Go for the Grains!

March 9, 2010

Whole grains! They are so old that they are new again! And lucky for us because we need them more than ever in our daily diet.

Just look at all the nutrition experts, food ads, blogs, messages on cereal boxes and bread wrappers bombarding you every day with their key message point: You need more fiber, more vitamins, less fat, more protein, good carbs, and more exercise!

That translates to more whole grains, but I’ll bet a loaf of whole wheat bread that a lot of us don’t know what whole grains are nor how to make them part of our everyday meals.

Italians not only know how to eat, but what to eat. A huge part of what they eat are grains like farro, buckwheat, cornmeal, spelt, wheat berries, and barley. At least seven of the known forms of cereal grains occupy an important part of the Italian diet.

Common wheat like semolina, durum, rice, buckwheat, barley, and spelt are all popular. The first three are ground into flour and used for making bread and pasta. The others are used directly in the preparation of dishes. For instance, in Valtellina, north of Lake Como, ground buckwheat is used to make a hearty dark polenta which is popular in a number of local dishes. Barley is a prominent ingredient in some major soups of the Alto Adige and Friuli regions. Spelt, an ancient type of wheat was widely used in Roman times and is still grown in some locales like Lunigiana near Tuscany, Liguria and Umbria.

Italians have been eating them for centuries, and these grains make up the largest part of the Italian food pyramid. But, why should we include more whole grains in our diet?

Well, for starters they contain many complex carbohydrates which your body needs and digests much more slowly than processed grains. That means that you will eat less and not be hungry as often. Whole grains have been credited with a decreased risk of heart disease, stroke and diabetes, all major killers among Americans. Whole grains are rich in vitamins and high in calcium, which is good news for your bones. And last, the obvious: they taste good!

Just what are whole grains? Simply put, they are plant seeds, and according to the definition set by the Whole Grains Council, “whole grains contain all the essential parts and naturally-occurring nutrients of the entire grain seed, meaning the bran, the endosperm and the germ.”

The Whole Grians Council has identified 19 whole grains:

  1. amaranth
  2. barley
  3. buckwheat
  4. bulgur
  5. corn
  6. farro
  7. grano
  8. kamut
  9. millet
  10. oats
  11. quinoa
  12. rice
  13. rye
  14. sorghum/milo
  15. spelt
  16. teff
  17. triticale
  18. wheat
  19. wild rice

Barley (orzo) is one of the oldest grains in existence. It grows mainly in the northern regions of Italy and was first used to make a bread of barley and wheat.

Barley Soup
Serves 4

1 cup pearl barley
2 cups beef broth
5 ounces belgian endive, chopped
1/4 pound bacon. diced
3 1/2 tablespoons butter
1 carrot, diced
1 stalk celery, diced

Soak the barley for at least 1 hour in a bowl covered with cold water. Drain and transfer the barley to a three quart saucepan. Add the broth. Bring the mixture to a boil, then lower the heat to simmer and stir in the endive. Cover the pan and simmer for about 1 hour or until the barley is tender.

Meanwhile, melt the butter in a saute pan; stir in the bacon and when it begins to render its fat, stir in the carrot and celery. Cook until the bacon begins t brown, then transfer everything to the pot with the barley and stir in.

Bring the soup to a boil, then reduce to simmer and cook an additional 30 minutes.

Serve hot with whole wheat or pumpernickle bread.

Quinoa e Gamberetti in Padella

Quinoa and Pan Cooked Shrimp

Quinoa (Keen-wah) is an old grain originating in South America and is
virtually unknown in Italy. It looks like tiny saucers and comes in red
and white varieties. It is light and fluffy with a nutty taste and has
no gluten. Eventually all things come full circle and it won’t be long
before Italians catch on to this delicious grain. In this recipe quinoa
is married with classic gamberetti in padella (pan cooked shrimp).

Serves 6

1/3 cup olive oil
2 tablespoons butter
1 leek finely chopped
1 1/2 cups quinoa, rinsed
Salt to taste
Grinding black pepper
2 3/4 cups chicken broth
1 cup peas, fresh or frozen
Juice of two limes plus the zest
2 pounds large shrimp, peeled, de-veined and dried
4 cloves garlic,minced
1 teaspoon hot red pepper flakes
1/2 cup white wine
1/4cup minced parsley

Heat half the olive oil and butter in a large saute pan over medium heat. Stir in the leeks and cook until they soften, then stir in quinoa and cook stirring until it smells toasty and begins to brown. Stir in the broth and bring the mixture to a boil.

Reduce heat to low, cover and simmer until the quinoa is tender, about 10 minutes. Stir in the peas off the heat and transfer the mixture to a platter; cover and keep warm. In the same pan add 1 tablespoon of the remaining oil and place over medium high heat.

Add half the shrimp and cook until they begin to turn opaque and pink in color. Transfer the shrimp to a bowl. Add the remaining oil to the pan and cook the remaining shrimp. Stir in the remaining butter and when melted, add the garlic and red pepper flakes, and cook until the garlic softens.

Pour in the wine and stir to blend all the ingredients. Return the shrimp and any juices to the pan, stir in the parsley and season with salt and pepper.

Pour over the warmed quinoa and serve.

These rustic and flat buckwheat pancakes are flavored with

Bitto chees produced in Valtellina, in the province of Sondrio, on the northern slopes of the Orobic Pre-Alps. The word Bitto or “Bitu” is said to derive from the Celts, and gives the name to the valley and also the river which crosses it. This cheese can only be produced during the summer, in Alpine pastures at high altitude, and its taste depends on the quality of the grass consumed by the cows which varies from pasture to pasture. The cheese is compact and scattered with bird’s eye-holes and has a nice straw-yellow color.

Buckwheat and Bitto Flat cakes from Lombardia

Serves 6

1 2/3 cup buckwheat flour
1 cup unbleached all purpose flour
1/4 pound bitto cut into bits
2 teaspoons grappa
1 tablespoon butter

Sift the flours and salt togther and mix in enough warm water to make a moderately stiff dough. Cover and allow to rest for about an hour.

Mix the cheese into the dough along with the grappa and knead the dough until smooth.

Melt the butter in a non stick pan and drop spoonfuls of the dough into the skillet and press each one into a flat disk.
Brown on both sides. Drain on brown paper and serve warm.

Farro was the preferred wheat of the ancient Romans. This strain of wheat grown in areas that have low lying hills that are surrounded by thick forests. Sicily, Tuscany and Abruzzi produce the best farro

In Tuscany farro is used in everything from antipasto to dessert. In Abruzzo, mainly for soup and when the berries are cracked, the flour is used to make pasta, bread and even pastries. Farro flour is soft and dificult to work with but the results are worth the effort.

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