By Beth Dooley, Special to the Star Tribune / October 12, 2007
We know we should eat whole grains for our health. With sophisticated recipes that make much of grains' nutty flavor and versatility, a local author convinces us we should eat them for our taste buds, too.
These days, most of us don't need to be sold on the idea of whole grains -- we know they are loaded with vitamins and fiber, can help prevent cancer and heart problems and are a fair source of protein. But I have to confess that I forget to cook them, especially when I'm short on time.
Now comes Robin Asbell's "The New Whole Grain Cookbook" (Chronicle Books, October, $19.95), showcasing the array of tempting flavors, glorious colors and varied textures of this beautiful and versatile food. Long on interesting, useful information, the book's brilliance is in presenting these old-world ingredients in a whole new way, no longer "hippie," but simply "hip."
She offers new ideas for brown rice, barley and wild rice and moves seamlessly into the more exotic farro, quinoa, millet, teff, wheat and rye berries. We learn about grains' cultural heritage and nutritional values and how to cook and substitute these for processed grains, plus more than 50 new recipes.
Inviting and accessible, the photos show off grains' warm, earthy tones and play up their light, healthful nature. The recipes are inviting and exciting. Buttermilk Wheat Germ Pancakes garnered rave reviews last Sunday at our breakfast table, and the Maple Oat Crisps were a predictable hit. But the true test of this book came when I ventured into main-dish territory -- the French Lamb and Rye Berry Braise and Spicy Yellow Split Pea Quinoa Dal -- which were sophisticated and straightforward.
Asbell is an innovative and knowledgeable cook who has been playing with grains a long time. She began her cooking career when she was a graduate student in sculpture. She's always made her own whole-grain bread, and took jobs baking and cooking in whole-foods delis and bakeries, applying the curiosity and creativity that she honed in academia.
After working at the New Riverside Cafe in Minneapolis, Asbell took charge of the Wedge Deli, creating its menus and managing its staff before striking out on her own as a personal chef, teacher and writer. She's always cooked for family members and friends. Several years ago, she helped her mom figure out how to deal with a gluten- and wheat-free diet and enjoy a range of interesting meals.
"I think people are always surprised by how delicious these grains are and by how quickly they cook," she says. The book includes a chart that gives cooking times and recommends presoaking the longer-cooking grains (brown, black, red rice), barley and wheat as you would dried beans.
Unlike pasta, leftover grains can be stored in the refrigerator for several days or frozen. Some, such as amaranth, buckwheat, bulgur, millet and quinoa, are ready to go in 20 minutes or less (whole-wheat couscous cooks in a mere 5 minutes).
Once you switch from processed to whole grains, you won't want to turn back, Asbell says. "The nutty aromas of grains cooking, the rich full flavors -- these are satisfying foods," she says.
Our stores are stocked with a variety of grains -- from exotic Jacobs tears to locally grown wheat berries, rye berries, spelt, kamut, and whole oats. Co-ops offer the most variety in bulk. "People often ask how long grains will keep," she says. Not indefinitely. "I store most of mine in the refrigerator or the freezer. The best way to tell if a grain is still fresh is to sniff. If there is an 'off' aroma, or you see bugs, pitch it out."
Asbell's recipes balance these ancient foods with new flavors in bold ways. "I tried to stay within the spirit of a culture's dish when calling for a grain not typically used," she says. "If the original recipe used a sticky rice, I'd choose a short brown or red rice with similar properties." For example, the recipe for Red Rice California Rolls with King Crab uses an innovative and colorful alternative.
Among the myriad choices, Asbell favors kamut for its golden color, buttery flavor and surprisingly silky texture. "It's one I'm hoping more people will try," she notes. It's great in a composed salad, stew, soup or in lieu of brown rice or barley in a casserole.
"The New Whole Grains Cookbook" includes a lot of information about why grains are good for us, how to cook them quickly and use them in every meal (including dessert and snacks). With Asbell's attention to flavor and eye for color and texture, the book makes us hungry to eat well.
Beth Dooley is a Minneapolis writer and cooking instructor.