Every time I go to Viet Noodle Bar in Atwater Village, I order the same thing: a bowl of brown rice, laced with mung beans and tofu and fresh herbs. I know, it sounds too boring and, well, just too wholesome to be so addictive. But grain dishes can surprise you like that. A bland bowlful can put you off the stuff for good, but try a well-made dish centered on grains like farro or brown rice or bulgur or spelt, one that’s deeply flavorful and perfectly balanced, and you’ll be eating quinoa tabbouleh like chocolate chip ice cream too.
Not only are grains ancient foods, trailing history and marking cultural roots like scattered footprints, but they’re also the foundation of many easy and healthful dishes. And though the flavors of grains can be very different -- quinoa is subtle and faintly grassy, farro is nutty and surprisingly sweet -- they’re often virtually interchangeable within recipes and in cooking technique. Which makes putting a basic grain dish in your cooking repertoire a very good idea.
Once you find a dish you like, you can make it again and again, substituting whatever grains you have on hand or even experimenting with new ones, adjusting the flavors of the dish to match any differences.
Grains, like pasta, can be cooked with other ingredients, but a simpler and more direct method is to cook the grains separately first, just by boiling them until tender in lightly salted water. This increases the versatility of the grains and the recipes themselves, since you can add cooked grains to any number of dishes, or make the same dish with a variety of different grains.
Cook a big pot of bulgur or millet or barley at the start of the week, then use a cup of it in a garden salad, tossed with a vinaigrette dressing and spiked with fresh herbs. Another cup might go into a just-finished pot of hearty minestrone soup; another, added to a hot pan of caramelized onions, into a warm side dish of roasted vegetables and feta cheese.
One of the most appealing things about grains is that they can be treated in essentially the same way. Start cooking a pot of grains by following the instructions on the package. Use a cup or two of brown rice or spelt, quinoa or farro, bulgur or millet, and simmer the grains in lightly salted water in a ratio of 2 or 3 parts water to 1 part grain. The amount of water and the cooking time will vary slightly, depending on the grain. Quinoa takes about 15 minutes to cook; wild rice can take upward of 45.
Drain off any excess water -- what’s important is not that all the water is absorbed but that the grains are cooked correctly, and are not mushy but are tender and al dente; you can add more water during cooking if you think the grains are in danger of scorching. Then allow the cooked grains to cool slightly while you assemble the rest of the components. (The cooked grains will keep nicely for about five days stored in a sealed container in the refrigerator, so making more than you’ll use in a single dish can be very handy.)
Consider cooked grains as you would a bowl of pasta or brown rice: as the basis for a one-dish meal, a stir-fry or composed salad or even a casserole.
Taste them first, and think about what would best suit the flavors and textures. Tart or salty cheeses like feta or Parmesan match up really well with grains, as do the more assertive flavors of bitter greens and grilled vegetables.
The mild, earthy flavors of grains also make them terrific in salads, as they contrast well with the brightness of greens and herbs and the zing of a good vinaigrette.
An Asian flavor
For a terrific one-meal dish, try this easy recipe, inspired by my favorite Atwater Village nosh food. If you’ve never cooked Asian food, stir-frying in a wok is about as easy as it gets.
Start by simmering two cups of quinoa in a covered saucepan. While the grains are cooking, heat some peanut oil in a seasoned wok. One ingredient at a time, stir-fry slices of garlic and fennel and remove them from the hot wok. Then stir-fry shiitake mushrooms and add scallions, but before you take the vegetables out of the wok, add a dash of soy sauce and rice vinegar and let the flavors come together for a minute. Finally, toss everything together in a serving bowl with the quinoa, stirring in fresh cilantro, parsley and the zest and juice of a lime, and you have a terrific side salad or one-dish meal.
Stir in some toasted cashews (or peanuts if you prefer) at the end too, as nuts pair extremely well with the intrinsically nutty flavor of grains. Nuts also add a boost of protein, which can easily elevate a side dish to a main course.
Quinoa is extremely versatile, so if nuts aren’t your thing, try something else. Throw some shrimp or cubes of tofu into the hot wok. If you don’t have fennel on hand, stir-fry thinly sliced carrots or celery, or add in little florets of broccoli, or chopped kale, mustard or beet greens. And if you like heat, add sliced Thai chiles to the wok too.
You can flavor the grains by simmering them in chicken or vegetable stock instead of water, or adding a chile, a sprinkle of Aleppo pepper or a bouquet garni to the pot.
Although most grains can be cooked in much the same way, some may need to be treated slightly differently. For example, quinoa (pronounced keen-wa)-- a Peruvian seed that contains more protein than most other grains -- should be thoroughly rinsed before cooking to remove any lingering saponin, a bitter protective coating. (Use a fine strainer or cheesecloth, since uncooked quinoa is very small.) And although quinoa works fine when cooked at this point, both the taste and texture benefit enormously if you first briefly toast the drained seeds in a hot skillet (or the wok you’re using to make the dish).
Middle Eastern turn
Unlike other grains, bulgur -- a cracked wheat that’s long been a staple in Middle Eastern cuisine -- comes in many sizes. The finest grades of bulgur only need be soaked in boiling water before using. Medium and large grades of bulgur should be simmered in about twice their volume of salted liquid, like rice, until tender -- about 25 minutes or so, depending on the grade.
Once bulgur is soaked or cooked, it is tremendously versatile. Nuttier and with a firmer texture than quinoa, bulgur can stand up to stronger flavors and earthier ingredients.
You can replace the quinoa in this recipe with bulgur for an easy variation. Or instead of the fennel and shiitakes, stir-fry slices of red bell pepper and eggplant. Replace the cashews with walnuts, the lime with lemon, then add a dash of pomegranate juice instead of the soy sauce. The process is the same, but the flavor profile will be Middle Eastern instead.
Or you can make a simple salad with tart, wilted greens and a hefty shot of pepper or chiles; stir the grains into an herby tabbouleh; or fold them into ground lamb with herbs and spices for the Middle Eastern meatballs kofte.
Farro is another grain with an ancient provenance -- the name comes from the original word for wheat in Latin -- that has recently regained popularity. Similar to spelt, another European wheat, farro is a terrific grain, with a sweet, earthy flavor that makes it particularly well suited to salads and pilafs. Cook the farro as you would rice or bulgur, in boiling salted water until tender, maybe 30 minutes, then drain.
Simply toss the farro into the same fennel stir-fry. Or play to the distinctive qualities of the grain -- larger and sweeter than quinoa -- and stir-fry asparagus and haricots verts, then add a splash of sherry vinegar instead of the rice vinegar and soy sauce. Leave out the cashews, and shave Parmesan over the top of the dish.
Because of its innate sweetness, farro even more than other grains plays well against assertive flavors, so add salty feta cheese to a salad of farro, diced tomatoes and herbs, or combine the grain with roasted vegetables and a hearty balsamic vinaigrette.
Stir farro into a Tuscan vegetable and bean soup, and top with grated Parmesan. Or try making a grain version of mac ‘n’ cheese with farro -- just undercook the grains slightly, combine them with grated cheese and a bechamel sauce, top with breadcrumbs and even more cheese and bake for about half an hour.
If you want to get really creative, try amaranth, kamut, millet or wheat berries -- or whatever pretty grains you find at your local market. Adjust the cooking times, rinse or toast the grains if indicated.
Earthy and with a beautifully chewy texture, grains have a subtle nuttiness that provides a terrific foundation for many dishes and a great backdrop for other, bolder flavors. And the fact that they are inexpensive and, yes, exceedingly good for you just makes them taste that much better.