Go With the (Whole) Grain
We all know the benefits of whole grains—research has shown that eating the complete grain (including the bran, germ, and endosperm) prevents cancer, heart disease, and weight gain. And with so many exotic choices becoming more widely available (and as easy to cook as rice, see “Grain Prep 101”), you can forget making excuses for not getting the recommended three servings a day. Warm up to a bowl (or burger or baked good) made with one of these nutrient-packed grains.
Even though most of the millet grown in the US winds up as birdseed, this little grain can handle heartier appetites. Robin Asbell, author of The New Whole Grains (Chronicle Books, 2007), says millet is a good starter grain, because its buttery flavor resembles the taste of white rice. With the most alkaline pH of any grain, cooked millet neutralizes acid produced by other foods and remains easy on the digestive system, even for those with sensitivities to wheat and other grains.
Try it: Mix 2 tablespoons of uncooked millet seeds in cookie, muffin, or pancake batter for a granola-like crunch.
Oats deserve their time in the heart-health spotlight, but so does barley. In fact, it’s slowly making its case as a better cholesterol-buster. “Barley is actually higher in beta-glucans—the cholesterol-lowering component of soluble fiber—than oatmeal,” says Asbell. “And it tastes similar to oats—it’s just a little crunchier.” Though you’ll more easily find pearled barley in the grocery store, look for the hulled or hull-less variety for the heart-healthiest benefits.
Try it: Make a batch of barley in the Crock-Pot by covering the grain with water and heating it all day or overnight. Mix the cooked grain with a tablespoon of honey and a handful of chopped dried apricots, and store in the fridge for a week’s worth of breakfasts.
With its 15-minute cooking time, quinoa (pronounced keenwah) makes a great go-to dinner choice. The ancient grain (eaten by Incan warriors for endurance and strength) boasts all eight amino acids, making it a complete source of protein. Combine that with its high iron and calcium content and this nutty-tasting grain makes an ideal pick for those looking to eat fewer animal products.
Try it: Mix a cup of cooked quinoa with breadcrumbs and mashed beans (along with any other goodies) for a tasty veggie burger. (Or you can blend it with a pound of ground turkey or ground beef for extra-healthy burgers.)
The long-lasting blossoms of the amaranth plant made it a favorite of poets like John Milton and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, but the grain’s hearty fiber content gives it star-power among nutritionists. It tops out at 2.4 g of total dietary fiber per serving, higher than any of the gluten-free grains. And like quinoa, amaranth packs a complete protein profile, including high levels of lysine, an amino acid essential for boosting the body’s calcium absorption.
Try it: Instead of using cream or other dairy products to thicken soups, opt for 2 tablespoons of amaranth. Simmer for at least 25 minutes to soften the grain.
Most of us think of corn as a vegetable, not a grain, but depending on the way it’s prepared, it can be classified as both. Though corn has gotten a bad rap over the years because of its omnipresence in processed and refined foods, it actually has the highest levels of antioxidants of any grain (more than twice the amount in wheat and over three times that in rice).
Try it: Mix 3 cups stone-ground whole-grain corn meal (also called polenta) and 1 cup water over medium heat, stirring frequently until all the liquid is absorbed. Let set for 10 to 15 minutes in a 9" by 13" baking pan. After the polenta hardened, cut it up and grill it to create a crispy base for bruschetta or pesto. (Sound too time-consuming? Popcorn counts toward your daily whole grain intake!)
Grain Prep 101
Grocers often sell whole grains in the bulk-foods section, without accessible preparation instructions. But don’t let that intimidate you: Most grains can be prepared just like rice and served as a side dish. Remember to rinse the uncooked grain thoroughly and pick out any loose debris. Then cover with water, bring to a boil, and simmer until soft.
- Use a 2-to-1 water to grain ratio for quinoa, amaranth, millet, and buckwheat.
- Use a 3-to-1 water to grain ratio is best for oats and barley.
- Err on the side of too much water if you’re worried about the final product being too crunchy. Simply pour off any excess liquid when the grain reaches a satisfactory texture.