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Go with the grains for tasty, healthy salads

Tribune-Review
| Sunday, August 28, 2011 12:00 a.m

Confession time here: For years, I avoided cooking with whole grains. There was just such a tinge of sacrifice I associated with them. They seemed like food for penance, not pleasure. “Eat them; they’re good for you.”

Sure, I’d occasionally add pearl barley to a mushroom soup, and last year, I found a delicious Greek dessert made from wheat berries, but that bit of dabbling was pretty much the extent of it. No longer. After spending a couple of weeks playing with various whole grains, cooking them this way and that, and turning them into summer salads, I’m ready to say: “Eat them; you’ll like them.”

I have no idea why I spent the past 30 years preparing these kinds of dishes with rice, beans and even lentils while ignoring barley, bulgur and quinoa. That’s just what prejudice will do to you.

Honestly, these grain salads taste so good I am willing to overlook that they might, in fact, be good for me. Add that they are easy to cook and can be prepared a day or more in advance, and they are just about the perfect summer side dishes. Because the grain gives them enough substance to be satisfying, they can be main courses on light-eating days.

Start by playing with familiar flavors. Pick a grain, any grain, and stir in your favorite tomato salad mix — chopped tomatoes, red onions, garlic, basil. You can’t miss.

Other combinations can be more specific. If you like mushroom-barley soup, fold sauteed mushrooms into a bed of farro, an Italian grain similar to barley. Add a handful of chopped, fresh dill and chopped walnuts. Finish with slivers of roasted red peppers and crumbled feta cheese.

How about combining quinoa with leftover grilled corn and tomatoes, and tying it all together with a cumin-lime vinaigrette• Or, mixing bulgur with zucchini, arugula and pine nuts?

Although most grains can be used interchangeably, that does not mean they are the same. Flavorwise, they might be variations on “nutty,” but with specifics ranging from earthy (barley, wheat berry and farro) to more vegetable-like (quinoa, bulgur and millet).

But, perhaps, the biggest difference among the grains, and the biggest opportunity for exploration, is in texture.

Some grains — barley, wheat berry, farro and bulgur — are downright chewy. Even when they’re completely cooked, they don’t get soft, keeping a pleasant meaty texture. Others, such as quinoa and millet, are so tender they need to be handled carefully to avoid turning them to mush.

This process of exploration and experimentation is part of the fun of discovering grains. Indeed, prowling the grain section at your health-food store can be a dazzling experience. No longer are they earnest collections of stodge.

Like most everything else in the food world, even the bulk bins have gone exotic. There, along with nutritional yeast and granola, you’ll find grains of every type and hue. Quinoa, certainly — but not just plain old. You also can find it in beet red and in black (and yes, the colors remain after cooking).

While you’re shopping, it’s also worth checking out the prepared-salad section — often you’ll find already cooked grains that you need only to dress to make ready.

Not all grains work in salads. Amaranth, for example, is a disaster, cooking to the consistency of cream of wheat. No way to make a salad out of porridge. Buckwheat smells amazing but breaks apart when it’s cooked, leaking so much starch it’s impossible to keep it from clumping.

When it comes to cooking, each type of grain takes its own treatment, but one thing they seem to share is a love of toasting. A couple of minutes over medium heat in a dry pan deepens and enriches their flavors. This makes more of a difference with some than with others, but, in general, I toast all grains at the start of cooking (this even goes for winter-morning oatmeal).

Some grains take special treatment. Quinoa is the trickiest. Cooked the wrong way, it can taste soapy and bitter. But blame the cook, not the grain. Quinoa grains come covered in a natural, plant-generated pesticide called saponin; they must be thoroughly rinsed before cooking.

The amount of water used in cooking grains varies by variety, as does the method used. Most grains are cooked like rice — simmered with a measured amount of water until they are just dry, for about 20 to 30 minutes, depending on the type.

But bulgur and couscous (technically a pasta, not a grain) take only minimal amounts of water and simply are soaked. At the other extreme, wheat berries need to be cooked as you would pasta — in a big pot of boiling water — and they can take almost an hour to be ready.

The instructions that come with the grain packages are a useful guide, but they are not infallible. Some claim a grain needs to be soaked overnight before cooking — as you would beans. In my experience, that makes only a minimal difference in cooking time and doesn’t improve the final quality of the grain.

You might want to play with the amount of water, as well. The instructions for quinoa, for example, usually call for cooking it in twice as much water as grain. I found I liked it better for salads with a ratio of 13/4 cups of water for every cup of grain. My friend Martha Rose Shulman, who is way ahead of me on the healthful-cooking curve, says she prefers 1 1/2 times, if you then let the grain steam, covered, for five minutes or so off the heat after the liquid has evaporated.

Whatever kind of grain you’re using, it still might feel a little sticky after cooking. Simply rinse it briefly under cold, running water to remove the excess starch and then, shake it dry in a strainer.

Along the same lines, be abstemious with the dressings for grain salads. Because these grains are so starchy, they already have a generous texture; what they really need is a good perking up.

A traditional vinaigrette, made with three parts oil to one part acid, will make them seem fatty and dull. Start with a mixture of equal parts; you might find you still need to add more acidity afterward.

In fact, you might find you prefer them made with no fat. And, yes, I assure you, I’m as shocked that I actually typed those words as you are.

How to cook, what flavors to expect

Here are some favorite grains for summer salads, along with their cooking proportions and tasting notes.

