The arrival of the New Year means that it’s time for clean slates and refreshed habits. I always look forward to January as a chance to reset and start being a little more intentional about how I spend my time and what I eat. For me, this means getting a little more sleep and reintroducing vegetables and whole grains into my kitchen. (I have a bad habit of losing all restraint during the holiday season.)
In past years, redoubling my whole grain efforts has mostly meant that I eat a lot of sautes with brown rice, pots of vegetable soup with barley, and slabs of salmon over quinoa. While moderately healthy, tasty, and filling, these meals aren’t particularly inspired or exciting.
This year is different, thanks to Liana Krisoff’s new book, Whole Grains for a New Generation. As follow-up to her book Canning for a New Generation, this volume contains whole grain recipes for every meal of the day. It’s one of those books that made me want to leap up and start cooking. So far, I’ve made four recipes from it and I have at least another 20 earmarked for the very near future.
The Barely Sweet Granola is delicious variation on a classic. I particularly liked the fact that she instructs you cook it in a slow oven (250°F) for more than an hour. Previous granola recipes I’ve made cook at higher temperatures for shorter lengths, which means you have to be more diligent about preventing burning.
I make a lot of soups and like to think I’m fairly creative when it comes to my combinations. However, Krisoff’s Wild Rice Soup with Kabocha Squash, Kale, and Coconut Milk is amazing and beyond anything I’d ever have thought of dreaming up. I ate two giant bowls the first night I made it and then proceeded to eat it for lunch for three days in row.
I’ve also made the Rye and Parmesan Supper Muffins. I was initially sold by the name (supper muffins!), but I loved these savory little guys for dipping into creamy soup or toasted and buttered the next day for breakfast.
Liana Krisoff took a few minutes recently to answer some of our questions about her book and offer some easy tips to help all of us integrate more whole grains into our everyday cooking.
Question: So much of this book is about making whole grains approachable and appealing. What’s your number one cooking tip for folks who are intimidated?
Answer: Don’t sweat the details. Really, despite all the charts and the grain-cooking cheat sheet in the back of the book, this isn’t rocket science. I’d say that with the exception of brown rice whole grains are incredibly forgiving: a little more or a little less water, more or less cooking time, salt or no salt—honestly, it’s not going to make a huge difference. Toss them into a pot or bowl full of delicious ingredients and you can’t go wrong.
I think a lot of people are intimidated by a couple things: they have a sense that whole grains take an eternity to cook, and also that they tend to taste like boring health food. It’s true that firmer whole grains like wheat or rye berries, barley, spelt, farro, sorghum, and so on take a while to cook, but they freeze so perfectly you’d only have to actually cook them a few times a year (depending on your freezer capacity—at one point while I was working on this book I had to tape my freezer door shut to keep it from bursting open)
When you want to use them, you can just break off a chunk of the frozen grains and either drop it in boiling water or put it straight into soup, or put the grains in a sieve and rinse under cold water for a few seconds until the grains separate—say, if you want to use the grain cold, like in a salad. But there are also quicker-cooking whole grains: quinoa, oats, corn or barley grits, whole wheat farina, cracked wheat, millet—even popcorn.
“I just think that the more healthful and filling whole grains can be appreciated for what they are, and that if they’re used well you shouldn’t feel like you’re sacrificing anything.”
And yes, it’s true that whole grains tend to have a deeper, more aggressive flavor than refined grains, but what’s so terrible about that? My feeling is that it’s counterproductive to eat something like brown jasmine rice while trying to imagine it’s regular polished white jasmine rice. The wonderful jasmine fragrance you associate with Southeast Asian rice is there, but the overall experience is different: the flavor is nuttier, the texture is more substantial. I admit I like white rice, and I’d never give up great white-flour baguettes or cake or proper pizza crust with hard white wheat; I just think that the more healthful and filling whole grains can be appreciated for what they are, and that if they’re used well you shouldn’t feel like you’re sacrificing anything.
Q: Can you share the secret to getting brown rice right?
A: Brown rice is definitely the one big exception to the straightforward grain cooking methods I tend to use. I’d never liked the stuff and always hated cooking it because every single time I followed the directions in a recipe or on the bag or box I’d end up with mushy, damp slop, and undercooking it just left me with unevenly firm grains and a scorched pan that was a pain to clean.
But I was determined to find a way to cook brown rice well, without too much fuss, and I’m pretty proud of the method I came up with, which is absolutely fool-proof and results in perfectly cooked, separate grains of rice every time, and requires no measuring.
