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What are whole grains?

Marnely Rodriguez-Murray is the author of the food blog Cooking with Books. A graduate of The Culinary Institute of America, she has worked as an overnight bread baker in Colorado and a chocolate maker in Virginia. She currently resides ...

Learn straight from the expert, Maria Speck!

Did you know September is National Whole Grains Month? To celebrate, we interviewed one of the most knowledgeable sources on whole grains, Maria Speck. She’s the author of Ancient Grains for Modern Meals, a cookbook packed with rustic but elegant dishes that will transform even the pickiest of whole grain eaters.

Ancient Grains for Modern Meals

Maria Speck, author of Ancient Grains for Modern Meals, is our go-to expert when it comes to whole grains. Growing up in Greece and Germany before moving the the U.S., Maria is constantly inspired to recreate traditional recipes from the cultures that surround her, introducing whole grains to the mix for her own twist. And her recipes aren't just about whole grains — her latest recipe, rosemary-infused Greek yogurt ice cream with orange marmalade, has us wishing summer were here to stay!

SheKnows: If you were introducing someone to whole grains, which three whole grains would you choose to start with and how?

quinoa

Maria Speck: That's easy! I would recommend bulgur, quinoa, and farro. Bulgur and the very trendy quinoa are fabulous because they cook up fast, in about 10 to 15 minutes — perfect for our busy lives. Bulgur, often referred to as ancient fast food, has an appealing deep nutty aroma and is wonderful for quick side dishes. Inspired by childhood memories, I created, for example, a flavorful bulgur with butter-roasted almonds and cinnamon. You can even just rehydrate this par-boiled and cracked wheat for grain salads or use it in an aromatic lamb burgers with bulgur and mint, also in my book, with lots of fresh herbs and spices.

Gluten-free quinoa, with its sweet grassy aroma and enticing crunch, is great in salads and sides but also in soups. I often prepare the super-easy lemon quinoa with currants, dill, and zucchini from my book. Farro is another favorite, a mouthwatering ancient wheat variety. As a whole grain, it takes a little longer to cook, but I don't hesitate to use semi-pearled farro on busy weeknights — it still retains some of the fiber and nutrients, and it introduces you to its delicate nutty aroma and enticing chew. No wonder it has become so popular with chefs and homemakers alike. It makes a terrific warming breakfast in early fall, a creamy farro with honey-roasted grapes, which many of my readers love.

Fuel up on these quinoa peanut butter banana bars >>

SK: What are some common misconceptions of whole grains?

MS: Many people think ancient grains take forever to cook. This is why I have separated grains in my cookbook into quick-cooking grains such as quinoa, millet, buckwheat, or bulgur — they can be on the table just as fast as white rice, in about 15 minutes. Slower-cooking grains such as whole wheat or spelt berries, hulled (whole-grain) barley or Kamut require a bit more time, an overnight soaking and a simmer of about 50 to 60 minutes. However, I always suggest you make a big pot ahead on the weekend and store them in the fridge for later use in salads, soups and warming breakfasts. Cooked grains will last in the fridge for at least five days. You can also freeze them, portion-size, which I do all the time, especially if I cook too much. My book provides all the instructions to guide you along.

Another common misperception is that all ancient grains are chewy. While some grains such as a whole wheat berries or whole-grain farro have a delicious chew, I am partial to comfort food and grains fit the bill here very well. Try a soft comforting bowl of warm polenta (cornmeal) with a little butter and salt — I always chose stone-ground— or millet, bulgur, buckwheat. These are the grains I reach to when I look for something soothing and uplifting in early fall or winter.

SK: What's your favorite whole grain to bake with and why?

MS: I love the rich textures and characteristic flavors different ancient grain flours bring to my everyday baking, in breads, pancakes, cookies and more. Hearty whole wheat flour, delicately nutty emmer wheat, earthy buckwheat flour or tangy and coarse pumpernickel rye. Combining some of these different flavors and textures makes the use of whole grain flours so appealing.

I always suggest people try so-called "white" whole wheat flour, especially if they are new to whole grain baking. It is a wheat variety with all the nutritional benefits of regular whole wheat flour but with a natural sweetness that many people find appealing. It also has a lighter color so your quick breads and cookies will bake up beautifully golden as if made with all-purpose flour — your family and friends won't even know you used whole wheat! What's not to love?

Whip up this sugar-free banana bread made with whole wheat flour >>

SK: What are the top health benefits of consuming a diet including whole grains?

MS: Whole grains are nutritional powerhouses. Eating three servings of whole grains a day can significantly reduce your risk for heart disease, stroke, Type 2 diabetes and certain cancers. Whole grains contain vitamins such as vitamin E and B-vitamins, minerals such as iron and magnesium, and antioxidants; they even contribute some valuable antioxidants not found in fruit and vegetables. And of course fiber! The average American consumes only 15 gram of fiber a day which is about half of what we should be eating.

Personally, I love that whole grains satisfy my cravings for comforting carbohydrates while adding great flavors and textures to my plate. Unlike the nutritionally "empty starches" in processed grains such as white rice or pasta, whole grains are immensely nourishing. This means a small amount can go a long way! And because whole grains keep you full longer they can help you lose those extra pounds.

SK: Describe your ideal whole grain meal (three courses — appetizer, entree, dessert) all made with whole grains.

MS: Here is what a dinner in the beautiful waning days of summer might look like: As a starter, I would serve my artichoke-rosemary tart with polenta crust. It is super-easy, can be made completely ahead, and I believe it has become one of the most cooked recipes from my book. A soft layer of polenta is topped and baked with artichokes and a custard of Greek yogurt, goat cheese and Parmesan — fabulous with a glass of chilled rosé or prosecco! The tart would be followed by Mediterranean mussels with farro and white wine, a light summer meal, and just as easy to put together. For dessert, I would bake a tray of tender honey-almond cantuccini, made with olive oil and whole wheat flour. These tiny almond biscotti are perfect next to a bowl of rosemary-infused Greek yogurt ice cream which I recently created for my blog. Try it!

Try this creamy goat cheese polenta recipe >>

More on whole grains

Apple quinoa parfait
Bean and bulgur chili
Millet tahini granola

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