Introduction: The Glamour of Whole Grains
Whole grains have cast a spell on me—from the first sweetened wheat berries I chewed on during my grandfather’s funeral to the comforting corn polenta my Greek mother makes to this day. I crave the tender chewiness of brown rice, the soft, translucent pearls of quinoa, and the warming lightness of millet. I love the subtle sweetness of whole oats, the slight sourness of rye, and the pleasing nuttiness of wheat berries. But I don’t eat whole grains because they are healthy, or wholesome, or to reap their nutritional benefits. To me, whole grains carry luxurious qualities: lively textures, vivid colors, and rich flavors.
My passion is rooted in my upbringing. I was raised by a Greek mom, a fervent home cook, and a gluttonous food-loving father from Germany. I spent parts of my childhood in Greece, where my grandmother and my aunt would rise at 4:oo A.M. on holidays to prepare food for the extended family, from elaborately stuffed grape leaves with currants and pine nuts to oven-roasted kid lamb and bulgur pilaf. And I spent my formative years in Germany, where whole grains are part of the culinary fabric to this day, most famously in the country’s rustic loaves of dark bread.
Our family table reflected these two contrasting cultures: my mom’s tomato omelet with feta cheese was served with huge slices of my dad’s favorite whole grain bread, cut from a traditional loaf almost the size of a bicycle tire. One week we indulged on German pork roast with homemade gravy, the next we spooned into tangy Greek stifadho, a wine-infused beef stew. My dad couldn’t imagine life without liverwurst; my mom suffered when she couldn’t find oranges or lemons.
This heritage is at the heart of this book. In it, I combine my mom’s Mediterranean cuisine—its simplicity, its mesmerizing aromas, and its use of fresh ingredients—with the centuries-old traditions of preparing whole grain foods in northern Europe. In a nutshell, this whole grain cookbook brings you the bounty of the Mediterranean in tandem with the vast universe of ancient whole grains. It will take you on a journey from Greece to Turkey, from the south of France to Italy, and to Lebanon, adding tempting and delicious meals to your table with innovative flavors and new textures, some tender and some toothsome.
The recipes in this book will show you how to transform these ancient staples into fresh modern meals for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and even dessert—while adding health benefits all along. Whole grains were, after all, the building blocks of our diet through the millennia. But do not expect me to lecture about them, or remind you to eat them regularly. I’d much rather have you try many of them and discover their remarkable textures and stunning variety—because eating is about pleasure first, and dieting last. I believe food has to be mouthwatering and seductive to stay in our meal plan for good. This is why I use rich natural ingredients like butter, cream and bacon, though in moderation. To me, whole grains are the ultimate comfort food. Chewy, sensual, and immensely satisfying, they are homey and nourishing in an old-fashioned way. And economical to boot.
In this book you will learn how to utilize quick-cooking grains like polenta, buckwheat, couscous, and millet as well as how to prepare “slower” whole grain berries in advance for a busy workweek. Whether you are a novice in the kitchen or an experienced home cook, you will find many short cuts and practical advice.
This book is not a whole grain bible, or the definitive guide to the grains of this planet. It is, rather, a personal selection of the whole grains I like to eat, inspired by the flavors and ingredients on which I was raised. And while most of these recipes draw from the rich food culture of the Mediterranean, they are typically not traditional dishes. Just like humans, traditions in food are always in flux. Today, in posh bakeries in Thessaloniki in northern Greece where my extended family lives, you find traditional olive oil cakes right next to, yes, American muffins. But these muffins are flavored with distinct local flavors and ingredients for their Greek customers, as are the anise-flavored muffins in this book, with dates and dried apricots and pistachios. Or indulge in saffron-scented waffles, topped with a creamy, rich yogurt topping with oranges—these are the flavors of my childhood, yet waffles, to my knowledge, have not yet arrived in the Mediterranean. Or have they?
Other recipes will transport you to the Mediterranean in an instant: enrich dinner with a wine-infused mussel stew with tomatoes and farro, an artichoke-rosemary tart with polenta crust, or an easy pasta with ground lamb and minted yogurt. Or feast on a stunning Moroccan-inspired salad with Kamut berries, carrots, cinnamon, and pomegranate seeds. For dessert, choose from an intensely fruity olive oil cake, bursting with figs plumped in orange-scented liqueur, or a purple rice pudding with rose water–infused dates.
