Grains

Grains

By
Paola Gavin
Contains
14 recipes
Published by
Quadrille Publishing
ISBN
9781787130425
Photographer
Mowie Kay

‘Love tastes sweet, but only with bread’ YIDDISH PROVERB

The trinity of wheat, olive oil and wine formed the foundation of the diet of the Hebrews in ancient Israel. Bread and wine also play an important role in Jewish religious practices, since most Jewish holiday meals begin with a prayer involving bread and wine. Grains – whether wheat, barley, rice or couscous – have always been a staple food in Jewish households and are served at most meals.

Rice

Rice is thought to have originated in Southeast Asia about 8500 BC. It then spread through China and India, and from there it was brought to Persia by migrating Turkic tribes about two thousand years ago. Around the second or third century BC, rice was introduced to the Middle East, where it became an important export under Roman rule – although it never became part of the diet of ancient Rome or Greece. In the eighth century, the Moors introduced rice to Spain, where it was soon incorporated into Sephardic cuisine. About the same time the Moors introduced rice to Sicily, but it did not appear in the rest of Italy until the fifteenth century, when it was planted in the Po Valley in Lombardy. Today rice is preferred to wheat in many regions of northern Italy. Rice was slow to reach northern and eastern Europe, and never played an important role in Ashkenazi cooking.

There are many different varieties of rice. In India, basmati rice is highly prized for its thin elongated grains and nutty flavour. In Italy and Spain, round short-grain rice is preferred, as it is more suitable for risotto and paella. Rice can be prepared in a variety of ways: boiled, steamed or baked, or even cooked in a bag dipped in simmering soup – a popular method with Bukharan Jews. In Iran, rice is usually par-boiled then steamed with a little oil or ghee until a golden brown crust called a tahdig is formed. This rice dish is called a chelou – or, if vegetables or fruit are added at the second stage of cooking, a polow.

Couscous

Couscous is a staple food in all the countries of the Maghreb, from Morocco to Libya. Originally a Berber dish, it was later adopted by Arabs and Jews alike. Traditionally, North African Jews make couscous for festivals and special occasions, as well as the Sabbath. In Morocco, they usually prepare couscous with seven vegetables for Rosh Hashanah, as the number seven is said to bring good luck.

Couscous (called seksu by the Berbers, and kuskusu in Arabic) is a kind of grain-like pasta 1–2mm in diameter, and usually made from semolina and flour. Larger granules of 3mm or more are called berkoukes or mhamsa. Unlike pasta, couscous is not kneaded into a dough, but laboriously rolled by hand into individual grain-like pellets. Fortunately, today it is manufactured commercially. Most of the packaged couscous available is pre-cooked, making it very quick and easy to prepare – simply follow the directions on the packet.

Cornmeal

Corn or maize was first introduced to Europe in the sixteenth century, after the discovery of the New World. It was originally brought to Venice, where it soon became a staple of the poor, and was then taken to Constantinople. Although it never became an important food in Turkey, the Turks introduced it to Romania and Georgia, where it is still a staple today.

In Italy, cornmeal or polenta is usually made into a porridge and served with butter and grated cheese. When it cools, it sets firm and can then be sliced and fried or grilled, or made into pies layered with cheese and sauces.

In Romania, cornmeal porridge (mamaliga) is often topped with butter and sour cream or sheep’s cheese, but is also made into a variety of pies and fritters.

Bulgur

Bulgur (or burghul, as it is called in Arabic) has been a staple food in the Middle East for thousands of years. Bulgur should not be confused with cracked wheat, which is simply raw crushed wheat grains, whereas bulgur is wheat that has been boiled, drained and dried before being milled into fine, medium or coarse grades. Fine bulgur is ideal for salads such as tabbouleh, while medium and coarse bulgur is used for pilafs, soups, stews and stuffings.

Kasha

Buckwheat is not strictly a grain, but a plant of the same family as rhubarb and sorrel, whose seeds resemble a grain. Originating in Siberia and East Asia, it was brought to Eastern Europe in the Middle Ages. In Russia any grain – corn, barley, millet or rice – may be called kasha, but for Russian and Eastern European Jews kasha is always buckwheat. Traditionally, Ashkenazi Jews cook it in two ways – either as a porridge or with pasta ‘bowties’ (kasha varnishkes).

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