Amazing Grains & Herbs

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Red Quinoa
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Quinoa and Garden Greens Pilaf.
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“Cereals [grains] … rank first among vegetable foods; being of hardy growth and easy cultivation, they are more widely diffused over the globe than any of the flowering plants. They include wheat, oats, rye, barley, maize (Indian corn), and rice; some authorities place buckwheat among them. Wheat probably is the most largely consumed; next to wheat comes rice.”
–Fannie Merritt Farmer (1918), The Boston Cooking-School Cook Book

Grains have been the “staff of life”–a source of physical and even spiritual well-being–since ancient times. Prehistoric people gathered the first form of rice from the wild. Wild wheat kernels, possibly dating to 6700 b.c., were found in an excavation in Iraq. And records from 2800 b.c. reveal that barley was one of China’s five sacred cultivated plants, along with millet, rice, soybeans and wheat. In the Americas, indigenous people have revered maize for centuries, calling it “She Who Sustains Us” because of its culinary importance as well as for its role in religious rites.

People on every continent still rely on grains for daily sustenance … and for good reason. Whole grains are simple, satisfying and nutritious. What’s more, grains blend beautifully with other foods and herbs–you can serve them for breakfast, lunch and dinner, as a main course or a side dish, without any danger of repetition or boredom.

Here are a few of my favorite recipes that feature grains with herbs. Consider them a starting point for your own creativity–you’ll find the possibilities practically endless. (For more recipes and information about grains, visit

Millet and Sweet Potato Squares

Makes 8 to 10 servings

You can serve these squares as an appetizer or snack, for lunch or as dinner. Refrigerate any leftovers–they taste even better the next day.

½ cup millet
4 cups coarsely grated sweet potatoes
½ cup chopped onion
2 large garlic cloves, pressed or minced
3 tablespoons ground flaxseed
3 tablespoons ground sesame seed
¼ cup nutritional yeast flakes
2 teaspoons dried thyme OR 1 tablespoon minced fresh thyme leaves
2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
Few pinches cayenne pepper
Freshly ground black pepper
3 cups vegetable stock or water
1½ tablespoons tamari soy sauce 
4 tablespoons olive oil

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Oil a 9 x 13-inch baking dish. Toast millet in a pan over medium-high heat for a few minutes until the first grain pops or until you smell its aroma. Rinse millet in cold water and drain.

In a large bowl, combine toasted millet, sweet potatoes, onion, garlic, ground flax and sesame, nutritional yeast, thyme, parsley, cayenne and black pepper and toss well. In a large glass measuring cup or bowl, combine stock or water with tamari and oil and stir to blend. Pour liquid ingredients over vegetable and grain mixture and stir until blended.

Transfer mixture into prepared dish. (Mix will be fairly wet.) Bake for 25 minutes, then reduce heat to 350 degrees and bake for another 25 minutes. The veggies and grains should be set but still moist and should look golden on top and bottom. Remove from oven and place on a baking rack to cool. Cut into squares and serve.

Adapted from Cooking with the Right Side of the Brain by Vicki Rae Chelf (Avery Publishing, 1990).

Quinoa and Garden Greens Pilaf

Makes 6 to 8 servings

This ancient grain is available in white, red and black. I like to combine the white and red types for a two-color effect. For this pilaf, I use a pan with a glass lid. This allows me to see when the liquid has been absorbed without lifting the lid during cooking.
Note: Quinoa should be rinsed at least three times to remove the saponins (bitter resin-like substances that coat the seeds) before cooking.

2 tablespoons olive oil
1 small to medium onion, chopped (1 to 1¼ cups)
½ red bell pepper, chopped (about ¾ cup)
3 garlic cloves, minced or pressed
1½ cups quinoa (¾ cup white and ¾ cup red), thoroughly rinsed and drained
3 cups vegetable broth or water
2 heaping cups packed greens (stems removed), such as kale, arugula, chard, lamb’s-quarters or dandelion greens, cut into thin crosswise strips
1 small chile pepper, seeded and finely minced (optional)
½ teaspoon salt (optional; omit if broth is salted)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In a sauté pan with an ovenproof, tight-fitting lid, heat oil over medium. Add onions, partially cover pan and sauté for 2 minutes. Add bell pepper, stir and sauté for another 2 to 3 minutes. Add garlic and quinoa and sauté for 4 or 5 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Carefully add about 1/2 cup of broth or water; the pan will steam and bubble up furiously; repeat with another half cup and stir. Add the rest of the broth or water, the greens and the chile, if desired. Sprinkle with salt, if desired; stir well and cover pan.

When contents begin to simmer, transfer pan from the stovetop to the preheated oven. Bake for about 25 minutes, or until liquid is absorbed. Remove pilaf from the oven and let stand, covered, for 5 to 10 minutes. Before serving, gently stir pilaf with a fork to mix in the greens. Taste for salt and season lightly, if necessary. Serve hot or warm.

