Take thou also unto thee wheat, and barley, and beans, and lentils, and millet,
and fitches, and put them in one vessel, and make thee bread thereof…
In my article series The Carb Myth, I argued that it is the quality, not the quantity, of our carbohydrate intake, that plays a role in good nutrition. Carbs are not the enemy of a healthy diet any more than fat is. Rather, in both cases, it is the source and value of each nutrient that matters.
Grains are an excellent source of high quality complex carbohydrates. Unlike highly refined carbs, which are low in fibre and convert easily and rapidly to glucose, whole grains are digested slowly. As a result, blood sugar levels remain relatively constant, without the insulin spikes of simple sugars and starches, and you feel full longer. Plus, your bowels and cholesterol levels are happy about the fibre.
However, many people in North America are not familiar with the wide variety of grains available. They assume that if they cut out the highly processed, bleached Uncle Ben’s crap that passes for grains, they have no other culinary choices, and so they consign themselves to protein bars filled with glycerin, or fake low-carb substitutes full of chemicals.
This is a mistake. Humans have a long history of grain consumption, and the cultivation of grains has been an essential part of most civilizations. There is a broad spectrum of grains that are easily available at the local supermarket and health food store, and they contribute variety, valuable nutrients, fibre, protein, and fatty acids to the diet. Additionally, their texture and taste is infinitely superior to refined junk. In this article, I’ll introduce you to some of the most common grains, and suggest ways in which you can prepare them.
the problem of lectins
Lectins are proteins found in grains and legumes (i.e. beans and peas). Emerging evidence suggests that these proteins can interact with the gastrointestinal tract, causing localized inflammation (e.g. stomach upset, bloating, gas, diarrhea) as well as systemic inflammation and immune system overactivity (e.g. rheumatoid arthritis, allergies, chronic pain, other autoimmune disorders). Because they interfere with the lining of the intestines, lectins can poke tiny holes in the digestive tract (aka leaky gut syndrome). Lectins can also change the proper balance of gut flora by inhibiting the growth of healthy intestinal bacteria and encouraging the overgrowth of other types.
Wheat is the biggest culprit but oats, rye and spelt are other offenders.
Grain intolerance — or more precisely, an inflammatory response to the proteins in grains, which can touch off a host of autoimmune symptoms — is relatively common. Unfortunately few affected people realize it, because the symptoms aren’t always stomach-based, and/or typically appear hours after consumption. And since most North Americans’ diet is grain-based, people with intolerances find themselves just chronically, generally ill from multiple ongoing exposure.
If you find yourself having vague autoimmune symptoms, consider eliminating grains for a week and see if that helps. This includes:
- bread, bagels
- pasta and other noodles
- baked goods: cookies, muffins, pastries
- granola and other breakfast cereals (most of which are crap anyway)
- wraps and flatbreads
- corn and corn products: chips, tortillas (yes, corn is a grain, not a vegetable)
Be sure to check for things like wheat gluten in ANY processed/prepared foods, including sauces and condiments… but if you’re eating Stumptuous style that means whole foods, so you shouldn’t be eating that crap anyway. Bear in mind that it isn’t just gluten; gluten is only one substance that can trigger the autoimmune response.
Here are some typical symptoms. You may have one, a few, or all of them. They may range from mild to severe. My own symptoms manifest themselves as allergies and skin irritation, which are almost precisely timed at 4 hours after grain consumption.
- Excessive fatigue
- Weight gain
- Vague digestive complaints: nausea, bloating, not feeling “right”
- Acute digestive complaints: cramping, vomiting, diarrhea, constipation, or alternating constipation and diarrhea — anything related to irritable bowel syndrome
- Skin irritations: rashes, psoriasis-type lesions, eczema
- Nasal allergies and irritation: sinusitis, the snufflies, congestion
- Joint pain and muscle aches — including exacerbated menstrual cramps and pain
- Chronic yeast infections
- Chronic urinary tract infections
- Iron deficiency anemia (since grains contain phytates that may inhibit proper mineral absorption)
Basically anything that seems like an autoimmune-type chronic disorder may be caused by intolerance. The mucosal tissues (gut lining, nasogastric passage, vaginal lining) are the most likely affected, but effects can persist throughout and manifest themselves as chronic autoimmune disorders like rheumatoid arthritis, allergies and asthma, chronic fatigue, etc. Some people even suggest that things like type 1 diabetes are linked to the autoimmune response to grains (since T1D is generally understood to be an autoimmune disorder).
