11 February 2011

6 underappreciated grains that will put a pep in your step


Ahhh, everything old is new again, like this rustic, plump barley-like darling from the motherland…of Italy, that is. Although many attempt to describe what IT actually is, very few share the same phrases. It’s a relative of emmer and eikorn. No…it’s a ‘plant and grain’. You don’t know what you’re talking about – it’s really just spelt…you know, like the hulled wheat.

Whatever the heck Triticum aestivum really is, you should be eating it, and here’s why. It is one of those easily digestible and exceedingly high protein plant based foods (offering twice as much protein-punch as wheat) containing a unique immune system-stimulating carbohydrate called cyanogenic glucoside that also keeps blood sugar levels at bay, lowers cholesterol, and helps to reduce stress-induced inflammation such as cramps by naturally relaxing muscles.

The ideal way to prepare it is by soaking it overnight and then boiling it for roughly 30 minutes in water or broth – and you won’t want to miss this recipe for Faro with Fresh Herbs and Pistachio Nuts -- mmmm-nummy.


Unripe roasted wheat grains – also known as rubbed (al-farik/al-freek) or young wheat (freekeh) in Middle Eastern culture -- resemble green bulgar and taste as nutty as they smell smoky. This hip food has a rich history like so many of its ancient grain-like compadres, but unlike the modern contenders that we regularly consume, freekeh’s got it goin’ on in the health department.

It appears as though something magical happens when grain is plucked before it is technically ‘ready’. Protein levels soar while its glycemic index plunges (due to its ample resistant starch content) and when compared to rice and pasta, freekeh’s vitamin and mineral levels easily eclipse any and all pale faced contemporaries. In addition to tasting lip-smackin’ good, you’ll also enjoy Freekeh’s prebiotic effect (for a smooth-running digestive tract) as well as its ability to reduce the incidence of diverticulitis and colorectal cancer.

If you’re looking for a filling, flavorful meal staple that has four times the amount of fiber compared to brown rice, why not get your freekeh on (oh, you know I had to go there) with this recipe for Sweet Potato, Preserved Lemon, Pumpkin Seed Freekeh Salad?


Brown rice and its ‘bleached blonde’ cousin have been around the block more than a few times, but now the word on the street is that an heirloom variety (that transforms from a deep shade of black to a sultry purple once it’s fully cooked) is truly the cream of the nutritional crop. Whoop-dee-doo…so it’s got a cool color. Why should any of us be impressed?

Beyond its comparably nutty flavor, comprehensive amino acid profile and high fiber content, the real treasure can be found within its anthocyanin antioxidant content. For nutritional junkies, that’s secret code for the goodies that offer an insurance policy against various human diseases such as coronary heart disease, strokes, circulatory disorders and tumor development. And you thought gobbling up berries was your best defense? It turns out that eating just one spoonful of forbidden rice – so named because the Emperor of China was deemed the only person worthy of eating it – contains more anthocyanin compounds than the same amount of blueberries. Maybe it’s time to add it to your shopping cart?


Back in the day, the antioxidant-rich seeds of the desert-thriving Salvia hispanica kept Aztec warriors alive and kicking in the midst of challenging times, offering them basic sustenance as well as relief from sore skin and aching joints (all in just a teaspoon per day). The mint family relative – which was cultivated for hundreds of years in Mexico and played a central role in religious rituals – trumps flax in terms of omega-3 fatty acid content and prolonged storage, plus it contains a great deal of protein, soluble fiber, assorted vitamins, minerals and calcium. In nutritional circles, chia seeds have enjoyed a renaissance of sorts due to their shelf stability (despite their high oil content), medicinal properties and palatability, so if you’re hankering to try something new-to-you, here’s an intriguing recipe source for the former star of the novelty gift circuit.


This chewy-textured, nutty flavored cereal grain – obtained from a grass called Hordeum vulgare -- was once the sole domain of grandma’s wintertime soups, but for some reason, it never quite achieved the mainstream popularity of other staple starches such as rice or wheat. Such a shame, too, because in addition triggering a 10 hour reduction in blood sugar levels upon consumption, barley contains very high levels of protein, calcium, soluble fiber, selenium and assorted minerals. Even better, it contains cholesterol-lowering beta glucan as well as B vitamins that offer cardiovascular protection, and it’s exceedingly affordable – especially when purchased in the bulk food section of your local natural grocery store.

You may have trouble recalling the last time that you chowed down on a meal that incorporated dehulled barley, but chances are pretty good that you regularly drink the cereal grain if you’re a fan of malted beer or whiskey. Still, it’s not quite the same as digging into a plate of the toothsome and seriously belly-filling food, which reaches heights of stupendous culinary delight courtesy of this simple yet scrumptious Roasted Squash & Barley Salad recipe. Go ahead -- it's good stuff!


Health food store junkies likely see the word ‘amaranth’ listed among the other ingredients found in their favorite multi-grain cereal, but most would be surprised to learn that the nutritious food is really just a seed derived from an herb plant called Amaranthus caudatus. Hailing from Central America, it’s not surprising that the Aztecs were as hip to its edible benefits as the Incas were – for a small little seed, it packs an impressively complete array of protein (surpassing that of wheat), plus its equally palatable leaves and roots can also be incorporated into a wide array of dishes.

If you’re looking for a high-voltage supply of calcium, protein and fiber, look no further than a solitary cup of cooked flaked amaranth which bestows uber-nutritional brownie points in the form of cholesterol reduction -- plus it also happens to taste slighty malty, nutty and even a tad bit sweet. Recipes abound (like this interesting one for amaranth granola), but if you like the idea of a one-stop-cookin'-idea- shop, then this link’s for you.

Elizah Leigh | @elizahleigh
Elizah Leigh's master's degree in education combined with her passion for the written word and deep-seated interest in environmental issues has proven to be the ideal trifecta for her present status as a green journalist. Currently commissioned to write a reference book on vegetarianism, Elizah hopes to inspire people through her words. Follow Elizah on Facebook.

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