Trying to make sense of what comprises a healthful diet can be a challenge. The news is filled with information about what not to eat, which sometimes leads to a what-to-eat conundrum.
Most experts say that the solution is to attain the correct proportion of animal protein to plant-based foods.
The American Institute for Cancer Research advises that we should aim for meals made up of 2/3 (or more) vegetables, fruits, whole grains or beans and 1/3 (or less) animal protein. Not every meal will easily fit this prescription, but generally speaking it is a guideline that is fairly easy to follow.
One way I’ve found to make sticking to these parameters easier is the “trough cooking” approach used by my editor of many years, the late Steve Plesa. He would cook up a big batch of some kind of whole grain on the weekend. Cooled and refrigerated, the “trough” was used in a variety of dishes throughout the week. One night the chewy grains would be showcased in a vegetable-rich soup, while another night they would be a side dish or stirred into a casserole. Other evenings the chilled grains would be tossed into mixed green salads, or incorporated into grain-based salads spiked with fruit and/or vegetables.
It’s the later, those delectable whole grain salads that most delight my palate.
Tossed with tasty vinaigrette and adorned with fruit, vegetables and fresh herbs, they are irresistible. Bless my little heart, if it doesn’t taste enticing, I don’t care how healthful it is.
Barley: Pearled barley has the darker bran shaved off, but cooks more quickly than whole barley and is more esthetically pleasing. I prefer to buy pearled barley at natural food stores because it tends to be larger and have a small portion of bran still attached. At the supermarket it’s fine, but has all of the bran removed and is smaller and whiter.
Farro: An ancient grain called “emmer wheat,” farro sated the Roman troops in biblical times and is said to have been first domesticated in the Fertile Crescent almost 10,000 years ago. It is nutty and delectably chewy. I use pearled (bran layer removed) or semi-pearled farro because it cooks quickly. For a quick side dish, throw a handful into boiling broth or water; reduce to medium and gently boil for 15 minutes, then drain and toss with a little olive oil, chopped parsley, salt and pepper.
Wheat Berries: Whole kernels of wheat that have the bran still intact. Use either red or white wheat berries; they have similar flavors and the same chewy textures. Look for wheat berries at natural food stores or in supermarkets with large natural food specialty sections.
Wild Rice: I love the crackly-crunchiness of wild rice. It used to be an expensive, special-occasion side dish. The 70s brought a wild-rice growing-gathering revolution. Previously, wild rice (an aquatic grass) was harvested only by hand in the rivers and lakes of the northern Great Lakes area. Now much of the nation’s wild rice is grown in California, flourishing in paddies designed for machine harvesting. That means more wild rice and more affordable prices.
Farro and Wild Rice Salad
Yield: 8 servings
4 sprigs of fresh thyme, divided use
3 3/4 cups low-sodium vegetable broth, divided use
Kosher salt, divided use
3/4 cup wild rice
1 1/4 cups semi-pearled or pearled farro
5 small tangerines, divided use, plus more if needed for juice
1 tablespoon rice vinegar
Freshly ground black pepper
1/4 cup vegetable oil
4 green onions, thinly sliced including half of dark green stalks
Optional garnish: roasted cauliflower florets, see cook’s notes
Cook’s notes: To roast cauliflower, preheat oven to 450 degrees and blanch the unpeeled cloves from 1 head of garlic in boiling water for 25 seconds. Drain and peel garlic. If cloves are large, cut in half lengthwise. Toss garlic with 1 large head of cauliflower (cut into 1- to 2-inch florets) and 3 1/2 tablespoons of extra-virgin olive oil. Roast 20 to 25 minutes, tossing twice during roasting. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Set aside to cool.
1. Bring 2 thyme sprigs, 1 3/4 cups broth, and 1 cup water to a boil in a medium saucepan. Add a pinch of salt, then rice; reduce heat to medium-low and cover. Cook until liquid is absorbed and rice is just barely tender, 35 to 45 minutes. Remove thyme sprig (leaves will most likely stay behind and that is fine). Drain, if needed. Cool. Meanwhile, cook farro: bring 2 thyme sprigs, 2 cups broth, and 1 1/2 cups water to boil on high heat. Add farro and cook, uncovered, 14 to 18 minutes, or until tender but still chewy. Drain; cool.
2. Peel 3 tangerines and tear into segments; set aside. Juice 2 tangerines and place juice in salad bowl; you should have about 1/2 cup of juice (squeeze more tangerines if necessary). Add vinegar, salt and pepper; stir to dissolve salt. Whisk oil into tangerine juice. Add tangerine segments, wild rice, farro, and green onions; toss gently to coat; taste and season with more tangerine juice, if desired. Remove remaining thyme leaves from stems and add leaves to salad; toss. Taste and adjust seasoning as needed. Salad can be prepared 6 hours ahead of serving and stored airtight in the refrigerator.
3. Mound on platter. If desired, place roasted cauliflower florets around edge.
This salad is adapted from “Ancient Grains for Modern Families” by Maria Speck (Ten Speed, $29.99). Speck used marinated dried figs in the salad, which is delicious. But last week I had a luscious quinoa salad at Marche Moderne restaurant (Costa Mesa) that was adorned with candied kumquats. I love the sweet-tart spark that those kumquats added to the mix, so I subbed them in for the dried figs. Kumquats are like inside-out oranges. The peel is sweet while the interior is tart. They are rich in vitamin C and are generally available from November through July.
Barley Salad with Kumquats and Tarragon
Yield: 4 to 5 servings
2 cups water
3/4 cup pearl barley
1 (2-by-1-inch) strip lemon zest (colored portion of peel)
Pinch of salt
1/2 cup water and 1/2 cup granulated sugar
1 1/2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1 teaspoon honey
Salt and pepper to taste
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh tarragon
2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh parsley, divided use
2 celery stalks, cut into 1/2-inch dice
1/2 cup finely chopped green onions (about 4), white and light green parts (save dark stalks for garnish)
1/2 cup coarsely chopped unpeeled cored tart apples, such as Granny Smith
Cook’s notes: Salad can be prepared (without the apples or garnish) 6 hours in advance, covered and refrigerated. Bring to room temperature and garnish before serving. If serving as a vegetarian entrée, garnish with toasted walnuts or almonds.
1. Cook barley: Place water, barley, lemon zest strip and salt in a 2-quart saucepan; bring to boil on high heat. Decrease heat and simmer, covered, until barley is tender but slightly chewy, 30 to 40 minutes. Remove from heat and set aside for 5 to 10 minutes. Drain any remaining liquid. Spread out on rimmed baking sheet to cool. Discard zest.
2. Cut kumquats in half lengthwise; pluck out and discard any large seeds with tip of a paring knife. Place 1/2 cup water and sugar in saucepan; bring to boil on high heat. Decrease heat and simmer 4 minutes, stirring occasionally until sugar dissolves. Add kumquats and simmer 10 minutes. Drain and set aside to cool (I reserve the syrup that is drained from the kumquats and store it in the refrigerator to use in cocktails.)
3. In a salad bowl, combine lemon juice, honey, salt and pepper; whisk to combine. Whisk in oil in thin stream. Add tarragon and 1 tablespoon chopped parsley; stir to combine. Add celery, green onions and apples, cooled barley and cooled kumquats. Gently toss. Taste and adjust seasoning as needed. Garnish with 1 thinly sliced dark green onion stalk and remaining parsley.