The only way to know for sure is to eliminate ALL grains for a period of time and see. If you suspect that grains may be a factor in symptoms you’re experiencing, try cutting them out for a couple of weeks and keep a detailed list of your experiences. (Get your carbs from fruits and veggies instead, and maybe a little honey.) I discovered that I can almost turn my allergies on and off by consuming wheat. Within a few hours of consuming wheat, I’m itchy and sniffy. Luckily, in my case, it’s not overly serious, so on very rare occasions I’ll indulge in bread and deal with the snuffles.
More reading on grain intolerance:
You can also beat the lectins and other antinutrients by soaking, sprouting, and/or fermenting the grains beforehand. Because lectins are heat-resistant, they aren’t broken down by cooking.
More reading on lectins:
Cordain, Loren, L. Toohey, M. J. Smith and M. S. Hickey. Review article: Modulation of immune function by dietary lectins in rheumatoid arthritis. British Journal of Nutrition 83 (2000): 207-217.
so, umm… like, why are you telling us to eat grains?
I’m not. As you can see, many people are sensitive to them. However, folks who are new to dietary changes may struggle with going from 0 to 100 immediately. Few folks who are accustomed to a typical North American diet can switch overnight to a Paleo-style grain-free diet and make it work. It’s a lot more practical to say “switch to whole wheat bread from white bread” than to expect people to make drastic dietary changes right away, just like it’s a lot more practical to say “switch to diet soda from regular soda” even though both are garbage.
where to buy
If possible, buy these grains in bulk; they’ll be cheaper and you can just store them in glass jars or plastic containers. Make sure the containers are airtight and store the grains away from moisture. You can see a shot of my cupboard to the left (notice my Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure spelling of wild rice, and the mysterious jar of saurkraut in the back. This jar of saurkraut has been there since approximately 1998. Neither of us has the wherewithal to chuck it out; we fear that it has become a malevolent entity).
The average health food store will carry a decent selection of grains, so go in and look around. Most grains, with the exception of oats, store well after being cooked. It’s easy to cook up a large quantity of the grain of your choice and put it into smaller containers in the fridge. It usually stays fresh for a week or two. You can then grab a container on your way to work, reheat as needed for a quick side dish, or throw some into a salad. Many of these grains are also available in prepared cereal forms, but read the labels carefully to make sure your “healthy” breakfast isn’t loaded with sugar.
In general, to cook grains, you must simmer them in liquid (usually covered, except for oats and amaranth, or if you put them into soup). Typically, they’re a wee bit bland on their own, so unless you plan to add a sauce of some type later, it never hurts to throw a little zest into them. An easy way to add a little flavour is to substitute some chicken stock for the cooking liquid. However, I suggest you experiment with adding various flavours and spices, as well as things like sauteed veggies, fruit, and nuts to the mix. Whole grains often require much more cooking liquid than processed grains. They will also take longer to cook. If you find the amount of water listed in the recipes below makes grains too dry, just add more. For more ideas on how to prepare these grains, check out the fabulous Allrecipes. If you would like to know more about the nutritional content of the grains, check out NutritionData.com.
The tiny grains of amaranth, not much bigger than poppy seeds, are the seeds of the amaranth plant. The amaranth plant has many uses, particularly in South and Central America where it has an illustrious history dating back to pre-Columbian civilizations. It can be eaten in baked goods, popped like popcorn, and brewed into drinks and home remedies. I cook amaranth seeds in the morning for porridge. It has a grainy texture rather like grits. Amaranth porridge takes about 15 minutes to cook, so I just set it up first thing as soon as I get up, then wander off and do something else while I’m waiting. To cook amaranth as a grain side dish, use a ratio of 1:2.5 grain to liquid. For a porridge, use more liquid, about 1:3. To make amaranth porridge, put amaranth into a small saucepan with the required amount of water. Sprinkle in a little cinnamon and sweetener. Amaranth has a slight natural sweetness, so it won’t require much additional flavouring. If you like, also add chopped apple and chopped walnuts. Simmer uncovered on medium heat until the liquid is absorbed, stirring occasionally. Keep an eye on it as it gets close to the end, as the transition from “a little bit of liquid left” to “glued to the bottom of the pot” is a quick one. I usually dump some cottage cheese on top of this, but it can be eaten however you like.
