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Ancient Grains for Modern Palates: Gluten-Free and Eco-Friendly Grains Gain Favor

Jan 29, 2016 10:06AM ● By Judith Fertig

Ancient grains are making a comeback. Grown since Neolithic times about 10,000 years ago, varieties of barley, corn, millet and rice have helped assuage the hunger of many communities. Today, yellow millet, dark red wholegrain sorghum, brown quinoa and exotic black rice can help alleviate food shortages.

According to Harry Balzer, an expert surveyor of food and diet trends with The NPD Group, concerns about grains and gluten have prompted about a third of Americans to try to cut back on both since 2012. About 1 percent of the population has celiac disease, estimates the Celiac Disease Foundation, but many more prefer not to eat gluten. Many ancient grains are naturally gluten-free, including amaranth, buckwheat, millet, quinoa, rice and teff.

“Some think that a grain-free way of eating is healthier and also better for the planet,” says food writer Maria Speck, of Cambridge, Massachusetts, author of Ancient Grains for Modern Meals and Simply Ancient Grains. “But that may be too simplistic, a characteristic of many diet trends.”

Better for Our Health

Whole grains fill us up and provide fiber, both necessary for maintaining optimum digestion and weight, says Kathleen Barnes, a widely published natural health expert in Brevard, North Carolina.

Eating more whole grains has been previously associated with a lower risk of major diseases such as Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease, based on studies by the University of Minnesota and Lund University, in Sweden. Qi Sun, assistant professor in the Harvard School of Public Health department of nutrition, agrees that whole grains are one of the major healthful foods for prevention of major chronic diseases. He’s the lead author of a new Harvard study of data associating consumption of whole grains with a 9 percent reduction in overall mortality and up to 15 percent fewer cardiovascular fatalities during two 25-year-long research initiatives that followed 74,000 woman and 43,000 men. The researchers cited substituting whole grains for refined grains and red meat as likely contributors to longer life.

Natural Awakenings recommends using organic and non-GMO (genetically modified) ingredients whenever possible.

“Whole grains are nutritional powerhouses, packed with vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, beneficial fiber and even some protein,” observes Speck. With a German father and a Greek mother, she grew up in two cultures where grains are a part of everyday meals. “We eat them because they taste good.”

Better for Local Farmers

Sourcing and eating more organic and GMO-free whole grains (absent modified genetics) can help support local farmers, Speck maintains. Choose barley from Four Star Farms, in Massachusetts; heirloom grits from Anson Mills, in South Carolina; quinoa from White Mountain Farm, in Colorado; or heirloom Japanese rice from Koda Farms, in California.

Better for the Planet

Ancient grains require fewer natural resources to plant, grow and harvest. According to the Water Footprint Network, a pound of beef, millet and rice require 1,851, 568 and 300 gallons of water, respectively, to produce.

Substituting grains in diets is a sustainable alternative to meat, and they grow on grasslands that now inefficiently support livestock. According to University of Cambridge Professor of Engineering David MacKay, it takes about 25 times more energy to produce one calorie of beef than one calorie of natural grain.

Ancient grains can add variety and flavor to meals and a wealth of them are as close as the gluten-free aisle of a neighborhood grocery or health food store.

Judith Fertig blogs at from Overland Park, KS.


Favorite Ancient Grains

It’s best to cook up a batch of ancient grains ahead on the weekend for use during a busy week. To inject more color and flavor, add a pinch of saffron to turn the cooking water golden, or cook the grains in pomegranate juice. Cooked grain keeps in the refrigerator for up to seven days, ready to enhance salads, soups, yogurt or desserts.

Amaranth. The seed head of pigweed, amaranth can be baked into a custard or added to a soup. Grown by the Aztecs, iron- and protein-rich amaranth can be popped raw in a skillet like popcorn, and then added as garnish to soups and salads.

Buckwheat. The seeds of a plant related to rhubarb and grown in northern climates, buckwheat can be ground into flour for savory French crepes or simmered whole in soup.

Quinoa. Grown at high altitudes, quinoa has become a popular addition to salads or yogurt, as well as its own side dish.

Millet. A tiny, drought-tolerant grain, millet can be added to bread dough for texture or cooked as a healthy breakfast with toasted almonds and cardamom.

Teff. From Ethiopia, the flour of this tiny grain is fermented and used to make the flatbread known as injera. Try a teff waffle with caramelized pineapple.

Source: Adapted from Simply Ancient Grains by Maria Speck.


Cooking with Ancient Grains

Buckwheat and Beet Soup

Photo by Erin Kunkel © 2015
Photo by Erin Kunkel © 2015
Yields: 4 servings

1 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1½ cups chopped red onion (1 medium)
¾ tsp fine sea salt
2 tsp minced garlic (2 cloves)
¼ tsp dried thyme
¾ tsp dried savory or ½ tsp more dried thyme
¾ cup raw buckwheat groats (not kasha)
4 cups low-sodium vegetable broth
¼ tsp freshly ground black pepper
2 cups raw shredded beets, preferably red (1 large or 2 small)
1 to 2 tsp honey
1 cup purified water (approximately)
2 tsp sherry vinegar, or more as needed

Horseradish Yogurt
¾ cup whole milk or 2% Greek yogurt
3 Tbsp retail horseradish, with liquid
¼ tsp fine sea salt
¼ tsp freshly ground black pepper

To make the soup, heat a large heavy saucepan over medium heat. Swirl in the oil and wait until it shimmers.

Add the onion and ¼ tsp of the salt. Stir occasionally, until the onion just starts to brown at the edges, about 5 minutes.

