Grains

Grains

By
Claire Thomson
Contains
15 recipes
Published by
Quadrille Publishing
ISBN
9781849499552
Photographer
Mike Lusmore

When I first started cooking professionally I remember reading about a salad made in part with pearl barley – the author referred appreciatively to the dish as more of a rubble than a salad. In that moment I knew I wanted to write about food as well as cook it for a living. A greedy reading habit ensued and I found myself reading everything ‘food’ I could get my hands on. Books, weekend newspaper supplements, journals and magazines; supply and demand, my pace of cooking was remarkable. The more I read, the more I cooked. Making the connection between reading great food writing and developing at the time as a chef – becoming more experienced and ambitious with different ingredients – was, and still is, empowering. Soon enough both my bookshelves and storecupboard began to swell. I have always been a fan of cookbooks in the kitchen, well thumbed and food-splattered. I like the ebb and flow of books as they make their way from bookshelf to workhorse, slap bang in the middle of the kitchen table. With cookbooks comes possibility, almost as if we can travel the world through the contents of our kitchen.

With rubble as a curious impetus to read more, cook more and write more, what I continue to like about the word and all it conjures for me in a culinary sense is to use ingredients as a tumbling assembly of flavour. In so far as grains are concerned, they are economical and versatile. Plumped by cooking, grains are a brilliant canvas for flavour. Incentive to use grains in different applications comes by way of whatever meat, fish, vegetables, cheese or herbs you may have to hand. Additional seasoning and the knack of bringing the dish together is helped along with the everyday staples of olive oil, butter, tahini, spices, seeds, nuts and yoghurt, to name a few.

I love to use grains in my cooking as pearly ballast to chomp and savour. Nubby and nutritious, scattergun swollen cooked grains work well in chunky seasonal salads. The spelt, pumpkin and bacon one or wheat grains with broad beans, peas and tahini are both good examples. Served just warm or at room temperature, dishes like these make me feel like I am cheating in the kitchen. Not really cooking, just harnessing ingredients in a bowl.

Grains also triumph when cooked as one, and risotto is the finest example of all. Nurtured from the off, risotto rice grains are toasted with a little butter or olive oil, some softened onion and sometimes garlic, hit with wine, then good stock, and stirred, stirred, stirred. A superb risotto can be made of so few ingredients, improved only by the addition of some Parmesan and more glorious butter beaten through at the very end. In its most simple form, risotto is the ultimate in storecupboard staples, and risotto Milanese is a belter. Flashed through with saffron, the grains of rice are suspended in their own creamy cooking liquid, like magma, golden on a plate. Risotto has an intimidating reputation. It needn’t have, but it is true that you will need to stand there stoveside stirring and coaxing the grains for the full 18 or so minutes it takes for the rice to cook to the point of perfection. Wine helps, as does a good wooden spoon, well versed in stirring.

If risotto is considered high-maintenance grain cookery, pilafs are the opposite. Fragrant with spice, sometimes jewelled with nuts and dried fruit among others, the rice is first toasted in the hot fat to lock the grain into shape before the interior begins to steam in the liquid. With lid tight shut, it is left well alone on the hob or in the oven – nothing can escape. Rice cooked, lid lifted, the pot then gives an intoxicating, gloriously perfumed, steamy belch. Middle Eastern inspired rice cookery is a firm favourite and, hands down, for me and the way I like to cook at home, a winning way with rice. Best of all is the sought-after crunchy crispy bottom layer of rice from the pot known as the tah-dig (‘bottom of the pot’ in the Persian/Farsi language). Families have long fought over who gets to eat this bronzed crust, and will no doubt continue to do so for as long as pots and rice and liquid meet over heat.