Basically, you just simmer it for a while in water to cover, then drain, rinse briefly, and then steam it. The process can be stopped at the halfway mark, so you can dump the blanched rice in a freezer bag and keep it on hand to cook when you need it over the next few months—from the freezer, it only takes 15 or 20 minutes, which is about as long as it’d take to make a pot of white rice. I’ll never cook brown rice any other way again.
Q: What’s a good starter whole grain for those home cooks who aren’t sure where to begin?
A: Two come to mind immediately: oats and quinoa. All oats are whole grain, so you don’t even have to read the label to know you’re getting all the nutritious bran. Anyone can make a pot of oatmeal—heck, my six-year-old does it. Instant or quick-cooking oats are not worth the trouble, and can easily put a person off oatmeal for good: they’re mushy and generally lacking in character. But if you’ve never tried steel-cut oats or thicker “old-fashioned” rolled oats, you should: just use a little less water and less cooking time than the packages usually suggest, so the oats retain some individuality in the pot.
“When I got to my new kitchen, the first grains I stocked up on were steel-cut oats and quinoa. I could probably do for quite a while with just those two.”
You can make steel-cut oats a regular thing by starting the night before: just bring the oats and water to a boil, remove from the heat, and set the pot aside until morning; at that point, all you’ll have to do is heat it up and stir. If the porridgey consistency of oatmeal is not something you enjoy, try adding a handful of raw quinoa or millet to the rolled oats, which breaks up the creamy texture a bit and makes it a little more . . . I don’t know . . . crumbly? There’s a fun spread or two in the book with tons of ideas for hot cereal toppings and mix-ins, and I often post new ideas on the book’s Facebook page so you can check there if you get bored with cinnamon-raisin or whatever.
Quinoa is also a great starting point if you’re just dipping a toe into the whole grain world. Most quinoa now is pre-rinsed, so all you have to do is simmer it for 15 minutes and it’s done. It’s light-tasting and mild compared to some of the other whole grains, and is great in pretty much everything: salads, soups, or as a very nutritious sauce-absorber with curries or long-cooked stews.
A lot of people have asked which recipe in the book they should start with if they’ve never cooked whole grains before, and usually I point them to the quinoa with sausage, roasted squash and shallots, and sage: that one is so easy to love. Get quinoa from the bulk bins, though, if you’re not worried about gluten contamination: the boxed stuff, while more likely to be totally gluten free, is pretty darn expensive for everyday use.
Q: Is there a one-size-fits-all recommendation for how to best store these whole grains once they’re in your kitchen?
A: Canning jars! If at all possible, and I don’t usually bother to do this myself, it’s best to freeze the grains for a day or so to get rid of any possible pantry moths (they’re more an annoyance than anything else). Definitely take them out of the bags and put them into glass containers with tight lids—like large canning jars, which are cheap and also, I think, fairly attractive. This’ll keep them fresh, it’ll keep pests out, and because you can see the grains all lined up and pretty on your cupboard shelf you might be more likely to use a variety of them in your everyday cooking. I don’t know about you, but I can’t stand undoing and redoing twist ties and spilling grains out of the bags they come in.
Also, I’d suggest that unless you’re going to cook a lot at a time and freeze the leftovers, or if you have space to keep the raw grains in the freezer so they don’t go stale, buy in smallish quantities. You can bring your jars into most stores with bulk grains for sale and they’ll weigh the jars so you can fill them right up from the bulk bins and never buy too much to fit in your containers.
Q: Do you have a favorite whole grain?
A: Well, a few months ago my family and I moved halfway across the country to Nebraska, so I had to empty my pantry (including most of the home-canned goods—sniff). When I got to my new kitchen, the first grains I stocked up on were steel-cut oats and quinoa. I could probably do for quite a while with just those two.
I also use a lot of white whole wheat flour, which is what I’ve been using lately in my Mom’s soft, rich sandwich buns—I snuck the recipe into the canning book, if you’re interested and haven’t tried those yet. I love hominy grits and probably should have brought some with me from Georgia. They’re (it’s?) surprisingly hard to find, even in the middle of corn country. Oh, and I guess I wouldn’t be truly happy if I didn’t have masa and fresh corn tortillas on a pretty regular basis. My list of must-haves is getting kind of long the more I think about it.
Many thanks for taking a look at the book!
Barely Sweet Granola
- 1/4 cup (45 g) flax seeds
- 5 cups (800 g) rolled oats
- 1/4 cup (15 g) pepitas
- 1/4 cup (35 g) sesame seeds
- 1/4 cup (20 g) shredded unsweetened coconut
- 1/4 cup (15 g) popped amaranth (page 20)
- 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon (optional)
- 1/3 cup (80 ml) olive oil, vegetable oil, or a combination
- 1/3 cup (80 ml) agave nectar or maple syrup
- 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
- 1 cup (225 g) dried fruit
Preheat the oven to 250°F (120°C). Spray a 9-by-13-inch (23-by-33-cm) baking dish with nonstick cooking spray or lightly oil it.
