Whole grains are one of the healthiest things you can eat, and pilaf is only the beginning.
After an overzealous low-carb movement declared them "off-limits", grains moved from the side of the plate to off it completely. But they’ve been making a comeback as research keeps turning up new ways they’re good for us: Their fiber lowers risk of cardiovascular disease and helps with weight maintenance, they’re a good source of all-important B vitamins and iron, and surprise, they even contain quality vegetarian protein.
Of course, you won’t find these benefits in a standard Chinese takeout container. The grains you’re looking for still contain their germ and bran, the outer layers that are packed with nutrition. And there’s a whole world of them beyond brown rice.
“Like apples, rice can have different skin colors—brown, red, black—textures, and flavors,” says Jessica Lundberg, a third-generation member of grains purveyor Lundberg Family Farms. With a range of grains from buttery basmati, often used in Indian cuisine, to black rice, which she describes as “earthy, with a hint of Concord grape sweetness,” it’s impossible to get bored.
Grain salads are a great (and hearty) alternative to greens in winter—just match the rice’s flavor profile to other ingredients. Red rice, for instance, has some sweetness that pairs nicely with caramelized onion, orange zest, and cranberries. Or, you can take a cue from LA’s Sqirl and crisp the grains under your broiler and toss on top of a traditional salad in lieu of croutons.
Heartier varieties like farro stand up well to beef stock and mushrooms—that’s the combo that Gabe Garcia, chef at Tierra Sur, Herzog Winery Oxnard, California, says made him fall in love with grains. “They have a lot more flavor, especially if you spread them on a sheet pan and toast them first,” he says. He subs ancient grains anywhere you’d normally use white rice—stuffed peppers, risotto, rice pudding—and even mixes them together. “We do one dish that’s a pot of farro, quinoa, bulgur, and barley,” he says. Some other ways he’s gotten creative with grains:
Farro: “We make ‘farroto.’ It’s like risotto. You use beef stock and add a little at a time, just like the traditional method.”
Freekeh: This smaller grain, made by harvesting durum wheat young and roasting it, is often used in North African cooking. “Freekeh gets really soft and airy,” Garcia says. “We use that in salads a lot. Toast it on a sheet pan with olive oil, salt and pepper and use it as a garnish for a green salad or even fruit salad.
Bulgur: This chewy wheat grain is what’s used in classic tabbouleh. It works well with lots of fresh herbs.
Barley: “People think of beef and barley soup, which is a cliché, but there are so many other ways to use it,” Garcia says. Its slightly sweet flavor (it’s used in beer, remember) makes it a good oatmeal sub for breakfast porridge a sweet dessert.
Amaranth: “This is a seed but also a grain,” says Garcia. “Our pastry chef has been puffing it in a hot pan, like cooking popcorn, and using it on top of donuts. It has the right amount of texture and tastes like baby popcorn.”
Try: Popped Amaranth
Garcia’s secret to perfectly cooked grains? Rinse them, toast them, and strain them. Rinsing removes a lot of the dirt and grit that may cling to them—do it until the water no longer changes color. Spread them on a sheet pan and toast lightly to amp up flavor before cooking as usual. When you’re done, make sure to strain them thoroughly to remove excess moisture. Stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator, they’ll keep up to four days so you can make whole grain meals all week long.