Stovetop method: After contents begin to simmer, reduce heat to medium-low and continue to cook pilaf on the stovetop until tender.

Buckwheat Kasha with Onion and Mushroom Sauté

Makes 6 to 8 servings

The following recipe is in two parts–one for cooking the groats, the other for the mushroom topping. The earthy flavor of the mushrooms combines nicely with the nutty-flavored buckwheat, while the sweet-savory flavor of thyme complements both foods. You also could serve the groats alone, or combine them with any other vegetable.

Buckwheat Groats
1½ cups buckwheat groats (use untoasted kind, if available)
3 cups hot vegetable broth or water
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 bay leaves
1 garlic clove, pressed or minced
1 tablespoon minced fresh thyme
½ teaspoon salt (optional)

In a heavy sauté pan with a tight-fitting lid, sauté groats over medium heat. Shake the pan or stir, cooking for about 5 minutes, until groats smell sweet and color turns from pale tan-green to light toasty brown. (Note: If you purchased toasted buckwheat, generally sold as kasha, skip this procedure.)

Carefully add 1/2 cup of hot broth or water to pan; be careful because it will bubble up furiously and steam. Carefully add another 1/2 cup broth, then add remaining broth, olive oil, bay leaves, garlic, thyme and salt. Stir and cover. Bring to a simmer, then reduce heat to medium-low and cook for 15 minutes or until liquid is absorbed. Remove pan from heat and let stand for about 10 minutes while you prepare the Mushroom and Onion Sauté.  

Mushroom and Onion Sauté
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 cup chopped onion
8 ounces mushrooms (button, cremini, shiitake, trumpet or a combination),brushed clean, stemmed and sliced
3 large garlic cloves, peeled and sliced thin
1 tablespoon minced fresh thyme
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon good-quality balsamic vinegar
¼ cup chopped fresh Italian parsley

In a sauté pan, heat oil over medium. Add onion and sauté for 3 or 4 minutes, then stir in mushrooms and sauté for another 2 or 3 minutes. Add garlic and thyme, season lightly with salt and pepper, stir and cook a few minutes more until mushrooms are just tender (if overcooked, they will become rubbery). Add vinegar and parsley, stir and turn off heat. Taste for seasoning.

Fluff groats with a fork, then transfer groats to a warmed serving dish and cover them with the Mushroom and Onion Sauté. Serve hot as a main or side dish.

Basmati and Wild Rice Salad with Red Cabbage

Makes 6 to 8 servings

This healthful salad is extremely versatile. Wild rice adds color and a pleasant, chewy texture, while cabbage adds sweetness and crunch. But you could substitute other grains and vegetables. In place of the wild rice, I sometimes use cooked wheat berries. Short- or long-grain brown rice, steamed quinoa, amaranth or couscous would be good, too. Also try different herbs, depending on what is in season or what you have on hand: thyme, chives, dill, lovage, arugula or watercress all would be tasty here. Serve this salad as a main course or side dish.

Rice Mix
4 cups water
½ teaspoon salt
1½ cups brown basmati rice
½ cup wild rice
2 teaspoons olive or cold-pressed vegetable oil

In a heavy-bottomed pot with a tight-fitting lid, bring water to a boil. Add salt, rice, wild rice and oil and stir. Cover, bring to a simmer, then reduce heat to low. The rice still should be steaming; cook at a low simmer. Do not remove lid while cooking. When steaming stops (in about 45 minutes), remove pan from heat and let stand 10 minutes before removing lid. As the rice cooks, prepare vegetables and other ingredients.

Vegetable and Herb Mix
1 celery stalk, split lengthwise and chopped crosswise
¾ cup chopped onion
1 cup shredded red cabbage
1 carrot, grated
? cup chopped fresh parsley
1 tablespoon fresh marjoram, chopped
½ cup dried cranberries, coarsely chopped
½ cup tamari almonds or toasted almonds, coarsely chopped

About 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
Juice of half a lemon
2 teaspoons tamari soy sauce
2 large garlic cloves, minced fine
Salt and freshly ground pepper

In a large bowl, combine all Vegetable and Herb Mix ingredients and toss well. For the dressing, combine oil, lemon juice, tamari and garlic in a small bowl or large measuring cup. Season lightly with salt and pepper; mix well with a fork.

After rice has stood for at least 10 minutes, remove lid and fluff with a fork. Transfer rice to a bowl and toss lightly with vegetables. Pour dressing over rice salad and toss well. Let stand about 10 minutes, toss again and taste for seasoning. Adjust with a little more oil, lemon juice, salt or pepper.

Serve warm or at room temperature. If refrigerated, remove salad about 15 to 20 minutes before serving to reach room temperature.