In a food processor or spice grinder, coarsely crack the flaxseeds. In a large bowl, combine the oats, almonds, pepitas, sesame seeds, flax seeds, coconut, amaranth, and cinnamon, if using.
In a small bowl, combine the oil, agave nectar, vanilla extract. Drizzle the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients and stir to coat. Scrape the mixture into the prepared baking dish. Bake, turning and stirring occasionally, until evenly golden brown, 11/2 to 2 hours.
Transfer the dish to a wire rack and let cool to room temperature, stirring occasionally; the granola will get crisp and crunchy as it cools. Stir in the dried fruit and serve. The granola will keep in an airtight container (a half-gallon glass canning jar works well) at room temperature for at least 3 weeks.
To use honey (not vegan) or barley malt syrup (not gluten free) as a sweetener, first warm it in a small saucepan over low heat and then stir in the oil and vanilla. To use a non-liquid sweetener like granulated sugar or brown sugar, warm it in a small saucepan with 1 tablespoon water until dissolved.
To make a sweeter granola that holds together in larger lumps, increase the sweetener and oil to 1/2 cup (120 ml) each. You might also wish to add a few tablespoons of oat or other flour to help bind the bits. This is good as an ice cream or yogurt topping—more of a treat than an every morning cereal.
Try a mixture of wheat flakes, barley flakes, rye flakes, and rolled oats for a deeper-flavored (though not gluten-free) granola.
Makes about 14 servings | vegan, gluten free
Wild Rice Soup with Kabocha Squash, Kale, and Coconut Milk
- 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
- 2 shallots, thinly sliced
- 1 teaspoon ground cumin
- 1 teaspoon ground coriander
- 6 cups (1.4 L) vegetable stock or water
- 1 hot green chile, halved and seeded
- 2 coin-size slices fresh ginger
- 1 (1-inch-wide / 2.5-cm-wide) strip of lime zest; or 1 kaffir lime leaf, torn in a few places but left whole
- 1 cup (180 g) raw wild rice
- 1/2 small kabocha squash (about 1 pound / 455 g; see below)
- 1 bunch kale
- 1 (13-ounce / 390-ml) can coconut milk
- 2 teaspoons agave nectar
- Juice of 1 lime
- Tamari to taste
In a large heavy saucepan or Dutch oven, heat the oil over medium-high heat. Add the shallots and cook, stirring frequently, until nicely browned, about 5 minutes. Add the cumin and coriander and stir for 15 seconds. Add the stock, chile, ginger, lime zest, and rice. Cover, bring to a boil, then lower the heat and simmer until the rice is almost tender, about 50 minutes.
Meanwhile, scrape the seeds and stringy parts out of the squash (no need to peel) and cut it into 1-inch (2.5-cm) chunks. Wash the kale well and pull the tough inner rib out of each leaf. Roughly chop the kale. Fish the chile, ginger, and lime zest out of the soup and discard. Stir the coconut milk, agave nectar, lime juice, tamari, and squash into the soup, then increase the heat to medium, bring to a simmer, and cook, covered, until the squash is almost tender, about 8 minutes. Pile the kale on top of the soup, cover, and cook until it is wilted and tender, about 5 minutes, then gently fold it into the soup. Serve hot.
Serves 4 to 6 | vegan, gluten free
Rye and Parmesan Supper Muffins
- 11/4 cups (170 g) white whole wheat flour
- 3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons (85 g) whole rye flour
- 4 teaspoons baking powder
- 1 teaspoon caraway seeds, lightly crushed in a mortar
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1 cup (240 ml) milk
- 1 large egg
- 1/2 cup (120 ml) vegetable oil
- 1/4 cup (25 g) freshly grated Parmesan cheese
Preheat the oven to 425°F (220°C). Generously butter a standard 12-cup muffin pan or spray it with nonstick cooking spray.
In a large bowl, whisk together the flours, baking powder, caraway, and salt. Set aside.
In a glass measuring cup, whisk together the milk, egg, and oil. Pour into the large bowl with the dry ingredients and fold in with a rubber spatula until the dry ingredients are just moistened; do not overmix. Spoon the batter into the prepared muffin cups and sprinkle the tops with the cheese. Bake until golden brown, 15 to 20 minutes, rotating the pan halfway through so the muffins bake evenly.
Transfer the pan to a wire rack and let cool for 5 minutes, then loosen the edge of each muffin in several places with a thin knife and lever it out with the knife. Let cool completely on the rack.
Makes 12 | vegetarian