By Hans Butler
Eating local is a daunting task when we’ve been accustomed to purchase from an out-of-season global selection 365 days a year at most grocery stores and restaurants. Some of the great local foods available in our community are grains grown by Cayuga Pure Organics in Brooktondale, New York. These unfamiliar grains can be intimidating, with names like freekeh and farro, but they are actually quite simple to prepare, and can be nutritious and tasty alternatives to rice. They can be added to soups and salads, prepared like risottos and pilafs, sprouted and eaten raw, or simply steamed. Who would have imagined that eating local in upstate New York could mean adding exotic heirloom whole grains to one’s diet! Let’s support our community’s economy and make sure that healthy food continues to be farmed in our state.
Begin with a quick examination of the grain for stones and other foreign materials. Use a large enough container that the grain fills only a quarter or less. Cover the grain with a generous amount of water, stir, rinse, and drain. Repeat this process twice and then cover with fresh water, removing floating hulls from the surface. Part of the beauty of using grains from Cayuga Pure Organics is that they are super fresh and haven’t had energy wasted on them from polishing and aseptic packaging.
Grain should be soaked for at least an hour. Soaking softens the grain, decreases cooking time and also helps break down the phytic acid which is present in most grains. Phytic acid holds onto certain minerals such as zinc, calcium, iron, and magnesium, preventing them from being absorbed into the body. Longer soaks will result in more sprouting, which also helps break down phytic acid, releases more enzymes and promotes easier digestion. The only CPO grain that cannot be sprouted is freekeh. Let me tell you about a few of our grains.
Live oats are a medium-sized light brown grain, with a nice rich milk flavor and an earthy finish. They are hulless oats and can be sprouted since they are still a living grain. Most whole oats on the shelves have gone through heat and steam treatment to remove hulls and cannot be considered live. Hulless oats have roots in Ethiopian and European farming and are more nutritious than standard oats. They cook best with a 1¼:1, water to grain ratio. For traditional steaming put the soaked grain and water in a pot with any desired seasonings, bring to a boil, cover and simmer for 35-45 minutes. One of my favorite dishes to prepare with live oats is sprouted raw oatmeal: just soak overnight, drain and blend in the morning with dried fruit, water (or milk) and honey, then garnish with seeds or nuts. These oats, as well as Cayuga Pure Organics’ other grains, work great for hot cereal too, just increase the amount of water to grain (2:1).
Farro (emmer) is a small grain with a nice firm and chewy texture, it has a sweet taste like honey-roasted nuts. The word “Farro” is now used to describe several different grains in different parts of the world, but Cayuga Pure Organics’ farro is true emmer wheat. Emmer is an ancient wheat strain that grows wild and was first farmed in the Fertile Crescent in the Near East. 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. To produce a risotto-like texture, crack the grain gently in a coffee grinder just before soaking to help release the starches from the farro and encourage a creamy risotto-like consistency. This same technique can also be used with any of the other grains to produce risotto style dishes.
Spelt berries are long golden grains with a cleft down the middle, also ancient and with roots in Central Europe. They have a sweet honey flavor and plump, slightly chewy texture when cooked. Spelt cooks best with 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. Again, as with all Cayuga Pure Organics’ grains, this grain will hold up better than rice in soups or stew dishes.
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 is best known for the breads baked from its flour, but the steamed whole grain is a savory treat. Basic steamed rye berries work best with 2:1, water to grain ratio, and cook in 45-60 minutes. I like to add it to cabbage salad with caraway seeds, mustard vinaigrette, and apples, and serve it alone or accompanying 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 subtle tangy flavor surrounded by the perfume of smoked green tea. This Middle Eastern preparation of grain lends itself well to that region’s cuisine. Having been roasted, it cannot be sprouted, and cooks best with 1¼:1, water to grain ratio, in about 25-45 minutes, until the water is absorbed and it’s tender. I love to make salads with freekeh, usually using preserved citrus, cinnamon, cloves, cumin, and some nice dried apple-mint. Freekeh is also incredible by itself, enhanced with just a touch of good oil, 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 that explodes with flavor on the palate. Wheat berries are widely used in Europe and the United States. They cook best with 2:1, water to grain ratio, in 45-60 minutes. I like to use wheat berries in my winter version of tabbouleh salad, using winter greens julienned and rubbed until tender, and a nice garlic vinaigrette enhanced with some dried mint from the end of summer.
It should be noted that all of these grains contain gluten, wheat berries having the highest content. The live oats are not considered gluten-free simply because of their proximity to wheat in the fields and cleaning processes. Spelt, freekeh, farro (emmer), and rye all have very low gluten content compared with bread and durum wheat that are staples of the typical American diet. These more ancient grains contain gluten in a wilder state, before it was favored by selective farming over the centuries. Sprouting grains will also help reduce gluten levels. People with celiac disease should not eat these grains, but people with mild gluten intolerance will probably be able to enjoy them in moderation. Please have fun trying these in place of rice or pasta – eat local in 2012!
Chef Hans Butler has been working in the restaurant industry for almost 20 years, has a degree in culinary arts from the Art Institute of Houston, owned Watercress Restaurant, and now develops recipes for Cayuga Pure Organics. He is an avid forager and devoted to feeding delicious, healthy food to his family.