Cooking & Entertaining

Grains: Got to Get You Into My Life

Written by Sally Charette

You’ve heard you should incorporate more whole grains into your diet, but cooking them can be intimidating. Like me, you may have a painful memory of trying to prepare brown rice on the stove top and ending up with a mass of scorched goo at the end of a long wait. My favorite saucepan was a mess, the kitchen reeked and I wasn’t up for a repeat any time soon. Then a friend recommended I treat myself to a countertop steamer. It solved all my grain cooking problems for about the cost of a meal out for two.

The essential tools
My Black & Decker Steamer is now one of my best friends. It’s easy to use, easy to clean and regularly produces perfectly cooked grains of all kinds. Whatever brand you choose, your steamer will come with instructions for whipping up a variety of healthy dishes. For grains, you simply fill the reservoir in the base with water and place the container with the perforated bottom on the base. Place the solid bowl filled with grain and water inside. Put the lid on, set the timer and relax.

While you’re shopping for a steamer, do yourself a favor and pick up a Pyrex 1-quart measuring cup.Most grains require thorough rinsing before cooking. Swirl a cup of grain in this roomy measuring cup, dump the rinse water and repeat until the water is clear. Move the grains to the steamer bowl with a rubber spatula. Wash the last few grains into the steamer along with the water or broth you measure and pour into the cooking bowl.

Make it an adventure
It takes a little experimenting to find new favorite foods, and grains are no exception. I’m not wowed by medium-grain brown rice, but I love basmati and jasmine. Jasmine is closer in taste and texture to the white rice I grew up loving.

You can successfully substitute rye, spelt, farro, barley or wild rice in any brown rice recipe. Because of their similar cooking times, these grains blend well. Try them on their own, or mixed with brown rice in any way that pleases your eye and palate.

Millet—yes that stuff you feed your parakeet—is a subtle grain that works surprisingly well as a hot breakfast cereal served with milk and honey. If you like something chewy for breakfast, try wheat berries.

You’ll also want to tinker with cooking times and amount of liquid to achieve the consistency you like. Some people are all about fluffy while others prefer an almost soupy dish. I like mine plenty moist, so I tend to use an ounce more of liquid than the chart calls for.

For more details on the flavors and nutritional benefits of even more grains, see Carrie Floyd’s whole-grain glossary on Culinate.

Getting the goods
Grocery stores typically carry basic brown rice, wild rice and barley in the same section as pastas or beans. Some stores offer more options in the natural foods aisle.

A trip to a health food store, however, should provide you with more exotic choices like quinoa (pronounced keen-wa), amaranth, rye berries, wheat berries and millet. If you’re just getting started, it may be worth the effort to find a health food store or food co-op in your area that carries grains in bulk. Shopping from bulk bins allows you to try a small amount at a time.

Packaged grains can be found on Amazon.com and elsewhere online, but are frequently sold in larger quantities or become pricey due to shipping charges. If this is your only option, you might try buddying up with a friend or family member to order and explore together.

Ready to add some grains to your plate? Try this easy-to-prepare recipe for simple harvest grains.

About the author

Sally Charette

Sally Charette often scribbles away the predawn hours in coffee houses and all-night diners, which simultaneously satisfies her love of hot beverages, writing and eavesdropping.

Originally from Indiana, Sally is now fully integrated into California life. She works as a script researcher, helping CSI:Miami, Army Wives, Switched at Birth and the occasional feature film stay out of trouble. She regularly travels Southern California and beyond in her pursuit of photography subjects, good food, music and art.

Her blog, Any Given Sundry, reflects her many interests and maybe reveals a little too much about her constant search for novelty. She was a PEN Center/West Emerging Voices fellow and has been in writing workshops, groups or critiquing relationships most of her adult life. The best she's ever felt about being runner-up was the year her first published short story was named "One of 100 Other Distinguished Short Stories" in Best American Short Stories.

Sally lives in the high desert mountains outside of Los Angeles with her husband and a small, deeply devoted flock of birds.