Barley is fairly familiar to most folks in North America, though it seems to have originally been cultivated, like many grains, in Mesopotamia as far back as the Neolithic period. Humans, being clever and fond of getting tanked, figured out early that barley was not only tasty eating, but handy stuff for fermenting into beer and booze. Barley is commonly put into soups and stews, but it can also be cooked on its own. To make as a side dish, add 1 cup barley to 1.5 cup liquid, put both into a pot; cover and bring to boil, reduce heat to low and simmer until liquid is absorbed. Barley goes nicely with sweeter flavours such as dried fruit and nuts, but it’s versatile and will work with most flavours. You can substitute pearl barley for arborio rice in making a risotto.
buckwheat groats (kasha)
Buckwheat is believed to have originated in China. Although buckwheat noodles (soba) are a staple of East Asian cooking, I personally associate buckwheat grains with my grandmother’s Ukrainian cooking. Buckwheat groats are a great side dish in a fall meal, but they are also tasty when served with eggs as part of breakfast. The key to successful buckwheat groats is coating the grains with egg and toasting them before boiling. I also find that buckwheat is one of those foods like chili that is better on the second day. Thus, I often cook the grains, let them cool, fluff them with a fork, stir in the flavouring, and then re-bake it in the oven. Immediately after boiling, the grains often have a mushy texture, but if they’re allowed to cool then re-heated, they dry out nicely. To cook buckwheat, spray a nonstick saucepan with cooking spray, or coat with a small amount of oil or butter. Preheat pan over medium heat. Beat an egg, and pour it into the dry grains. Mix well, being sure to coat all the grains. You might need a second egg if you’re making a large quantity of buckwheat, but one egg should be fine for at least a cup and a half of dry grains. Pour into the pan. Stir frequently until the egg is cooked and grains are dry, which will only take a few minutes. Then pour 2 cups of liquid over the grains, cover the pot with a lid, and simmer until liquid is absorbed. I like to add additional flavour to buckwheat by sauteeing some chopped onions along with a bit of chopped bacon, ham, or sausage (I use turkey sausage), chopped mushrooms, and a pinch of nutmeg, salt and pepper to taste, then stirring this into the cooked buckwheat.
Bulgur is a form of whole wheat that is commonly found in Middle Eastern dishes such as tabbouleh (parsley and tomato salad). Because it is partially cooked, then ground, it cooks quickly. Instead of bringing to a boil, then simmering, often boiling water is poured over the dried grains, and the grains cook by soaking in the hot water. Bulgur can also be used as a higher-fibre substitute for bread crumbs in things like meatloaf and stuffings. I often make a dish I call “slurkey”. Basically, take some ground turkey, and mix it with egg and bulgur to make a slurry (hence the name slurkey). This basic slurry can then be flavoured as desired (I love putting pesto and pine nuts into it), and baked into a turkey meatloaf. Bulgur is versatile and will work with a variety of flavours. It can be baked into breads, eaten as a pilaf, stirred into soups, and tossed with salads such as the aforementioned tabbouleh. Cook bulgur using a 1:2 ratio of grain to liquid.
Kamut is an ancient form of durum wheat. Its geographic origins are ambiguous, although Egypt is a strong contender for its birthplace. It’s typically found in baked goods, cereals, and pasta, and is often well tolerated by people who are sensitive to regular wheat.
Millet is a widely cultivated grain across Europe, Asia, and northern Africa. Like most old grains, it has many uses including baking, brewing, and pilafs. It’s relatively high in magnesium, and has small amounts of niacin and phosphorus. It seems to be relatively non-allergenic and is well tolerated by most people. Millet can be cooked like a pilaf using 1:2.5 millet to water ratio, or one can use 1:3 for a creamier, more porridge-like consistency. Millet is cooked like a typical grain: covered and simmered until the liquid is absorbed. I find that like amaranth, you have to watch millet carefully or it will adhere itself to the pan very rapidly near the end of cooking. Some people also roast the dry millet grains prior to boiling, by shaking them for a few minutes in a hot pan before adding the liquid. Millet porridge is nice with nuts and fruit, or you can use it as a substitute for couscous.
Oats are pretty familiar to most of us who recall Wilford Brimley’s avuncular exhortations to eat Quaker cereal. Oats are available in many forms, and their speed of cooking depends on the degree of processing. The more processed, the less time it takes to cook them. Beware of highly processed instant or quick-cook oatmeal preparations, as they often contain chemical flavourings and lots of sugar. They’ve also had much of their good stuff stripped out. Oatmeal cereals also suffer from this problem, so buy the grains instead of anything preprocessed, and read the labels carefully. Rolled oats are less refined. The best option is to buy steel-cut oats (sometimes called Irish or Scottish oats) or oat groats, which are a more complete form of the original oat grain. The drawback, of course, is that it does take a while to cook the less refined oats. Again, a little strategy comes in handy: fire it up first thing in the morning, and then go do something else for 15 minutes or so while the thing simmers. Oats can be flavoured like amaranth with dried and fresh fruit, nuts, and cinnamon. If you like milk with your oatmeal, you can also mix the milk with a bit of whey, then pour it over the hot cereal for some extra protein. My younger sister loves dry oats – she eats them straight. In Scotland and Ireland, oats are used as the Everygrain in breads, cookies, batters, and so forth. After a trip to Scotland, I got hooked on oatmeal biscuits which are eaten rather like toast as part of breakfast. Oatmeal, when applied to the skin, will also soothe itching and dryness, although you may want to wash it off before you go out walking around unless you want people to think you’re the Swamp Thing with a horrible case of acne.
