Friday, 4 April 2014

Unearthing the Mystery of “Ancient Grains”: An Introduction

Your guide to old-timey, grainy goodness! Photo source Wikipedia, used under creative commons.

There has been a lot of buzz around so-called ancient grains over the past few years. These exotic sounding grains (and seeds masquerading as grains) have been growing in popularity due to their nutritional benefits. But what are they, where do they come from, and how can they be used in daily cooking? Well, the kitchen pixies love to experiment with new (or in this case, very, very old) ingredients and are pleased to give you the scoop in this new, recurring series.


What is an “Ancient Grain?”

There seems to be a bit of debate as to what counts as an “Ancient Grain” and what doesn't. Technically wheat and corn have been around for forever, haven't they? What makes quinoa and spelt so special? Well, while corn and wheat have been harvested since ancient times, generations of selective breeding and modification have lead to crops that are different from what they once were in days of yore. Today's wheat and corn stocks grow quickly and produce much larger harvests, but don't have the same nutritional make-up that they used to. “Ancient grains,” on the other hand, have remained essentially unchanged over the centuries and pack the same nutritional punch as they did in ye olden days. Ancient grains tend to be high in protein and many (but not all!) are gluten free and considered safe for people with celiac disease or gluten intolerance. Being a trendy term that many people associate with healthy living, companies often use the label “ancient grain” as an excuse to charge a little extra. Pick whole grain options or you will be missing out on some of the nutritional benefits you're paying for!


Where can I get them?

At one point it seemed like you had to make a special trip to the local bulk or health food store to find some of these ingredients, but every day more and more of them are becoming “main stream” and finding their way into breads, boxed cereals, crackers and other snack foods. Be sure to read labels and shop around to make sure you're getting the best benefits for your buck. Remember, the further down it is on the list of ingredients, the less there is in a product.


Some Ancient Grains at a Glance


Photo source Flickr, used under creative commons.

Not really a grain, but we won't hold that against it. Amaranth has been referred to as both an herb and a vegetable. Whatever you care to call it, it's gluten free and high in protein, amino acids, and fibre and has been shown to be beneficial in lowering cholesterol. 

It takes A LOT of water to cook amaranth: 6 cups (1.5 L) of water for 1 cup (250 mL) of amaranth. Gently boil the amaranth for 15 to 20 minutes, rinse and then fluff it. Amaranth can be added to soups, salads and stir-fries, and amaranth flour can be used in baking.



Photo source Flickr, used under creative commons.


A wheat grain that was used in ancient Egyptian bread making. Because it is a form of wheat, it definitely contains gluten, so it should not be consumed by someone with celiac disease. Farro is high in fibre and protein and provides 20 percent of your daily needs for niacin and 15 percent of your daily needs for magnesium and zinc. Farro is commonly used in Italy as a whole grain in soup, pasta, risotto, and salad dishes. It can also be used to make bread and baked goods.

For 1 cup Farro, add about 2 and 1/2 cups salted water in a saucepan and bring it to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer the grain with a closed lid for another 15-30 minutes until tender. Drain any remaining water.



Photo source Wikimedia Commons used under creative commons.


A gluten-free seed. It is an excellent source of protein and is high in fibre, magnesium, and B vitamins. Millet has a mildly sweet, nut-like flavour. Depending on the cooking style, the texture can range from fluffy to creamy.

When cooking millet, you will need one part millet to two-and-a-half parts boiling water. Once the water has come to a boil, lower the heat and let the millet simmer for 25 minutes with the lid in place.


Photo source Flickr, used under creative commons.

 One of the most popular poster children for the ancient grains movement. Quinoa (pronounced "keen-wah”) is actually a seed, not a grain. It has high protein levels (it is a complete protein containing all nine essential amino acids) and is gluten free. Cooked quinoa is excellent in casseroles, soups, stews and stir-fries, and is also great cold in salads.

Before cooking quinoa, be sure to rinse the seeds well to remove their bitter coating. The seeds are prepared similarly to rice and cook very quickly – in about 15 minutes.


Quinoa and Sweet Potato Chili recipe

makes 6 hearty bowls of chili

1 can (19 oz/540 mL) black beans, rinsed and drained
1 can (5.2 oz/156 mL) tomato paste
4 1/4 cups vegetable or chicken stock
1 onion, chopped
5 cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon chili powder
1 tablespoon cumin
1 teaspoon oregano
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 sweet potato, peeled and cut into bite sized chunks
1 cup dry quinoa
salt and pepper to taste

Heat the oil in a large heavy soup pot over medium low heat. Add onions, and cook until soft and they start to turn brown (about 10 minutes). Add the garlic, and cook for about 2 minutes. Add the tomato paste and spices and cook for about 2 minutes, stirring constantly. Add the beans, stock, and potatoes. Cook for about 5 minutes, then add the quinoa. Continue cooking for about 15 minutes – 30 minutes, stirring frequently, until quinoa and potatoes are cooked and the chili has thickened. Add a bit of water if the chili becomes too thick for your liking.

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