Contributing Editor Susan Belsinger frequently writes and lectures about the many aspects of herbs, most especially using them in cooking. Grains are the staff of life, while herbs create the magic, in her vegetarian kitchen in Brookeville, Maryland.

Barley Mushroom Soup

Makes 6 servings

This hearty variation of the traditional soup uses dried mushrooms for extra-rich flavor. I like to use porcini mushrooms, but shiitake or a blend of dried mushrooms would be equally delicious. The immune-boosting compounds in astragalus root (an Asian herb, whose root is commonly sold at health-food stores) and garlic make this soup especially good for cold-and-flu season. Penzeys Spices ( sells the Half-Sharp paprika.

You can make this soup in the morning or the day before you serve it. Let it cool completely before refrigerating. Gently reheat to a simmer before serving.

1 1/2 cups whole barley, rinsed and drained
8 cups water or vegetable stock
3 bay leaves
2 cups simmering water
1/3 to 1/2 cup dried porcini mushrooms, roughly chopped or broken
1 slice astragalus root (optional)
1 teaspoon dried marjoram OR about 2 teaspoons chopped fresh marjoram leaves
1 medium onion, chopped
2 celery stalks, chopped
2 carrots, sliced crosswise into rounds
6 garlic cloves, minced
15-ounce can diced tomatoes
6 to 8 fresh sage leaves, cut crosswise into thin ribbons
1 tablespoon minced fresh rosemary leaves OR 1 teaspoon minced dried rosemary leaves
1 teaspoon salt, or to taste
1 teaspoon Hungarian paprika
1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon Half-Sharp paprika OR few pinches cayenne pepper
Freshly ground pepper, to taste

In a large, nonreactive soup pot with a lid, bring barley, water (or stock) and bay leaves to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Meanwhile, put dried mushroom pieces in a bowl and add simmering water; cover bowl with a plate and allow mushrooms to soak.

After soup has cooked about 30 minutes, add astragalus root, marjoram, onion, celery and carrots to pot. Stir, cover and cook over medium, at a bare simmer, for about 15 minutes. Add garlic, tomatoes, sage, rosemary, salt, paprikas, soaked mushrooms and their liquid to the pot. (If mushrooms seem gritty, remove them from their liquid and strain the liquid through cheesecloth before adding to soup.) Stir well, cover and cook for another 15 minutes.

At this point, the barley should be cooked to a tender but firm texture–slightly softer than al dente. Sometimes barley will be tender after 45 minutes of cooking; other times it requires 90 minutes. Test barley and cook longer if necessary. Also, if the soup has cooked down and becomes very thick, add another cup or two of water or stock to keep the soup from sticking and burning on the bottom.

Finish with freshly ground pepper and more salt, if necessary. 

“Ceres, most bounteous lady, thy rich leas
0f wheat, rye, barley, vetches, oats, and pease”
–William Shakespeare, The Tempest, Act IV

Southwestern-Style Grits

Makes 4 to 6 servings

When I speak of coarse grits, I mean the stone-ground grits, sometimes called “speckled grits,” that still contain the germ and take 20 to 25 minutes or more to cook. I buy speckled grits whenever I visit North or South Carolina, double-bag them and store them in the freezer.

I like this casserole for breakfast, lunch or dinner. In a pinch, you could substitute a can of prepared green chiles, but the flavor won’t be as good and the dish won’t have as much heat.

1 1/2 cups coarse grits
4 cups water
1 teaspoon salt
4 green chiles, such as poblano, New Mexico or Anaheim, roasted, peeled, seeded and chopped
3 garlic cloves, pressed or minced
1 teaspoon dried Italian oregano, crumbled OR 2 teaspoons minced fresh Italian oregano
1/2 teaspoon cumin seed, toasted and ground
1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon chili powder or Cajun seasoning
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 cup grated cheddar cheese
Freshly ground black pepper
Hot pepper sauce

Rinse grits to remove chaff (husks). In a heavy, nonreactive saucepan, combine grits, water and salt. Cover and bring to a boil, then remove lid, stir and continue to cook uncovered over medium heat for 10 to 15 minutes.

When grits begin to thicken and erupt, reduce heat to medium-low. Add chiles, garlic, oregano, cumin and chili powder or Cajun seasoning, and stir well. Continue cooking and stirring. When grits become thick (about 20 to 25 minutes), taste to see if they are tender. If they are hard or crunchy, continue cooking–add a little more water, if necessary–until grits are tender.

After cooking, stir in 1 tablespoon butter and a small handful of cheese. When ready to serve, add remaining butter and another handful of cheese; season lightly with freshly ground pepper, stir and serve. Garnish with additional grated cheese and a small pat of butter, if desired. Pass hot pepper sauce.

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