Dear bread pals,
When I moved to Seattle, I wanted to learn more about cooking. I watched cooking shows, the low-key food programming on public television in the early 90s, when chefs didn’t have to be performers.
My other education was reading. I read abandoned issues of Gourmet magazine. I was in love with the storytelling and a little put off by the recipes, which were on the fancier side. I've always been a pedestrian eater. I also scoured the cookbook shelves at our local library and brought home armfuls. There I found the book that made me fall in love with grains, The Grains Cookbook by Bert Greene.
His voice, friendly and excited, caught my ear. I got to know him, and his childhood and career as I read about the foods he made for his Long Island shop. I loved when he wrote about recipes that readers of his syndicated column sent him. Would I have fallen for grains if he didn't have such a conversational style? Maybe, but that book was like a letter. Like the best of pen pals, Bert Greene invited me into his experiences. Thirty + years later, I am still with him!
Each of the best-known grains gets a chapter or more, depending on how many types of milling are common. Cornmeal, for instance, has a separate chapter than grits and hominy. Semolina and bran have their own chapters too. Millet, oats, rice, barley, buckwheat, wheat, and wild rice each have chapters, but amaranth, quinoa and triticale are put together as The New Grains. Isn't that wild? The book was published in 1988, which is when he died, and before the marketing term ancient grains was common. (Triticale, by the way is not old at all, but a hybrid of wheat and rye.)
This cookbook introduced me to grains as main ingredients. I got to know the savory lives of grains that are not rice, and began making semolina casseroles topped with loads of vegetables and cheese. Another dish that made it into steady rotation was a pilaf with greens. Although many recipes called for stock, I didn't keep that on hand and used water instead.
Despite this book’s lessons on the range of grains, my main food channels still have rice as the predictable carbohydrate, and wheat as the predictable flour. This is, I suppose because they are affordable and readily available, the blank starch slates on which we script our meals. However, I now have wicked high cholesterol and my blood sugar levels are leaning toward prediabetes, so I am diversifying my carbohydrates.
Admitting this to myself and to you is uncomfortable. There is such bias against having diet related conditions, as if we are the gods of our bodies. Our choices matter, but illness is not a moral failing. Heredity, environment, and who knows what else affects our physical responses. Why did I have gestational diabetes with my second pregnancy? No one can say, but it did set me up to be liable to develop Type 2 diabetes.
I've often baked with a range of flours, and this post about fresh flour has info on grain types and baking functions. Briefly and broadly, pancakes, cookies and quick breads have a lot of leeway in steering away from wheat; leavened breads, whether sourdough or yeasted, rely on wheat for structure. My booklet The Pancake Papers also covers a lot of that flour combo ground, and you can get it from Janie’s Mill online.
Cornmeal rye is my favorite pair for pancakes and everything else. Buckwheat is another great flour – my Shrove Tuesday dinner was sourdough buckwheat cakes with salmon and spinach. I’ve been adding chickpea flour to batters, and using it straight for Indian pancakes, and eating those with dal. The atta mix I use for chapatis has wheat, corn, sorghum, mungbean, barley, finger millet and soybean flours. (I get that and the chickpea flour at the large Indian supermarket and use the brand from an organic cooperative.)
Barley has beta glucan, a fiber type that is even better than oats at combatting high cholesterol. I plan on using more barley as rice, and you can get barley flakes, too; I’m grateful for the work being done by OSU & elsewhere to develop naked barley – barely is generally grown with a hull and removing that hull is tough, but hulless barley varieties skirt that.
I have nutritional reasons to pursue these different grains, but there are plenty of bigger reasons to choose a varied diet. Opting for a range of grains, especially if you can access and afford those probably smaller, regional mills, allows farmers to plant and sell diverse crop rotations, something that is very important environmentally, and economically.
Historically, wheat hasn’t always been a foreground food, as I explored in a letter about brown bread. A great place to look for diverse grain recipes is in old cookbooks. WWI era recipes really focused on alternates because a goal was to get the wheat overseas. To learn about these food times, check out this exhibit, and Sarah Wassberg Johnson’s blog here and here, for starts.
I hope you and your loved ones are warm and safe.
Amy -- thanks so much for this blog (which I only just discovered) and The New Bread Basket -- that was one of the inspirations for my wife and I to start growing grain here at our regenerative farm, Cold Brook Farm, in New Jersey!! A quick note about your health situation -- thank you for being brave and sharing that. My wife and I have several friends who completely cured their diabetes with a Whole Food Plant Based diet. I'd be happy to share more info about that if you'd like. Oh, and the best part? They can (and do) still eat lots of grains! BTW, we've been eating WFPB since last July and the change in how we feel and all of our health metrics has been incredibly positive!
Awesome article! Yes, whole grain is an important part of my whole real food diet too! I don't eat any processed food unless it's processed by me 😁. I log everything I eat in the free app "Cronometer" & it tells me the nutrients of each & the total each day. It's awesome! Oh, and I use a Mockmill to mill the wholegrain part of my sourdoughs myself. I bought lotsa triticale berries from Moon Family Farm in Eastern Washington. https://www.moonfamilyfarm.com/product-page/triticale.
Great for baking & cooking. I love dry roasting my grains before boiling them. Speeds up the cooking time & tastes awesome! Works with black & red rice, farro, & even oats groats.