Grain salad? Simply grand — really

Farro salad with mushrooms, dill and feta.
(Gary Friedman / Los Angeles Times)
Los Angeles Times

Confession time here: For years I avoided cooking with whole grains. There was just such a tinge of sacrifice I associated with them. They seemed like food for penance, not pleasure. “Eat them, they’re good for you.”

Sure, I’d occasionally add some pearl barley to a mushroom soup, and last year I found a delicious Greek dessert made from wheat berries, but that bit of dabbling was pretty much the extent of it. No longer. After spending a couple of weeks playing with various whole grains, cooking them this way and that and turning them into summer salads, I’m ready to say: “Eat them, you’ll like them.”

I have no idea why I spent the last 30 years preparing these kinds of dishes with rice, beans and even lentils while ignoring barley, bulgur and quinoa. That’s just what prejudice will do to you.


Honestly, these grain salads taste so good I am willing to overlook that they may, in fact, be good for me. Add that they are easy to cook and can be prepared a day or more in advance, and they are just about the perfect summer side dishes. Because the grain gives them enough substance to be satisfying, they can even be main courses on light eating days.

Start by playing with familiar flavors. Pick a grain, any grain, and stir in your favorite tomato salad mix — chopped tomatoes, red onions, garlic, basil. You can’t miss.

Other combinations can be more specific. If you like mushroom barley soup, fold sautéed mushrooms into a bed of farro, an Italian grain similar to barley. Add a handful of chopped fresh dill and some chopped walnuts. Finish with slivers of roasted red peppers and crumbled feta cheese.

How about combining quinoa with leftover grilled corn and tomatoes and tying it all together with a cumin-lime vinaigrette? Or mixing bulgur with zucchini, arugula and pine nuts?

Though most grains can be used interchangeably, that does not mean they are all the same. Flavor-wise, they may all be variations on “nutty,” but with specifics ranging from earthy (barley, wheat berry and farro) to more vegetable-like (quinoa, bulgur and millet).

But perhaps the biggest difference among the grains, and the biggest opportunity for exploration, is in texture.

Some grains — barley, wheat berry, farro and bulgur — are downright chewy. Even when they’re completely cooked, they don’t get soft, keeping a pleasant meaty texture. Others, such as quinoa and millet, are so tender they need to be handled carefully to avoid turning them to mush.

This process of exploration and experimentation is part of the fun of discovering grains. Indeed, prowling the grain section at your health food store can be a dazzling experience. No longer are they earnest collections of stodge.

Like most everything else in the food world, even the bulk bins have gone exotic. There, along with nutritional yeast and granola, you’ll find grains of every type and hue. Quinoa, certainly — but not just plain old. You can also find it in beet red and in black (and yes, the colors remain after cooking).

While you’re shopping, it’s also worth checking out the prepared salad section — often you’ll find already cooked grains that you need only to dress to make ready.

Not all grains work in salads. Amaranth, for example, is a disaster, cooking to the consistency of cream of wheat. No way to make a salad out of porridge. Buckwheat smells amazing but breaks apart when it’s cooked, leaking so much starch it’s impossible to keep it from clumping.

When it comes to cooking, each type of grain takes its own treatment, but one thing they all seem to share is a love of toasting. A couple of minutes over medium heat in a dry pan deepens and enriches their flavors. This makes more of a difference with some than with others, but in general I toast all grains at the start of cooking (this even goes for winter morning oatmeal).

Some grains take special treatment. Quinoa is the trickiest. Cooked the wrong way, it can taste soapy and bitter. But blame the cook, not the grain. Quinoa grains come covered in a natural, plant-generated pesticide called saponin; they must be thoroughly rinsed before cooking.

The amount of water used in cooking grains varies by variety, as does the method used. Most grains are cooked like rice — simmered with a measured amount of water until they are just dry, roughly 20 to 30 minutes, depending on the type.

But bulgur and couscous (technically a pasta, not a grain) take only minimal amounts of water and are simply soaked. At the other extreme, wheat berries need to be cooked as you would pasta — in a big pot of boiling water — and they can take nearly an hour to be ready.

The instructions that come with the grain packages are a useful guide, but they are not infallible. Some claim a grain needs to be soaked overnight before cooking — as you would beans. In my experience, that makes only a minimal difference in cooking time and doesn’t improve the final quality of the grain at all.

You might also want to play with the amount of water as well. The instructions for quinoa, for example, usually call for cooking it in twice as much water as grain. I found I liked it better for salads with a ratio of 13/4 cups of water for every cup of grain. My friend Martha Rose Shulman, who is way ahead of me on the healthful-cooking curve, says she prefers 11/2 times, if you then let the grain steam, covered, for five minutes or so off the heat after the liquid has evaporated.

Whatever kind of grain you’re using, it may still feel a little sticky after cooking. Simply rinse it briefly under cold running water to remove the excess starch and then shake it dry in a strainer.

Along the same lines, be abstemious with the dressings for grain salads. Because these grains are so starchy, they already have a generous texture; what they really need is a good perking up. A traditional vinaigrette, made with three parts oil to one part acid, will make them seem fatty and dull. Start with a mixture of equal parts; you may find you still need to add more acidity afterward.

In fact, you may find you prefer them made with no fat at all. And yes, I assure you, I’m as shocked that I actually typed those words as you are.