sorghum salad2a

We are enjoying a whole grains revolution. Not only is the public becoming enthralled with whole wheat breads, quinoa salads, and brown rice sushi rolls, but we’re being introduced to a plethora of flavorful ancient grains whose names still mystify a wide swath of consumers. Cookbook after new cookbook is coming out with recipes for grains like spelt, farro, wheat berries, and amaranth, and vendors are showcasing them on market shelves. But it doesn’t take much namedropping to underscore how much education still needs to be done.

For those of you whose focus is on creating healthy, nutritious–and, yes–very flavorful meals, ancient grains can be your best new friends. As the name suggests, ancient grains were cultivated at least a millennium ago–before GMOs and the crazy corporate methodology of removing all nutritional value. They can be cooked as grains or ground into flour. Many are gluten free.

I picked out three that you may not have come across before: freekah, sorghum, and einkorn. But if you want to really delve into ancient grains, check out my friend Maria Speck’s now classic book, Ancient Grains for Modern Meals. Her new book, Simply Ancient Grains, will be published in April.

So, let’s start with freekah. This is less a grain than a process which originated in the Middle East centuries ago in which grains are harvested while still green and then slow roasted in the hull. Some versions are called greenwheat freekah because the freekah is made with young wheat kernels. It’s reminiscent of farro and barley, with a nutty, grassy flavor and hearty, toothy texture.

raw freekah

What I love about it, along with the flavor and the fact that it cooks up in all of 20 minutes, is that it’s so ridiculously healthy. It’s low in fat, low carb with a low-glycemic index, high in fiber (a single serving has seven grams of dietary fiber), and is a prebiotic.

cooked freekah

Freekah is as versatile as rice, even if it’s more earthy, so it’s an easy substitute for many of your favorite rice-based recipes. This time of year, mix it up with winter squash, crispy bacon, sauteed greens, fresh apples and pears, dried fruit, toasted nuts, or mushrooms. In warmer weather, turn it into a salad with fresh herbs, shrimp, berries, or figs.

Then there’s sorghum. When I hear the word sorghum, my head immediately pulls up an image of Gone with the Wind. Isn’t it some kind of Southern molasses?

Dry sorghum grains2

Well, yes and no. One type, sweet sorghum, is a tall cereal grain that has, in fact, served as the source of an inexpensive syrup and as feed in the form of the whole plant for animals. But in the U.S. a second, shorter variety is grown for animal feed. And ethanol. And, get this, fencing, pet food, building material, and floral arrangements. Its great quality is that it’s drought tolerant (anyone growing it in California?) and very hardy. In fact, it requires a third less water to grow than corn. And that’s why, in thirsty parts of the U.S., sorghum is making a comeback. According to United Sorghum Checkoff, in 2013 8.06 million acres of sorghum were planted in the U.S.–primarily in Kansas, Texas, South Dakota, Oklahoma, and Colorado on dryland areas.

Originating from northeastern Africa, where it’s been growing for at least 4,000 years, sorghum spread to the rest of Africa, as well as India and China. It’s thought to have been introduced to North America in cargo ships that carried African slaves.

While corn is still king in the U.S., farmers are experiencing greater demand for sorghum and not just because of water scarcity. Because it’s an ancient grain and a gluten-free grain, increasingly people are showing a culinary interest in it. It’s ground into flour for baking but I have been enjoying the whole grains themselves–which look like pale little ballbearings with a black dot in center.

Sorghum is not difficult to find. I found Bob’s Red Mill packages of it at Whole Foods. Like any whole grain it’s endlessly versatile. Boil it like rice and enjoy it as a side dish. Create risotto with it. Make a hot cereal with it. Or, you can even pop it like popcorn.

I kept it simple just to try it out. The water to grain ratio with sorghum is 3 to 1 and it takes close to an hour to cook. The grains plump up, but they still are small and have a chewy consistency.

