It's not every day that a chef experiences an epiphany while eating a slice of cake, but that's how Dan Barber fell into the world of whole-grain foods. "I had a very negative impression of baking with whole grains. The ideals were smart and provocative, but the food never tasted good," Barber says, recalling encounters with heavy, bricklike breads. That changed when he ate Mary-Howell Martens' rhubarb cake.
It was made with whole-wheat flour that Mary-Howell and her husband, Klaas, ground in their home grinder. "As chefs we tend to equate baking quality in terms of lightness," Barber says. "And there's a real artisanship to that, but the problem is you get wound up in the mechanics and the mouthfeel instead of the pure, true flavor." Pure and true flavor, he says, is what you get with whole wheat, "this incredible diversity and depth that's lost when you denude it into white flour."
Inspired, Barber bought his own grinder on eBay and set to work, crafting a perfect ratio of flours to make the ideal bread. "Over time, I've gone more toward a higher ratio of whole wheat because it's just more delicious," he says.
Barber's passion for whole grains translates to the stovetop, too. He doesn't shy away from making an entire meal out of whole grains or serving them up as a dessert. Here he shares a few of his go-to methods for enjoying the flavor of grains in everyday dishes.
DAN'S TOP 4 TIPS FOR SAVORING WHOLE GRAINS
- Give porridge a chance. I cook different grains, mix them together, and use the cooking liquid to make the base for a porridge. I thicken it with a cauliflower puree and top it with a poached egg, peas, and asparagus. It's like a rice bowl, but it's a hell of a lot more nutritious than white rice—and a lot more tasty.
- Do dessert. We do a grain pudding for dessert. It's the same idea as rice pudding but with a mix of grains instead. I use mascarpone cheese and some sugar, and I make a warm almond topping. It's delicious.
- Experiment. It's never been easier to find whole grains. Emmer wheat [also known as farro] is a fantastically flavorful grain that's widely available. There is a green wheat called frika that's amazing, too.
- Rock the spelt. Spelt is probably my favorite grain of all. There are so many varieties, and they're all fantastic. My favorite dish is some beautiful spelt cooked in water and salt—just as you would cook rice. You could add half a garlic bulb to the water with a carrot for a stock, but I think it's so good you don't need it.