Porridge as a term is ambiguous. At its most prosaic, porridge can mean any cooked mush of cereal, pulses or grains. It can also include meat, fish and vegetables. In the context of grains cooked in liquid, cornmeal (polenta) or oats (porridge) and also lentils as a pulse (dhal) all fall into this category and make fantastic use of grains and pulses in wet, soupy preparations. Congee – rice cooked in liquid with the addition of flavour, where the rice is cooked so much it begins to disintegrate – is also a porridge of sorts. More typically though, I suppose, porridge is best known to refer to oatmeal. It is a sure-fire family breakfast and one I’m thankful for come the wintry months. In my cooking, I am also keen to make use of oats in more ways than just porridge. To bind or coat ingredients before baking or frying, or even blitzed dry in a blender, oats can make a brilliant alternative to flours and ground nuts, for example.

Housed in jars, packets and practical though ugly plastic containers, I like the chalky pleasure to be had when scooping out grains for use. I like too that there is something timeless and gratifying in the feeling of grains as they rain through your hands into a bowl to soak or a pan to boil. Barley was a one-time currency represented by the old Israeli shekel coinage. So prized as a foodstuff, each coin bore reference to its commercial weight in grain. In the Khmer language, the verb ‘to eat’ literally means ‘to eat rice’ and ‘hungry’ translates as ‘hungry for rice’. Rice is a universal ingredient and is said to supply over half of all humankind’s calorie intake.

Grains have long signified an important part of our diet and represent a vital food source. I couldn’t imagine my larder without them. Interchangeable in some recipes, I would encourage you to buy and cook with different grains and use these recipes as building blocks. Grain cookery in whichever direction you head, whatever flavours you use, is always satisfying.

Larder basics

Basmati rice

risotto (Arborio, Carnaroli, Vialone Nano) rice

brown rice

short-grain (pudding) rice

rolled (porridge) oats

pinhead oatmeal

farro

freekeh

bulgur, coarse and fine

spelt

barley, pearl and pot

Rice

Rice comes in three different sizes: long, medium and short grain. Long-grain rice is slim and produces tender grains that remain firm but fluffy when cooked. Best known and highly prized is Basmati rice. Medium-grain rice is wider and shorter and is used in the moist, chewy rice dishes of risotto and paella. Short-grain rice is a tubby plump grain that cooks soft and is suited to puddings and sushi.

A rice grain has seven layers. Brown rice is the whole grain with only its outermost layer, the hull, removed. White rice is made by milling, polishing and processing brown rice to make it white. Brown rice takes longer to cook than white, but the health benefits are total. With staggering nutritional value, brown rice is listed as one of the world’s healthiest foods. I enjoy the nutty toothsome characteristics of brown rice but still couldn’t be without white in my storecupboard. Indeed, the smell of white rice as it cooks is a favourite kitchen aroma. The steamy vapour as it bubbles and puffs beneath between pan and lid tells me all is well.

Having both varieties on your shelf is a given. When cooking plain rice of both hues, I will often cook double the amount and reserve any leftovers in the fridge to use up in the next 2 or 3 days. Cooked rice is a quick and invaluable ingredient to have to hand for stir-fries and dressed in salads. Simple tips for cooking plain rice: toasting the grains in a hot pan or in the oven until fragrant before adding any liquid will boost their flavour, using stock to cook the grains rather than just water will intensify a dish, and, finally, try adding whole spices along with the liquid as the grains cook, gently perfuming the rice.

Breakfast, lunch and supper, rice does it all.

Oats

A principal cereal crop for Scotland and Wales, oats thrive in cool temperate regions high in moisture, where other crops might fail. Whole and unbroken, grain groats (the inner portion of the oat kernel) are gluten-free, with higher levels of fat than many other grains. Higher fat levels do mean that oats have a shorter shelf life than other grains, so buy little and often.