Stir in the garlic and the herbs thyme and savory, and then cook, stirring, until fragrant, about 1 minute. Watch closely, so as not to burn the pieces.

Stir in the buckwheat groats and cook, stirring occasionally and monitoring, until the grains take on some color, about 2 minutes.

Add the broth (beware of splatter), the remaining ½ tsp salt and the pepper and bring to a boil, scraping the bottom of the pan.

Decrease the heat to maintain a simmer, cover and cook until the buckwheat is tender, about 15 minutes.

While it simmers, prepare the horseradish yogurt topping: Combine the horseradish, salt and pepper in a small bowl and beat until smooth using a fork. Season with more salt and pepper to taste.

To finish, stir in the beets and 1 tsp of the honey and then add about 1 cup of water to reach a preferred consistency.

Remove the pot from the heat, cover and allow to sit for 5 minutes until the vegetables soften.

Add the vinegar and taste for seasoning. Depending on the beets’ sweetness, maybe add another teaspoon of honey and a bit more vinegar to balance it, and perhaps a tad more salt and pepper. The seasoning is forgiving because the topping will bring the flavors together.

Ladle the soup into four bowls, garnish with a dollop of the yogurt topping and serve at once.

Cardamom-infused Black Rice Porridge with Blueberries and Pistachios

Yields: 4 to 6 servings

Black Rice
¾ cup black rice
2 whole green cardamom pods
1½ cups boiling purified water

1 cup half-and-half, plus more as needed
3 Tbsp maple syrup, or more as needed
¾ tsp ground cardamom
1 cup fresh or frozen blueberries
4 to 6 Tbsp pomegranate seeds, for garnish
3 Tbsp lightly toasted chopped plain pistachios, for garnish

Photo by Erin Kunkel © 2015
Photo by Erin Kunkel © 2015
Start the rice the night before: Add the rice and cardamom pods to a large, heavy saucepan. Pour over the boiling water, cover and let sit at room temperature or overnight (or chill, covered, for up to 2 days).

The next morning, make the porridge: Add 1 cup of half-and-half, the maple syrup and ground cardamom to the saucepan with the rice, cover and bring to a boil over medium-high heat.

Uncover, decrease the heat to retain a lively simmer, and cook, stirring once occasionally, until the rice is tender with a slight chew, 5 to 7 minutes.

Remove the cardamom pods, if preferred. Add the blueberries and simmer gently until they are warmed through, 1 to 2 minutes more.

To finish, add ¼ to ½ cup more halfand-half to reach a desired consistency. Taste for sweetness and adjust with more maple syrup if needed.

Divide between 4 to 6 breakfast bowls. Top each bowl with 1 tablespoon of pomegranate seeds and 1 teaspoon of chopped pistachios. Serve warm.

Greek Millet Saganaki with Shrimp and Ouzo

1¼ cups purified water
¾ cup millet
1 bay leaf
Pinch of fine sea salt

1 Tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
1 cup finely chopped yellow onion (1 small)
1 clove garlic, peeled and slightly crushed 1 small hot green chili, minced (optional)
¼ tsp fine sea salt
2 Tbsp tomato paste
1 (28-oz) BPA-free can whole tomatoes, crushed in a bowl
¼ tsp freshly ground black pepper
½ cup green pimiento-stuffed olives, halved if large
4 oz coarsely crumbled Greek feta cheese (about 1 cup), preferably made from sheep’s milk

1 lb jumbo shell-on shrimp from a reputable fishmonger, deveined and patted dry (or substitute firm tofu, cut into bite-sized pieces)
Fine sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 Tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
1/3 cup ouzo or other aniseflavored liqueur
¼ cup chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley

To prepare the millet, bring the water, millet, bay leaf, and salt to a boil in a 2-quart saucepan.

Decrease the heat to maintain a simmer, cover and cook until the water is absorbed, about 15 minutes.

Remove from the heat and let sit covered for 5 to 10 minutes. Uncover, remove the bay leaf and set aside to cool.

Meanwhile, make the saganaki. Heat the olive oil in a large Dutch oven or large, heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium heat until it shimmers. Add the onion, garlic, chili and salt; cook, stirring frequently, until the onion softens and turns light golden, about 5 minutes.

Photo by Erin Kunkel © 2015
Photo by Erin Kunkel © 2015
Add the tomato paste and cook, stirring, until it darkens, about 1 minute. Add the tomatoes with their juices and the pepper; bring to a boil over medium-high heat.

Decrease the heat to maintain a light boil and cook, uncovered, for 3 minutes.

Stir in the millet and green olives.

Taste for salt and pepper and adjust (keeping in mind that olives and feta cheese are typically salty).

Remove the pot from the heat, sprinkle with the feta and cover to allow the cheese to soften.

To prepare the shrimp (or tofu), season them with salt and pepper.

Heat the olive oil in a 12-inch skillet over high heat until it shimmers. Add the shrimp. Cook, undisturbed, until the shrimp or tofu pieces turn golden, 1 to 2 minutes, and then flip them with a spatula and cook until the shrimp are just opaque throughout or the tofu has warmed through, 1 to 2 more minutes, depending on the size.

Add the ouzo and cook until it’s syrupy, about 30 seconds. Using a spatula, briskly remove the shrimp from the pan and arrange on top of the millet.

Sprinkle with the parsley and serve at once.

All recipes adapted from Simply Ancient Grains or Ancient Grains for Modern Meals, by Maria Speck, courtesy of Ten Speed Press.