when using ancient grains.
Fall Spiced Quinoa Salad with Apples and Butternut Squash
Serves 6 as a side dish
1 cup quinoa, cooked according to package directions, drained
Half of a butternut squash, peeled, cubed, and blanched
1 granny smith apple, diced
2 tablespoons cider vinegar
¼ cup apple juice
½ teaspoon cinnamon
½ teaspoon cumin
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
¾ – 1 cup canola oil
½ cup blue cheese, optional
Sauté squash, apple and onion until just wilted. Put into large mixing bowl with quinoa. In a small bowl, whisk vinegar, apple juice, cinnamon, cumin and Dijon Mustard. Slowly whisk in oil. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Add dressing to quinoa squash mixture and mix. Season with salt and pepper. Add blue cheese if desired. Serve warm or at room temperature.
Sweet Chia Smoothie
1 packed cup spinach (or kale)
¼ cup coconut water
1 cup almond milk
2 tsp chia seeds
water or ice as needed
Remove core from pear, leaving the skin. Remove pit and scoop out inside of avocado. Place all ingredients except water or ice in high powered blended. Add water to desired consistency. Blend in ice for a cold smoothie.
1 cup Amaranth
2 1/2 cups water
1/2 cup chopped nuts (almonds work well)
1/2 cup dried cranberries
1/8 teaspoon cinnamon
Honey for drizzle
Rinse amaranth in warm water. In a medium sauce pan; bring water and amaranth to a soft boil on medium heat. Cook for 10 – 15 minutes, stirring often. The amaranth is done when the excess water has cooked off, and the grain sticks slightly to the edges of the pan. It should be thick and the grains will softly pop in your mouth. Remove from heat. Mix in fruit, nuts and spice. Top with a drizzle of honey.
Oatmeal Millet Muffins
Yield: 12 muffins
1 /4 cups boiling water
1 cup uncooked instant rolled oats
1/2 cup (1 stick) butter at room temperature
1 cup white sugar
1 cup brown sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup millet
Pre-heat the oven to 350 degrees. Butter 12 muffin cups. Stir the oats into the boiling water, cover, remove from heat and let stand 20 minutes. Cool. Sift together the flour, baking soda and salt. In a large mixing bowl, beat the butter until creamy. Slowly add the white and brown sugars, beating until smooth and creamy. Add the vanilla and the eggs and beat until well blended. Add the cooled oatmeal to the butter mixture and stir well to blend. Add the flour mixture and stir. Stir in the millet. Spoon the batter into the muffin cups, filling about 2/3 full. Bake for about 15 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center of a muffin comes out clean. These muffins freeze well.