by Keryn De Maria
Mention the word 'grains' and most people think of wheat, rice, corn, barley, oats or rye. But increasingly we are finding 'new' grains and their products lining the shelves of natural food stores and gourmet shops, appearing on the menu of trendy restaurants or on the pages of the latest cookbooks.
Yet, while these grains may be new to many of us, they are actually some of humankind’s most ancient foods. Grains such as spelt, wild rice and quinoa nourished and sustained populations for thousands of years. Their recent return to favour has largely been generated by consumer demand for foods high in nutrition and flavour - qualities often missing from modern hybridised crops, developed mainly with economics and productivity in mind. Many of these 'new' old grains also offer interesting alternatives for those people intolerant to the more common grains such as modern wheat.
Spelt grain (also known as 'Dinkel') shares the same genus as wheat but is a different species. It is one of the most ancient cultivated grains, grown by early farmers around 5000 BC. Its fall from favour in modern times was due to a factor now regarded as an advantage - its tough outer hull.
While modern wheat varieties lose their hull, or husk, when harvested, spelt does not. This means that spelt requires two separate grindings as opposed to one for modern wheat. But the benefit of a tough, impervious outer hull is that the grain is protected from disease and insects, usually allowing the crop to be grown without the use of pesticides and other nasty chemicals. The grain also stays fresher and retains more nutrients. For instance it has higher amounts of B group vitamins and from 10 to 25% more protein than common varieties of wheat.
On top of this, the protective hull allows for the development of a more delicate, water-soluble kernel. This high water solubility means that the nutrients in spelt are more easily absorbed by the body, i.e. they are more bio-available. Many people find spelt easier to digest than wheat, it is also much less acidic.
Wheat-sensitive people often find they can tolerate spelt. There have also been reports of gluten-sensitive individuals being able to include some spelt in their diets, but it would be advisable to consult with a health practitioner first since spelt does contain gluten.
Spelt is not only nutritious, it is highly regarded for its nutty flavour as well. Bakers who specialise in producing natural, whole food loaves love working with it as it produces a much lighter loaf than ones made with rye, oats or barley. From an environmental point of view, spelt is a more sustainable and Earth-friendly crop than many of our modern grains.
Spelt is now becoming widely available in Australia thanks to the foresight of Geoff and Julie Brown, farmers from Blayney in NSW who first experimented with growing spelt in 1988. It is obtainable in products such as bread, pasta and breakfast cereals, as well as flour for home baking. It can be used in a similar way to wheat flour in recipes.
American Wild Rice
Long before recorded history North American Indians were gathering the seeds from an aquatic freshwater grass which grew naturally in shallow lakes and rivers of the Great Lakes region. They would harvest the plants by bending the panicles (flower clusters) over canoes and tapping them lightly with a stick. This would release the grain which was then heated over a fire and pounded to extract it from its hull. This grain, which we know today as American Wild Rice (although it is not actually a rice) provided important sustenance during winter when other foods were hard to come by.
Today, wild rice is still grown and gathered from the wild, but there are a number of areas of commercial production where it is grown in shallow artificial ponds. Cultivation of this grain is proving to be a 'win-win' situation as it allows farmers to produce a crop from swampy, poor quality land, at the same time benefiting the environment by providing a habitat for waterfowl and other wildlife. Because the crop is virtually free of pests and diseases no herbicides or pesticides are needed.
The heating involved in the processing of wild rice gives it a delightfully full and rich flavour, earning it the title the “caviar of grains”. Unfortunately, the caviar label is also reflected in its high price. Currently, demand outstrips supply but it is hoped that as more of this delicious grain becomes available, prices will lower. Meanwhile, a good way to enjoy wild rice without blowing the budget is to use it in blends with other rice. The cooking time and method is the same for wild rice as brown rice, so they can be cooked together. Even just substituting a quarter of the brown rice with wild rice will
provide a real flavour and nutritional boost. Wild rice also works well combined with various other filling ingredients for stuffed vegetables.
Nutritionally, wild rice is similar to brown rice, but with significantly higher levels of protein, riboflavin and folate.
Botanically speaking, grains are the fruit (often incorrectly called the seed) of plants belonging to the grass family. Therefore quinoa (pronounced 'keen-wa'), being a member of the beet and spinach family, is not technically a grain. But because it has characteristics similar to other grains and is cooked and utilised in the same way, quinoa has been given honorary membership to the club. It is sometimes referred to as a “pseudo-cereal”.
Quinoa was an important and sacred food to the ancient Incas of South America, where it was known as the “mother grain”. Incan armies made “war balls” out of quinoa and fat to sustain them on their long marches. Traditionally, the first seed of the season was planted by the Incan leader, using a solid gold shovel!
After the Spanish conquest, when crops such as barley and wheat were introduced, quinoa became less important. It has been suggested that the cultivation of quinoa may have been actively discouraged by the Spaniards because of the status the grain held in Incan culture. Fortunately it did not disappear altogether, and is now making a huge comeback, touted by many nutritionists as the “supergrain of the future”.
The reason for this tag is quinoa’s protein content. Not only does it contain a higher percantage of protein than other grains, it contains an amino acid balance close to the ideal. It is also a rich source of various minerals such as iron and calcium. Being gluten free, quinoa provides another alternative for those people with a gluten intolerance. It also has the benefit of being a non acid-forming food, unlike most grains.
Quinoa grains are tiny, like a cross between millet and sesame seed. They cook in about 15 minutes, using 1 part grain to 2 parts water or other liquid. They can be substituted for rice or couscous in many recipes, added uncooked to soups and stews as a thickener, made into flour or even sprouted. You can also dry roast quinoa in a pan before cooking to give a toasted flavour.
Quinoa has a rather novel way of letting you know when it is cooked. Each individual grain turns translucent except for a white tail-like spiral. This spiral is in fact the outer germ which twists around with the heat but remains attached to the kernel. This not only indicates that the grain is ready to be eaten, but provides a texture contrast - the translucent part is mild and tender while the white spiral adds a little crunch.
Before cooking quinoa it is important to put it in a strainer and rinse well under running water. This is to remove the bitter tasting saponins which occur naturally in the plant as a defence against birds. Most of the saponins are washed out before packaging, but it is a good idea to give it another rinse yourself. Saponins wash away easily, their presence being indicated by a soapy residue. In South America, the saponins from quinoa have been used to wash clothes and as an antiseptic for treating skin wounds.
There are a number of other ancient grains which are gaining renewed popularity, amongst them Kamut, (a registered trademark for an ancient wheat relative with a 'sweet' taste and similar advantages to spelt), teff (a highly nutritious, miniature grain from Ethiopia) and amaranth (another psuedo-cereal with benefits similar to quinoa).
Today there seems to be some debate about just how much of a role grains should play in a healthy diet. Many nutritionists encourage a plentiful consumption of whole grains, citing the merits of their high fibre, complex carbohydrate, vitamin and mineral content. On the other side of the fence are those who believe a high intake is detrimental to health, leading to excess acidity, encouraging allergies, putting a strain on the digestive system and, perhaps most significantly, displacing fruit and vegetables in the diet.
Perhaps a happy medium can be reached between these two schools of thought by reducing the quantity of grains and increasing the quality. The high nutrient density of the grains discussed in this article means that small servings can provide a good percentage of nutrients without some of the negatives commonly associated with excessive grain intake.
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