While almost all of the recipes are Mediterranean-inspired, I couldn’t hide my German roots. They bring you a luxurious chocolate-hazelnut muesli with dark chocolate and a crusty aromatic loaf of whole grain bread, flavored with coriander and fennel. And let’s not forget an olive bread with bacon and thyme. Bacon, as an ingredient, has re-entered my cooking only in recent years. After all, my last name, Speck, means “bacon” in German. Having faced relentless teasing as a kid in school, I shunned this ancient ingredient for way too long—this bread brought it back, with a Mediterranean twist.
I believe the glamorous qualities of whole grains are vastly underrated. With this book, I would like to invite you to explore their star power. I hope you will learn more about matching and pairing their unique flavors and splendid textures, adding culinary highlights to your everyday life. Give these ancient staples a try—never have they been so ready for our modern tables. Musings on Health, Dieting, and Good Eating
Almost every conversation about my passion for whole grains evokes this well-meaning remark: “Your diet must be very healthy.” This comment always leaves me speechless, because health is the last thing on my mind when I eat. Of course, we all want to eat and live in a healthy way. But the reality is that good intentions rarely last, even a day.
Today, I don’t try anymore. I have stopped dieting for good. Like most women and many men, I have dieted many times, and from a young age. But I never had much stamina. Dieting exhausted me—not because I was weakened by a lack of food (I was a reasonable dieter), but simply because I ended up fantasizing about food all the time. Especially about all the food I was not allowed to eat. I soon found myself thinking about chocolate truffles every ten seconds, about a piece of German cream torte one minute, and about lamb chops or deep-fried calamari the next. This soon became unbearable, and distracting. So I did what every reasonable person would do: I drifted toward my dreams and broke my diet, again and again—until whole grains came along.
I’m not telling you that whole grains will make you lose twenty pounds in one month. But in my case, they succeeded in doing what no diet had done before. They brought me, a fast-food lover at the time, back into the kitchen. Whole grains and their tantalizing textures and fantastic flavors made me so curious about food that I started to cook. Soon I was on the best diet I have ever been on. And I stayed on it, for good. Most important, it included all food—cream, butter, bacon, and cookies—can you see where I’m going? I soon started to familiarize myself with unknown fruits and vegetables, and later with fish and meats of all kinds. Cooking made me appreciate food. It made me slow down and enjoy. Today we call this “mindful eating.” I believe this happens naturally—when you cook.
I admit I was very lucky. Unlike many of us today, I was never introduced to whole grains as a health food. No one lectured me to add them to my diet, or reprimanded me to eat them because they are “oh so good for you.” When I was growing up in Greece and Germany, some whole grains were still part of everyday life. In Greece, as a kid, I excitedly chewed on wheat berries, barley rusk, and bulgur. In Germany I spooned into warm oatmeal and indulged on whole grain breads, from crusty chewy wheat loaves to deliciously dense rye breads. But that changed when I moved away from home. Frozen pizza and ready-made chocolate pudding with whipped cream became my main food groups, accompanied by coffee, cigarettes, and wine—I was a journalist at a news agency, after all.
That all changed when a German friend of mine brought the whole grains of my childhood back to my table. Without uttering a line about health, she just put plate after plate of lip-smacking, tasty whole grain dishes in front of me—soups, salads, pies, and tarts, all with a distinct chew and impressive yet understated flavor. Hildegard, a single mom and my neighbor at the time, served whole grains with the fervor of a chef. She didn’t skimp on cream or butter. Her meals were beautifully simple, and while German, they were Mediterranean in spirit. She successfully paired the unique flavor of each grain with fish or cheese, fruits and vegetables, herbs and spices, marrying them to perfection. She was always hunting for the best ingredients. Her fruit and vegetables were fresh from the farmers’ market, her cream and butter organic when possible. Today we would call someone like her a locavore. I think all she wanted was to eat well. To me, this passion was contagious. She opened up a gustatory universe. And made me curious about whole grains—so much so that it changed my life.
