Cooking with whole grains
Maria Speck grew up in Greece and Germany before moving to the United States as a young adult. She is a writer and journalist, and has contributed to Gourmet, Saveur, and Gastronomica, as well as Marie Claire and Elle. Her book, Ancient Grains for Modern Meals, will give you all the basics of cooking with whole grains so you can appreciate the very best that each has to offer.
Style at Home: What would you say is the biggest misconception home cooks have about whole grains?
Maria Speck: I believe there are two major misperceptions about whole grains: people think they take forever to cook, and they are under the impression that all whole grains are chewy and about as appealing to eat as bricks! With my book, I hope to show that whole grains bring a dynamic range of flavours and textures to our tables—from comforting polenta, quinoa and millet to deliciously chewy whole wheat berries or hulled barley. To help busy families and professionals, I have divided whole grains into “quick-cooking” grains for weeknights (such as bulgur, buckwheat, whole wheat couscous), and “slow-cooking” whole grains which can be prepared ahead of time (spelt, rye, Kamut).
S@H: A lot of people aren’t used to incorporating grains into their diets – what is your suggestion for an easy way to start?
MS: I always suggest looking for recipes that have specifically been written for whole grains. Don’t just replace the pasta in your favourite dinner recipe with whole grain pasta. Instead, look for recipes with assertive ingredients which enhance the distinct aroma of hearty whole wheat pasta for an amazing new flavour experience. In my recipes, I always pair each grain with ingredients that highlight its character to create an appealing and delicious meal.
S@H: You grew up in both Greece and Germany – do you credit your European upbringing for your love of grains? What were some of your favourites?
MS: Yes, the fact that I have been raised in these two cultures has certainly fueled my own passion. Most important, no one ever reprimanded me, telling me to eat whole grains because they are “oh so good” for you—whole grains were simply part of our everyday meals. In Greece, we enjoy bulgur in countless variations to this day and Germany’s legendary crusty dark whole grain breads are to die for.
S@H: A lot of people only think of whole foods as “healthy foods” – not necessarily as tasting amazingly delicious. Your cookbook is wonderful in that it concentrates on the flavour that whole grains can bring to your daily dishes. Has that always been your approach to food?
MS: In cultures where whole grains are still traditionally served they are cooked into exquisite meals. This is how I was raised and this is why I wrote this book—to showcase the variety of textures and aromas whole grains can add to our diet. I love the fact that whole grains are healthy, and they are called nutritional powerhouses for a reason. But I believe we have done ourselves a disservice by labeling them as healthy. I believe only if whole grains taste fantastic, will they stay on our table for good.
S@H: What are some staples you always have on hand in your fridge and pantry?
MS: I always keep my pantry well stocked because it helps me to whip up dinner on busy weeknights. I have different kinds of grain on hand, in mason jars for easy access—from quick-cooking bulgur and millet to slower-cooking wheat berries and Kamut. I can’t live without extra-virgin olive and, in my fridge, you will always find feta, olives, Greek yogurt, and a hunk of parmesan.
S@H: What’s on the menu for dinner in your home tonight?
MS: Since it is a weeknight in late summer, I will make something simple: a quick lemon quinoa pilaf with lots of spring onions and feta. If the fancy strikes, I might broil some salmon with it or a chicken breast, or just enjoy the pilaf by itself.
You can learn more about whole grains in Maria Speck's book, Ancient Grains for Modern Meals as well as try some of her tasty recipes:
Artichoke-Rosemary Tart with Polenta Crust
Rustic Linguine with Summer Herbs and Olives
Wheat Berry Fools with Grand Marnier Figs