I first ate the cooked sorghum with a tomato-based chicken stew. Then I turned the leftovers into a sorghum and cherry tomato salad, basically rummaging through my refrigerator to use ingredients like sliced kalamata olives, artichoke hearts, diced red onion, garbanzo beans, parsley from my garden, currants, and toasted pine nuts. I tossed all of it together in a light vinaigrette I made. Day one it was a solid B. The textures were good–some crunch, some chew. The flavors were, too–sweet, herbaceous, briny, salty, garlicky (from the vinaigrette). But day two it all came together. So, make this a day in advance so the flavors can really meld.

sorghum salad

You can also pop sorghum. Use just the slightest amount of oil to a quarter cup of sorghum in a tall, heavy pot over high heat. I found that stirring with a wooden spoon seemed more useful than shaking the pot. The grains won’t all pop but even the orphans can be enjoyed without worry of cracking your teeth. What to do with them? Other than snacking, of course. They make a great garnish. The popped kernels are petite and delicate looking. Use them to top a creamy soup or a platter of roasted vegetables. Add them to a salad. Make little sweet balls (a la popcorn balls) to garnish a dessert. They’re just fun!

Popped sorghum

Finally, there’s einkorn. Einkorn is such a unique name that I figured it was some sort of exotic grain. But, in fact, it was much more familiar than I’d expected. It’s a species of wheat that is truly ancient, in its cultivated state dating back over 10,000 years ago to archeological sites in southern Turkey. In grain form, it is essentially a wheat berry–something I’ve been cooking with for years.

Einkorn

As one of the earliest cultivated forms of wheat–along with emmer–it can survive in the poorest, driest of soils. But it faded from popularity. Now it appears to be coming back, thanks to its health properties, which includes a higher percentage of proteins than modern red grains and higher levels of fat, phosphorus, potassium, and beta-carotine.

It also tastes really good. It has a sweet nutty flavor and a marvelously chewy texture, making it terrific for grain salads/sides, stuffing, and cereal. It can also be ground into a flour for baking.

Einkorn salad

I’ve prepared einkorn in two ways so far. First I made a salad filled with citrus and dried figs, sugar snap peas, toasted walnuts, and garbanzo beans. I had cooked up 1 cup of dry einkorn and used 3/4 of that for the salad.

The rest I saved for breakfast the following day. I added a little more water to the cooked einkorn, stirred it up, then heated it in the microwave for a couple of minutes. I transferred it to a bowl, added a bit of butter, maple syrup, and more toasted walnuts, along with a splash of milk. It was divine. Einkorn just absorbs any flavor you pair it with and serves it back to you in a nutty, chewy mouthful.

Einkorn cereal

You can find many ancient grains at markets like Whole Foods and Sprouts–or online.

Kale and Crimini Mushroom Greenwheat Freekah Pilaf
Makes six servings

Ingredients
1 cup greenwheat freekah
1 3/4 cups water or stock
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
4 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 cup onions, chopped
1/2 pound crimini mushrooms, sliced
1 bunch kale, chopped
1/4 cup chopped fresh herbs, such as sage, oregano, or Mexican tarragon
Juice of half a lemon
salt and pepper to taste

Directions
1. Bring water or stock to a boil. Stir in the freekah. Cover and simmer for 20 minutes. Remove from heat and let sit covered for 10 minutes.

2. While the freekah is simmering, heat a large saute pan or wok. Add oil and let warm up. Reduce the heat and add the garlic and onions. Let them cook slowly until almost caramelized. Add mushrooms and cook until softened. Add kale and herbs. Cook until wilted. Stir in the lemon juice and season with salt and pepper.

3. Add the cooked freekah and mix thoroughly. Serve.

Kale and crimini mushroom Freekah pilaf2

 

What ancient grains do you cook with for clients?

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Caron Golden

About 

Founder of premier organization of personal chefs inspires students to follow their dreams of culinary entrepreneurship.

Candy Wallace, executive director of the American Personal & Private Chef Association (APPCA), today was recognized by Sullivan University’s National Center for Hospitality Studies as its 33rd Distinguished Guest Chef.

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