Ancient Grains Make a Culinary Comeback: Will you be trending?

National Restaurant Association’s 2014 “What’s Hot Survey” listing the Top 20 Trends indicated 3 new trends relating to grains: (1) addition of gluten-free cuisine, (2) pasta made from alternate grains, and use of ancient grains in more menu selections.

Many bakeries are specializing in offering breads and baked goods from the ancient grains. There are numerous older varieties of wheat that have a high yield; some have a lower gluten and each creates a unique flavor and texture of bread. Chad Robertson of Tartine Bakery in San Francisco comments on his use of the ancient grains in breads. “These older varieties have a different gluten quality, and are much easier to digest.”

Restaurant owners should be using these grains. “They give chefs amazing textures and distinct flavors, and even stunning colors to play with,” says Maria Speck, author of Ancient Grains for Modern Meals. There are some common grains that have been used for years by chefs in Europe: rye, bulgur, buckwheat, polenta, but consider a few of these for their taste, texture, nutritional boost and cooking versatility:

  • Quinoa—This one is considered a superfood because it’s a complete protein and is gluten free. Ok, it’s not really a grain, but is technically a seed.  It’s from the Columbian Andes in South America. Its’ “superpower” is also because it’s super versatile. It can be used in cake recipes, meatball recipes, soups and stews, eaten for breakfast, mixed in a salad with nuts and arugula, and paired with sushi.  It comes in red, white or tri-color mix.
  • Spelt – This is a sweet nut like grain, popular in parts of Europe since the middle ages. It’s easily digestible, rich in iron and a great option for those who can’t tolerate wheat. Spelt flour can find its way into muffins, breads, pancakes and pizza dough, but it is also a tasty textured addition in salads and sushi rolls, or spelt and wild mushroom risotto.
  • Teff—This is an Ethiopian grain originally used to make flatbreads and beer. It’s the smallest grain in the world, high in calcium, iron and protein, and it sports a mild, nutty flavor. Porridge, flatbread, stews, and stuffing can use some teff. It can also be substituted in baking for portions of white flour. No need to pre-rinse.
  • Amaranth—The ancient Aztec grain is also really another seed and has a light, malty, nutty flavor. It’s high in magnesium and protein and even the leaves are edible. Piecrusts, muffins and cookies can use amaranth, but is can also be toasted until it pops (for a snack food) and put in soups and stews.
  • Farro or Emmer the original ancestor of all types of wheat. It originated in the Fertile Crescent and is a source of beta carotenes and anti-oxidants. It’s a type of wheat used by chefs for its great taste and unusual texture. It’s popular in pilafs, soups (try it in a minestrone soup),salads (try it with mozzarella and red peppers). Just try it.
  • Kamut—Arich, nutty grain that’s great in soups, or salads. This one needs to be soaked overnight, but coos easily. Popular mixings for this grain include kamut and chickpea salad, or kamut pilaf with mushrooms and blue cheese.
  • Millet—This gluten free grain is high in fiber and was even mentioned in the Old Testament as well as in Marco Polo’s journals. It can replace rice in recipes. It’s a favorite in salads and as a stuffing (in zucchini or rock Cornish hens).

Alternate grains are even appearing in kids menus:  pizza crust, pancakes, cookies and stews are a great introduction. “Foodies” are finding that quality wines pair well with these ancient grains. Grains with a nutty flavor go well with smoky wines like a pinot noir or an oaky chardonnay. Neutral grains (like polenta, millet and couscous) partner well with a semi dry white (a sauvignon blanc) or a crisp white wine with citrus undertones.

No matter what age group your restaurant or bakery caters too, it’s time to start trending with these ancient favorites.

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