In Showgirls, possibly one of the worst films ever made, one showgirl has a memorable bit of dialogue with another as Showgirl #1 queries Showgirl #2 on her commitment to an ascetic slimming diet. It goes something like this:
SG#1: “Don’t they have brown rice and vegetables?”
SG#2: “Do you like brown rice and vegetables?
SG#2: “You do?”
SG#1: “Sort of.”
SG#1: “It’s worse than dog food.”
Brown rice, in this witty interchange, signifies something tasteless and fibrous that the determined showgirl must endure in order to stay whippet-slim and stage-ready. In any case, it’s supposedly nasty stuff.
And yet there are many varieties of brown rice as well as other types of rice. In the cupboard shot at the top of this page, you can see a jar of Asian black sweet rice on the far left. Now, this is glutinous and probably high-glycemic like regular white rice, but it makes the most wonderful rice pudding with a unique colour (I serve coconut black rice pudding with a lemon cheesecake for a lovely colour contrast). Brown rice (shown on the right hand side of the picture above) comes in a basmati format that can be used just like regular basmati rice. Cook using about a 1:2 ratio of brown rice to liquid. Like most fibrous grains, it will take longer to cook than white rice.
Wild rice is in the centre of the photo above. It’s a uniquely Canadian rice that was originally grown indigenously in wetlands by First Nations people. As such, I find that it tastes nice with a “woodland” sort of flavouring. While the rice itself is cooking, I saute some onions, then mix them with a little bacon, ham, or sausage, sauteed mushrooms, walnuts, and cranberries or blueberrries. This mixture is then stirred into the wild rice when the rice is cooked. Buy the real wild rice, not the fake blended-with-white-rice stuff. Real wild rice has long grains and a black shell. A day before cooking, dump the grains into a bowl of water and soak in the fridge overnight. Then drain this soaking liquid before cooking. You can also cook without pre-soaking; it just takes longer. Cook wild rice using about 1:2.5 grain to liquid. If it’s too dry, add some more liquid. You have to cook the hell out of wild rice, so be patient and give yourself an hour of prep time if you’re expecting guests.
Red rice, on the left hand side of the photo above, adds nice colour and flavour to meals, and goes especially well with Mexican dishes. For a Central American side dish, flavour the cooking liquid with tomato juice or tomato paste, sprinkle in some coriander, cumin, and salt, and cook with black beans.
In university, I used to room with a guy from Singapore, whom we called Crazy Cho. Crazy Cho used to drive us nuts by stinking up the house cooking shark and octopus, but he redeemed himself by kindly leaving us his rice cooker when he moved out. At first I thought it was a rather silly appliance. Now I love it. It cooks rice absolutely perfectly every time. If you’re looking for a somewhat superfluous yet handy appliance, get a rice cooker. All you do is dump the rice and liquid in, flip the switch, and the machine does the rest.
Quinoa is an ancient South American grain that has been cultivated for over 5000 years. Its success as a crop is due in part to its tolerance for harsh conditions, such as those found in the Andes. Quinoa is relatively high in protein and essential minerals such as iron. I love its crunchy yet slightly chewy texture. When cooked, the germ of the grain curls out around the body like a little tail. Quinoa makes a great side dish and addition to salads, or it can be stirred into a ground meat mixture. Rinse the grains before cooking to remove any vestiges of the saponin coating that has protected the grain from its rugged growing conditions. Then cook just like rice by simmering in a covered pot, using about 1:2 ratio of quinoa to water, until the liquid is absorbed. The grains will expand to about three times their size, as you can see in the photo – cooked quinoa is on the left, and raw quinoa on the right. Some folks toast the dry grains first, to add flavour.
Spelt is one of the oldest cultivated grains, and although it originated in Mesopotamia, was popular in Europe (it’s known as “farro” to Italians and “Dinkel” to the Germans). The grains can be cooked whole, but it’s more typically found in products such as breads, cereals, and pasta.
Most of us know about whole wheat bread, but may not be aware that whole wheat grains (aka wheat berries) make an excellent side dish. The grains have a similar size and texture to barley and can be cooked as a pilaf or thrown into soups and stews. The thing about wheat is that you have to cook the living daylights out of it, and use plenty of water, otherwise it ends up too dry and chewy. Ideally, presoak the grains for a day or so beforehand (just put it into the fridge). Drain before cooking. Use about 2.5 to 3:1 water to grains. For a nice breakfast, warm the grains and stir in some blueberries and chopped walnuts with a pinch of cinnamon and tiny bit of brown sugar or honey.