By Hans Butler
Just imagine that eating local in upstate New York could mean adding exotic heirloom whole grains to your diet! For many people, "eating local" involves a daunting change in lifestyle. Being accustomed to an out-of-season global selection 365 days a year, we have to retrain ourselves and even educate ourselves as to local fare. Cayuga Pure Organics (CPO), out of Brooktondale, New York, produces grains with intimidating names like freekeh and farro that are actually quite simple to prepare and offer nutritious and tasty alternatives to rice.
Prepare grains in a large enough container that they take up a quarter or less of the space. Always begin with a quick examination of the grain for stones and other foreign materials. Cover with a generous amount of water, stir, and drain. Repeat this process twice and then cover with fresh water, removing floating hulls from the surface.
Grain should be soaked for at least an hour. Soaking softens the grain, decreases cooking time and also helps break down the phytic acid that's present in most grains and prevents absorption of certain minerals (zinc, calcium, iron, and magnesium). Longer soaks will result in more sprouting, which further breaks down phytic acid, releases more enzymes and promotes easier digestion. Let me tell you about a few of our grains.
Live oats, a medium-sized light brown grain without a hull, have a nice rich milk flavor and an earthy finish. Most whole oats, having gone through heat and steam treatment to remove hulls, cannot be considered live foods. Hull-less oats are more nutritious; they're live and can be sprouted. They cook best with a 1¼:1 water to grain ratio. Simmer the soaked grain in a covered pot for 35-45 minutes. Or use live oats in sprouted raw oatmeal: soak overnight, drain in the morning and blend with dried fruit, water (or milk) and honey, then garnish with seeds or nuts. These oats, as well as CPO's other grains, work great for hot cereal too—just increase the ratio of water to grain (2:1).
Farro (emmer) is a small grain with a nice firm and chewy texture and a sweet taste reminiscent of honey-roasted nuts. The word farro is now used to describe several different grains around the world, but the farro of Cayuga Pure Organics is true emmer wheat, an ancient wheat strain that grows wild. It cooks best with a 1½:1 water to grain ratio, in 45-60 minutes. I like to make "farrotto"— basically risotto using farro instead of Arborio rice. Crack the grain gently in a coffee grinder just before soaking to help release the starches and encourage a creamy consistency.
Spelt berries are long golden grains with a cleft down the middle, also ancient and of Central European origin. They have a sweet honey flavor and plump, slightly chewy texture when cooked. Spelt cooks best with a 1½:1 water to grain ratio, in about 45-60 minutes. I like to sauté blanched Brussels sprouts in a smoking-hot cast iron skillet with a little oil and butter until they turn golden brown and slightly charred, then add some freshly steamed spelt berries for a simple and toothsome holiday side dish.
Rye berries are slender grains with an olive green tint that are used widely in Central and Eastern Europe. They have an earthy, woodsy flavor almost like mushrooms, with a subtle sour finish and a pleasant chewy texture. Rye isn't just for breads! Basic steamed rye berries work best with a 2:1 water to grain ratio, and cook in 45-60 minutes. I like to add these to cabbage salad with caraway seeds, mustard vinaigrette, and apples, or serve them alone or with a bit of cold smoked fish.
Freekeh is an immature spelt berry, roasted in the hull over hot coals to become a smoky green-colored grain. It has a subtle tangy flavor with a whiff of smoked green tea. This Middle Eastern preparation lends itself well to that region's cuisine. Having been roasted, it cannot be sprouted. It cooks best with a 1¼:1 water to grain ratio, in about 25-45 minutes, until the water is absorbed and the grain has gone tender. I love to make exotic salads with freekeh, using preserved citrus, cinnamon, cloves, cumin, and some nice dried apple mint. Freekeh is also lovely with just a touch of olive oil, a pinch of salt, and few turns of the pepper mill.
Wheat berries are a medium-sized grain with a dusty red and tan color. They have a nice sweet flavor reminiscent of spring flower honey and a pleasant chewy texture. Wheat berries cook best with a 2:1 water to grain ratio, in 45-60 minutes. I like to use them in my winter version of tabbouleh, adding winter greens and a nice garlic vinaigrette enhanced with some dried mint from the end of summer.
Note that all of these grains contain gluten, wheat berries having the highest content. Spelt, freekeh, farro (emmer), and rye all have very low gluten content. Sprouting grains will further reduce gluten levels. While people with celiac disease shouldn't eat these grains, those with mild gluten intolerance can often enjoy them in moderation.
Get into a spirit of fun experimentation so you can eat local in 2012! Enjoy trying CPO's grains in place of rice, pasta or hot cereal. Let's support our community's economy and make sure that healthy food continues to be farmed in the state of New York.
Chef Hans Butler has a degree in culinary arts from the Art Institute of Houston. A former owner of Watercress Restaurant, he's been working in the restaurant industry for almost 20 years and now develops recipes for Cayuga Pure Organics. He is an avid forager and devoted to feeding delicious, healthy food to his family. See page 6 for more information on his upcoming class at GreenStar on cooking with local grains.