Bulgur: 1 cup to 1 1/2 cups water (soak only). Chewy, slightly vegetal

Coucous (quick cooking) : 1 cup to 1 1/4 cups boiling water (soak). Tender, wheaty

Pearl barley, farro : 1 cup to 3 cups water. Chewy, earthy

Millet : 1 cup to 2 1/2 cups water. Slightly chewy, slightly vegetal

Quinoa : 1 cup to 13/4 cups water. Tender, vegetal

Bulgur Salad With Arugula, Zucchini and Pine Nuts

Total time: 1 hour, plus soaking time for the bulgur

  • 1 cup fine bulgur wheat
  • 1 1/2 cups water
  • 3/4 pound zucchini
  • Salt, to taste
  • 1/4 cup minced red onion
  • 2 tablespoons lemon juice
  • 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
  • Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
  • 1 1/2 cups torn arugula leaves
  • 1/4 cup toasted pine nuts

Toast the bulgur in a skillet over medium-high heat until it smells nutty, for about 5 minutes. Remove from the heat, add the water and let stand for 1 hour to soften, stirring occasionally. (The dish can be prepared to this point a day ahead and refrigerated tightly covered; bring the dish to cool room temperature before serving.)

Cut the zucchini in quarters lengthwise and then, in half-inch crosswise pieces. Place them in a strainer or colander and sprinkle generously with salt. Toss to distribute the salt and set aside for 30 minutes, placing the strainer over a bowl to collect the water that is drawn out.

Fluff the bulgur with a fork and place it in a large mixing bowl along with the red onion. Rinse the zucchini well, pat dry with a kitchen towel and add it to the red onion and the bulgur. (The dish can be prepared to this point as many as 4 hours in advance and refrigerated tightly covered.)

When ready to serve, stir in the lemon juice and olive oil, and season to taste with salt, more lemon juice or olive oil, and black pepper as needed. Fold in the arugula leaves and transfer the mixture to a serving bowl. Sprinkle the toasted pine nuts over top and serve.

Makes 6 to 8 servings.

Nutrition information per each of 8 servings: 114 calories, 5 grams fat (1 gram saturated), 0 cholesterol, 3 grams protein, 16 grams carbohydrates, 4 grams dietary fiber, 8 milligrams sodium

Farro Salad With Mushrooms, Dill and Feta

Total time: 1 hour, 40 minutes

  • 1 cup farro
  • 3 cups water
  • 1 teaspoon salt, more for taste, divided
  • 8 ounces mushrooms
  • 1 tablespoon oil
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 3 tablespoons chopped dill, divided
  • 1/2 cup chopped toasted walnuts
  • 1/3 cup chopped green onions
  • 1 teaspoon red wine vinegar, more for taste
  • 1/3 cup slivered bottled sweet red bell peppers
  • 1/4 cup crumbled feta

Toast the farro in a dry medium-size saucepan over medium heat until it smells nutty and turns golden, for about 5 minutes. Add the water and bring to a simmer. Season with one-half teaspoon salt and cook until the farro is tender, for about 45 minutes. Drain (there probably still will be some liquid left), rinse in cold, running water and gently pat dry in a kitchen towel. Place in a mixing bowl, add more salt if necessary, and set aside. (The dish can be prepared to this point as much as a day ahead and refrigerated tightly covered.)

Trim the dried ends of the mushroom stems and quarter the mushrooms lengthwise. Heat the oil in a medium-size skillet over medium-high heat, and when it’s very hot, add the mushrooms and sprinkle with one-half teaspoon salt. Cook, tossing frequently, until the mushrooms give up their moisture, for 3 to 4 minutes. Add the garlic and keep cooking, continuing to toss to prevent scorching, until the mushrooms are dry, for another 3 to 4 minutes.

Add the mushrooms to the cooked farro, along with 2 tablespoons chopped dill, the walnuts and green onions. (The dish can be prepared to this point as many as 4 hours in advance and refrigerated tightly covered; bring the dish to cool room temperature before serving.)

When ready to serve, stir in the red wine vinegar and toss to combine. Adjust the seasoning, adding more salt and more vinegar as needed. Mound the grain mixture on a platter. Arrange the red pepper strips casually across the top. Sprinkle with the crumbled feta and then, the remaining chopped dill and serve.

Makes 4 to 6 servings.

Nutrition information per each of 6 servings : 227 calories, 11 grams fat (2 grams saturated), 6 milligrams cholesterol, 8 grams protein, 26 grams carbohydrates, 5 grams dietary fiber, 74 milligrams sodium

Quinoa Salad With Grilled Corn, Tomatoes and Cilantro

Total time: 1 hour

  • 1 cup quinoa
  • 1 3/4 cups water
  • 1 1/4 teaspoon salt, more for taste, divided
  • 2 cups grilled corn (from about 2 ears, cut from the cobs)
  • 2 cups chopped tomatoes, or cherry tomatoes cut in half
  • 1 serrano chile, seeded and minced
  • 3/4 cup chopped green onions
  • 3 tablespoons lime juice, more for taste
  • 2 tablespoons oil
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 1 3/4 teaspoons ground cumin
  • 1 1/2 cups chopped cilantro

Place the quinoa in a strainer and rinse under running water until the water runs clear, for 1 to 2 minutes. Turn the quinoa into a medium-size saucepan and cook over medium heat, stirring constantly. The quinoa will dry, then, begin to stick a bit. Keep stirring and, eventually, it will begin to toast, smell nutty and turn a light-golden color (for about 5 minutes total). Add the water and one-fourth teaspoon salt, bring to a slow simmer, cover and cook until the quinoa is dry, for about 30 minutes. Remove from the heat and set aside for 10 minutes before fluffing with a fork. (Dish can be prepared to this point as much as a day in advance and refrigerated tightly covered; bring the dish to cool room temperature before serving.)

When ready to serve, transfer the quinoa to a mixing bowl

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