What are whole grains, anyway? They are exactly what the name implies, the whole kernels or seeds of a grain with only the inedible outer husk removed, while the nutritious bran and germ are retained. The germ contains natural oils that can go rancid when exposed to air. In refined all-purpose flour, rice, or wheat, the bran and germ are removed for longer shelf life. Unfortunately, much of the nutrients are thrown out as well—you are left with the starchy endosperm, the center of the grain, containing largely “empty calories.”
Whole grains, on the other hand, contain beneficial minerals such as iron and magnesium, B vitamins, vitamin E, antioxidants, and fiber. On average, Americans eat only 15 grams of fiber per day, about half of what is recommended. While fiber is not digested, it helps your digestion and it keeps you feeling full longer. This is great news for anyone trying to shed those extra pounds. No magic diet pill needed. Last but not least, it never hurts to know a few hard-nosed facts about adding more whole grains to your diet:
• Repeated studies have shown that a diet rich in whole grains significantly reduces the risk of major chronic diseases, such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and stroke.
• Eating three servings of whole grains per day can reduce the risk of certain cancers.
• People who eat whole grains regularly have a lower risk of obesity. They also have lower cholesterol levels.
This is all I want to say about the health benefits of whole grains. Much has been written on the topic, and one quick search on the Internet will bring you up to date. But mainly I don’t want to tout the health benefits of whole grains because I don’t believe this will actually make us eat them. After all, experts have been trumpeting these messages for years—yet so many of us still don’t know what most whole grains look like.
So why don’t we eat more whole grains? For one, I believe, it’s because we don’t know how to cook them. Fair enough. But I believe the real reason is that when it comes to whole grains, we are constantly reminded that we have to eat them because they are good for us. And that is also how they are still often served. Go to a bakery and you will find an assortment of beautiful breads with nuts and seeds, olives and sun-dried tomatoes, and then the one, oh-so-plain, whole wheat loaf. Or try a whole grain salad at a lunch buffet. Healthy it might be, with all the right ingredients, with lowfat this and no-fat that. I have chewed through many of those well-intentioned bowls. The thought makes me cringe. Because everyone else on the table is having a really good meal. Thank you very much.
I believe the only way to eat well for good is to eat all good food, within reason. Renowned journalist Michael Pollan puts it this way: “Don’t eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food.” Cookbook author and food writer Mark Bittman from the New York Times calls it a “moderate diet of wholesome foods.” I believe whole grains have to be a significant part of our everyday meals to make us eat and live better, and perhaps even to lose a few pounds along the way. But first and foremost, they have to be deliriously delicious. Why else would we try them? The Truffle Theory
My eating philosophy can be summed up in what I call the truffle theory. It is based on my own experience, and it derives from one of my deluxe culinary pleasures: eating a homemade chocolate truffle.
When I buy a box of truffles, I often devour the whole box in, say, one day. Not so if I make my own. When one of my homemade dark chocolate truffles with cream, butter, and a fleeting hint of Grand Marnier starts to melt on my tongue, I go quiet fast. Not only is its sensational freshness positively overwhelming; I am also reminded of its creation. I remember the effort that went into making these unevenly shaped pieces of bliss. The wait for the silky ganache to cool. The brisk rolling between my palms so as not to melt the chocolate. And the good ingredients I bought to make them in the first place. So to my own surprise, one or two truffles will be all I eat. I don’t have to tell myself to stop. It just happens because each truffle is simply so good.
I admit this is an indulgent start to an eating philosophy in a whole grain cookbook, yet it best encompasses my four principles of eating well:
• Cook as often you can.
• Eat everything, with pleasure and not in a rush.
• Buy whole ingredients, close to home.
• Strive for imperfection; no need to be a four-star chef.
This, in essence, also sums up the pleasures of the Mediterranean table and how I was raised. From Greece, to Turkey and Tunisia, from Italy to Israel, from Spain to France—eating across the Mediterranean is a soulful combination of cooking from scratch and preparing mouthwatering meals with whatever is on hand. Tables can be bursting with plates as if there is no tomorrow, or just have a few luscious appetizers. Ingredients are farm-fresh and simple. Most important, everyone comes together, takes their time to eat, and relishes the food.
Excerpted from Ancient Grains for Modern Meals by Maria Speck. Copyright © 2011 by Maria Speck. Excerpted by permission of Ten Speed Press, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.