Groats are milled to a variety of grades: pinhead, rough, medium rough, medium fine and superfine. Most useful to have on your shelves? My oat use is twofold. For cooking and baking, the commonly available rolled or jumbo oats are my choice. Soft and pliable, they prove an endlessly useful standby in quick-cook porridge, granolas, flapjacks, biscuits, smoothies, muffins or bircher muesli, or blitzed into a wheat flour alternative. For porridge superior in both texture and flavour, it’s got to be pinhead – steel cut, or Irish. These are groats that are cut in half and still have their fibrous bran attached. Soaking these oats overnight before cooking will improve the finished texture, but even without soaking these oats can cook to a porridge in 30 or so minutes. Follow the packet instructions and experiment with what you serve with your morning bowl of porridge: chopped nuts, toasted seeds, dried and fresh fruits, maple syrup or honey, spices and fruit compotes. Or go savoury and make the baked oatmeal for brunch.

Whole wheat grain: farro, freekeh or bulgur

Like the other grains, wheat can be enjoyed as a wholegrain and not just as a flour in baking. Whole wheat kernels can take up to an hour to cook, less if you soak them for an hour in warm water beforehand. To cook farro, wheat berries or whole grain wheat, follow the packet instructions, adding salt at the end of the cooking time so as to not toughen the grains as they cook. Boil until tender but still with a chewy bite. With the bran, germ and endosperm intact, these wheat grains are high in fibre and contain a staggeringly healthy balance of nutrients. Use as you would any other wholegrain, in soups, stews and dressed in salads.

Freekeh is a little different in form, as is bulgur wheat. Freekeh is wheat grain harvested while the grains are still green, set alight, smoked within the husk, then roasted and thrashed to disperse the flavour before being cracked into smaller pieces resembling broken wheat grains. Popular in the Middle East and North Africa, freekeh is prized for its rich, nutty, smoky flavour. Bulgur is dried cracked durum wheat and is a phenomenally popular ingredient throughout the Arabic-speaking world. It can be purchased in a coarse and fine grind, with the latter cooking time considerably shorter. I find bulgur more interesting in flavour and texture than extruded durum wheat in the form of couscous. With a longer cooking time, bulgur can be interchangeable with couscous in many recipes; have both on your shelves.

While spelt is a member of the grain family, it is not the same species as wheat. Many people with a sensitivity to wheat find it a more tolerable grain to digest. Buy wholegrain spelt and use in lieu of wheat for many recipes, such as the broad bean and tahini number. Recipes, like ingredients, do not have to be absolute (finicky pâtisserie work withstanding); a little give and take, this and that, makes for more interesting cooking and certainly helps with the art of stocking a storecupboard. Switch grains around in this set of recipes if you like; if a particular grain is intrinsic to the dish, I’ll let you know.

Barley (pearl and pot)

Often overlooked and viewed as old-fashioned, pearl barley is the most commonly available variety. Quite aside from being extraordinarily cheap, it is a very handy grain, so speedy to cook. As with most grains, barley undergoes a milling process that strips the grain of various layers, altering the nutritional content. The more rigorous the milling process, the less nutritional the product; as such, pearl barley cannot be considered a wholegrain. The softer of the two styles, pearl barley releases its starch into the water as it cooks, which makes it a wonderful ingredient to add to soups and stews to thicken. If you want less viscosity when cooking pearl barley, soak the grains in cold water, giving them a good swishing and sluicing with plenty of fresh water before using them. Alternatively, cook pearl barley separately in water, rinsing it well once cooked before adding to a dish. Boiled in plenty of water, with any froth skimmed during the cooking process, pearl barley can cook in 15–25 minutes.

Pot barley is the grain with its outer husk left intact, and as such rewards its eaters with a more wholesome flavour and toothsome texture. Cooked, it retains its shape much better than pearl. Used as an alternative to wheat grains or spelt in salads, pot barley is a robust and versatile grain to cook with. Boiled in plenty of water, pot barley will cook in approximately 40 minutes.

In Asia, there is an ingredient sold as Chinese barley or, rather more melancholically, Job’s tears. While not related to barley, it does look and cook similarly, with a soft, nutty, chewy bite. Unlike barley, it’s also gluten-free, so do use this in lieu of barley for these recipes if you prefer.

Featured Recipes in this Chapter

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