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Going With The Grain

by Lorna Sass

Now that the USDA has revised the food guidelines, you can jump for joy and forget about that boring low-carb diet.  For the average woman, the guidelines recommend 3 ounces of whole grains and 3 ounces of other grains daily.  For the whole grain portion, that would amount to either 3 slices of 100% wholegrain bread, 3 cups of 100% wholegrain cereal, or 1 1/2 cups of  cooked brown rice, barley, kamut, bulgur, quinoa, or any other whole grain.

If some of those words are unfamiliar, get ready to increase your grain vocabulary and cooking repertoire.  For starters, keep in mind that whole grains have their outer bran layer and nutritious germ intact.  Because of the bran layer, they are typically chewier and take longer to cook than refined grains.  With their nutrient and oil-rich germ in place, whole grains should be stored in the refrigerator or freezer to avoid rancidity.

Many people who haven’t eaten whole grains  think that they are all brown, heavy, and taste more or less the same (if they have any taste at all). Those who are already addicted to the pleasures of eating whole grains know that each type has its particular taste and texture.  Brown rice, for example, has a nutty chewiness, while barley has a mild taste and soothing texture.  Kamut, an ancient form of whole wheat, is a large golden grain which is slighty sweet with a buttery texture.  Bulgur, made by steaming hulled wheat kernels, then drying and cracking them to fine, medium, or coarse textures, has an earthy taste.  Quinoa, long a staple in the Andes, is a tiny sesame-like seed which cooks up like fluffy couscous and has an appealing crunch and a mildly sweet, grassy fragrance.

“Most Americans have grown accustomed to eating refined foods, such as white rice and white bread, and they have become lazy about chewing,” observed K. Dun Gifford, a prime mover in the formation of the Whole Grains Council, an enthusiastic group of nutrition scientists, chefs, and industry leaders who are determined to see whole grains go mainstream.   “Getting consumers to change their eating habits is going to be one of our biggest hurdles,” said Gifford, an amiable Boston Brahmin who appears to be galvanized by big challenges.

Professor Joanne Slavin of the Department of Food Science and Nutrition at the University of Minnesota, documented through epidemiological studies that because they are high in dietary fiber and antioxidants, “whole grains are protective against cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and obesity.”  However, “despite recommendations to consume 3 servings of whole grains a day, usual intake in Western countries is only about 1 serving per day,”  she added.

With many large companies now jumping on the "whole grain bandwagon," consumers need help distinguishing a product that is a healthy source of whole grains versus one that is loaded with sugar and fat.  For starters, it's best to read the label and make sure that the first ingredient starts with the word "whole."  The shorter the ingredients list, the purer the product. 

Getting More Whole Grains into Your Diet

Here are some simple steps you can take to gradually increase daily consumption of whole grains:

--Buy breakfast cereal made of 100% whole grain.  At first, mix it with the cereal you currently enjoy, then slowly increase the amount of the whole-grain version.

--Have oatmeal for breakfast.  Both instant and old-fashioned oatmeal are whole grains.  For a quick-cooking breakfast of steel-cut oats, soak them overnight in a ratio of 4 parts just-boiled water to 1 part grain.  The next morning, simmer until tender, about 10-15 minutes.

--Buy bread made of 100% whole grain.  Don't be tricked by labels that say "7 Grain," which is likely to mean that seven different grains are used in the dough, but that none of them are whole grains.

-- Transition to whole grain pita and hamburger buns. Those you purchase in the organic or healthfood section of the supermarket are likely to contain fewer sweeteners and chemical stabilizers.

--Make brown rice or another whole grain according to the Basic Recipe below.  Serve it instead of potatoes once a week.
--Use half wholewheat pastry flour to replace white flour in your favorite cookie or pie crust recipe.  (You may need to increase the liquid slightly.)

--Request a mail-order catalogue from www.bobsredmill.com (800-349-2173), and treat yourself to stone-ground, whole-grain, organic flours, cereals, or pancake and muffin mixes.

--For whole grain recipes, scientific data, and related information, check www.wholegrainscouncil.org.

--For more information on the new dietary guidelines, check www.health.gov/dietaryguidines.



There are many ways to cook whole grains.  The simplest way is to cook them as you would cook pasta--in a large quantity of water.  Using this foolproof  technique, the grains cook quickly and you never have a scorched pot.  (This technique does not work well for buckwheat or millet.)

If serving the grains as a side-dish, to replace potatoes or pasta, dress them up by tossing with a little olive oil and freshly squeezed lemon juice, some chopped fresh herbs, and salt and pepper to taste.

Makes 3 to 4 cups cooked grains

8 cups water
1 1/2 cups whole grains, such as brown rice, barley, farro, kamut, wheat, spelt,  or rye berries

In a large pot, combine water and grains.  Bring to a boil.  Lower heat, cover, and cook at a gentle boil until grains are tender--they will always remain slightly chewy--  usually 25 to 45 minutes (but only about 11 minutes for quinoa).  To be sure a grain is thoroughly cooked, slice it in half:  if there is still an opaque white dot of uncooked starch in the center, it requires further cooking.

Drain thoroughly.  (You may save the cooking liquid for your next soup.)  If not serving hot, spread out on a large platter to cool.

NOTE:  You can double this recipe and freeze extra cooked grains for future use.  Stir frozen grains directly into hot soup or stew.  Alternatively set them in a bowl, cover lightly with a paper towel, and defrost in the microwave.

Copyright, Lorna Sass, 2007


Lorna Sass is the author of WHOLE GRAINS EVERY DAY, EVERY WAY, which won a 2007 James Beard Foundation Award in the "healthy focus" category.   Her website is www.lornasass.com.  Sass is also the author of Pressure Perfect: Two Hour Taste in Twenty Minutes Using Your Pressure Cooker.


Note: This information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the businesses in question before making your plans.

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