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The Comfort of Grains
By Joyce Goldstein

OK, so they're not sexy. Instead of a hot date to exotic places, they remind you of home and the person—your mother or grandmother—who nurtured you while you were growing up. Rather than excitement, grains offer comfort. Grains' subtle flavors are a background for more dynamic culinary accents. They don't mind being a foil for more piquant foods such as wild mushrooms, chestnuts and butternut squash or accents such as herbs, pine nuts, almonds, raisins and currants. They provide interesting texture, neutral flavors and allow the other components to sing.

The Gifted Grain

Grains are flexible as well as substantial. They can easily adapt to changes in the weather. In the winter they provide rib-sticking warmth. Nothing beats a hot bowl of polenta, a barley pilaf or some farro or spelt. In the summer cooked grains can be served at room temperature as a salad. Cracked wheat, farro, and rice may be dressed with a lively vinaigrette and tossed with diced onions, peppers, tomatoes, cucumbers, lentils, chickpeas, fresh herbs and possibly pieces of cooked tuna or chicken for added protein. So you can get two meals out of many basic grain recipes if you plan ahead and double the amount of grain. The extra can be used in a salad or even as a hot breakfast cereal.

Cooking with Antiques

Barley is probably the most ancient grain of all. We usually run into it as a component in soup, but it makes a delightful pilaf. Barley is mild in flavor and just a bit chewy. It can be cooked ahead of time in salted water or stock and simply reheated in a bit of water or stock. It makes a wonderful side dish or can be the basis for a fine risotto. Barley is tan in color because it has been pearled—polished many times to remove most of the tough outer covering, or bran. (Some supermarket varieties are white, as all of the bran and fiber have been removed.) It can become tender in as little as 20 minutes or as long as 35, depending on how long it has been sitting on the shelf.

The Many Faces of Wheat

In many markets bulgur may be labeled cracked wheat and vice versa, but don't worry—they can be used interchangeably in many recipes. Bulgur is made from whole-wheat berries that have been steamed and hulled, then dried and cracked. It comes in fine, medium and coarse grinds. Fine or medium is most commonly used for tabbouleh and coarse or medium are used for pilaf or stuffing. Cracked wheat is uncooked wheat berries that have been crushed. It comes in coarse and medium grinds and requires about 15 minutes of cooking.

Bulgur isn't just tabbouleh! In Turkey, wheat pilaf with chickpeas is served with yogurt and vegetables for a hearty meal. Bulgur comes already cooked and can be reconstituted simply by pouring hot, salted water or cold, salted water over the grains. They absorb the water and fluff up quite nicely; the salt helps the grain retain its crunch. If the bulgur doesn't absorb all of the water, simply drain it in a strainer and let it dry a bit.

A Creamy Italian Tradition

Originating in the Po Valley and the Piedmonte and Lombardia regions of Italy, Arborio rice has remained a staple in Northern Italian cooking for centuries. Arborio's small, polished kernels develop a creamy consistency due to their high starch content and set the perfect base for a hearty risotto dish ("riso" means rice in Italian). Traditionally prepared with Parmesan cheese, chicken or vegetable broth and fresh vegetables, a warm bowl of risotto hits the spot on a cold, winter night.

This particular rice is high in iron, niacin and thiamin and easily absorbs the flavor of foods it's prepared with. Because of this trait, risotto is wonderful with piquant ingredients like cheese, prosciutto or mushrooms.

Arborio rice doesn't need to be rinsed before cooking. Simmer one-part rice with a little butter and chopped onion. Then, stirring constantly, slowly add to the simmering mixture 2 1/2 to 3 parts hot water or broth until the rice is cooked, about 25 minutes. When cooked properly, the center of the grain should be al dente while the rest of the grain is soft and creamy.

The Elegant Side of Corn

Polenta has gone from peasant food to gourmet cuisine. It's made from ground Italian cornmeal, hulled and de-germed and should be golden yellow in color. The best is stone ground and comes in fine and coarse grinds. Coarse makes for a tastier polenta. It can be served soft as a porridge and enriched with a bit of butter and cheese. To keep it soft, hold it in a double boiler and keep adding hot water as needed. Hot polenta may be poured into a pan and spread to a thickness of one half-inch to one-inch, then cooled. It can then be cut into slices and grilled, baked or sautéed. Polenta can be prepared with water (Remember, this was poor people's food.), stock, milk or a combination of these liquids. Polenta also comes in instant form, but I think it has a mushy and boring texture, lacking crunch.

The traditional method for cooking polenta instructs you to bring the water up to a boil and then to gradually add the polenta in a thin stream, stirring constantly. Right—and what can happen? Lumps! I start the polenta in cold water, (approximately three and a half cups of water to one cup of polenta) stirring often until the polenta is thick and, of course, lump free!

Global Grains

Kasha is whole buckwheat groats, much beloved by Russians and Ashkenazic Jews. It has a robust flavor and is dark tan in color. It usually comes in boxes at the market rather than in bulk. Kasha is very hearty and filling. Some people find its flavor a bit strong, so mixing it with noodles makes the dish more texturally interesting, but also cuts the buckwheat intensity. The classic combination of kasha and bow tie noodles is Russian in origin. For this recipe you want to buy whole kasha, not medium or fine which will turn to mush.

Farro, (triticum dicoccum) is an early variety of wheat, milder than wheat berries and more interesting than barley, which it resembles in appearance, texture and subtle sweetness. It is semi-pearled, so some of the outer bran still remains after polishing. It's lighter in mouth feel than wheat berries. It's a new grain on the American market although it has been eaten in Italy for many years. Cook farro in lots of boiling, salted water and start testing after 15 minutes. It should be al dente—chewy, but not hard. Drain it when it has achieved the proper texture. Once cooked, farro keeps well in the refrigerator for three or four days and may be reheated with a bit of water or broth. To speed the cooking time, farro may be soaked in water for an hour. Cooked farro also can be tossed with oil and vinegar to make a wonderful salad. My grandchildren's favorite farro is with corn, so I make it often. In the winter you can use frozen corn but fresh is always best.

Grain Storage

Store all grains in a cool, dry cupboard, away from light. While they don't last forever, most will keep for up to a year under good conditions. Bulgur can go rancid, so it's best to buy it in smaller quantities or store it in the freezer.

Try Joyce's glorious grain recipes:

Cracked Wheat or Bulgur Pilaf with Pine nuts and Raisins
Barley and Mushroom Pilaf
Kasha with Bow Tie Noodles
Asparagus Risotto with Gremolata
Pumpkin Squash Risotto
Farro with Butternut Squash
Turkish Bulgur Pilaf with Chickpeas
Basic Polenta

About Joyce Goldstein

Joyce Goldstein is a consultant to the restaurant and food industries. For 12 years she was chef/owner of the ground-breaking, award-winning Mediterranean restaurant SQUARE ONE in San Francisco. In addition, she taught cooking for 18 years. Joyce is the author of many cookbooks, including Back to Square One: Old World Food in a New World Kitchen, winner of both the Julia Child and James Beard Awards for Best General Cookbook of 1992 and Cucina Ebraica, Flavors of the Italian Jewish Kitchen. Two more books on Mediterranean Jewish cooking are in the works.

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