When we think of nature's superfoods, at the top of the list is surely whole grains—they've sustained cultures around the globe for millennia.
With developments in modern technology came our ability to refine, process and generally de-nature our foods. I'm all for technological advancement, but there's a lot to be said for simple, natural living. As with the never-ending cycles of life, the trends must eventually take us back around to a desire to embrace some of our "traditions" and take from them that which can serve our advancement toward a healthier and more sustainable future.
To many people, eating whole grains simply implies opting for whole wheat bread instead of white bread or eating whole wheat pasta. Of course, this is a step in the right direction, but when you break down a grain to make flour for baking bread or making pasta, some of its integrity and nutritional value is diminished. The optimum way to consume grains is in their whole, unrefined state, with bran and germ intact. In this way, we're getting all the benefits of the grain—the essential fiber, B vitamins and trace minerals in the bran and protein and the vital essential oils, vitamin E, vitamin B and phytonutrients in the germ.
Integrating whole grains into your diet is an affordable and, with a little creativity, delicious way to ensure good health and optimum nutrition. The world of whole grains is too vast to cover in one post, so I've chosen four staples to begin with: rice, quinoa, millet and barley.
Rice is the king of the world of whole grains. I appreciate its value so much that I've even written it a poem:
Rice, you are so nice, sweet or savory with herbs or spice. In many guises you come to my table—to praise you enough I would never be able. Your nectar I use to sweeten my cakes, and your milk to pour on my porridge or flakes.
Rice is truly one of God's gifts. It's inexpensive, as versatile as your imagination and readily available worldwide. It's a slow-burning carbohydrate, which provides a sustained energy release, is high in fiber and low in fat and contains many other nutrients vital to good health. Brown rice is a good source of B vitamins, which help reduce stress and keep blood sugar levels stable. It's also rich in minerals such as magnesium, which helps regulate nerve and muscle tone and is vital for bone health. It's a good source of manganese and selenium, which is a critical nutrient for thyroid health, as it helps regulate the amount of thyroid hormone, T3, produced by the thyroid.
The optimum way to consume rice, of course, is in its whole form as brown rice. Brown rice contains all the fiber and the full nutritional benefits of the grain. When the outer hull and fiber is removed as with white rice, its nutritional value is greatly diminished. It also makes the rice higher on the glycemic index, as it breaks down and turns to sugar much more quickly in the body without the fiber to slow down this process.
Soaking grains for several hours or overnight before cooking helps make them more digestible.
To make a perfect pot of brown rice, rinse 1 cup of rice thoroughly by putting it into a pot or bowl and covering with cold water. Swirl with your hands and drain off the water using a sieve. Return the rice to a heavy-based saucepan that has a tight-fitting lid and add 2 cups water. Bring to a boil, add a pinch of sea salt, reduce heat and simmer, covered for 45 minutes. Turn off heat and let the rice sit for 10 minutes before turning out onto a serving dish with a wooden spoon or rice paddle. It can now be served as a simple side dish with a meal or used as a base for many dishes from sushi rolls to salads.
Cooking rice in a pressure cooker gives it a lovely texture, and this cuts down on the cooking time. To pressure-cook, reduce the amount of water to 1 1/2 cups per cup of rice, and once pressure has come up, cook for 20 minutes. Take off the heat to allow pressure to subside before opening.
I could write an entire book on recipes using brown rice as a basis, but for now, here are a few simple recipes you might enjoy:
Quick Fried Rice
1 Tbsp. olive oil
1/2 onion—cut into half moons
1 tsp. fresh minced ginger
1 carrot—thick julienne
1 ear of corn—kernels removed from cob
2 cups cooked brown rice
1 Tbsp. tamari (soy sauce)
Sprinkle of lemon juice
Heat oil in a pan or wok and add onion and ginger—sauté for a minute. Add carrot and corn kernels and continue to sauté for several minutes. Add rice, white part of scallions and tamari and toss with veggies until heated through. Sprinkle with lemon juice and green parts of scallions before serving.
Sunny Rice burgers
2 cups cooked rice
1 cup assorted minced veggies such as onion, carrot, celery, peppers
1/2 cup sunflower seeds
Dried or fresh herbs of your choice, such as parsley, basil, thyme, oregano, cilantro
1/2 cup cooked garbanzo beans, mashed
1 tsp. Worcester sauce
1 Tbsp. tamari
1 tsp. mustard
Combine all the ingredients in a bowl and mix well with clean hands. Form into burgers or rissoles and coat in sesame seeds or bread crumbs. Panfry in a little oil until browned on both sides. Serve with steamed veggies or inside a whole grain burger bun topped with sliced tomatoes, cucumber, lettuce and mustard, ketchup or mayonnaise. Instead of the garbanzo beans, you can use other beans such as pinto, cannellini or kidney beans or tofu.
Quinoa is a bit like my mobile phone. I know that somehow or another I managed to survive before it came into my life, but now that it's so much a part of my life I wonder how the heck I did!
Much like the potato is to the Irish, quinoa has become one of my staple foods. As well as being one of the most nutritious foods on the planet, it's quick to cook, easy to digest, versatile(at least to the creative mind) and gluten-free, and it lends itself well to a range of dishes and seasonings, both savory and sweet. It can be ground into a flour to use in baking or for breakfast cereals.
Although an ancient grain, revered by the Incas of South America as a food of the gods, it was fairly recently introduced to the Western diet. The Incas recognized quinoa as a food to give stamina to their warriors, and it has been a staple food for millions of South Americans for centuries.
Quinoa is unique in the vegetable kingdom, as it is one of the few nonanimal foods that contain all the amino acids to make it a complete protein. It's also high in calcium and iron and a good source of vitamin E and some of the B vitamins.
Quinoa takes only 15 minutes to cook so is great for quick and easy meals. It can be served as a side dish like rice or added to casseroles, soups, stews, stir-fries or used in place of bulgur wheat for a gluten-free tabbouleh salad. I also enjoy it cooked in a little fruit juice as a warm breakfast cereal, sprinkled with some ground flaxseed, a drizzle of maple syrup and some fresh blueberries.
To cook quinoa: Rinse thoroughly and drain. Combine one part quinoa with two parts water in a saucepan and add a big pinch of sea salt. Bring to a boil, reduce heat, cover pot and simmer on low heat for 15 minutes. Turn off heat and let sit for 10 minutes before removing lid.
To make quinoa tabbouleh: Combine 2 cups cooked quinoa with 1 cup cherry tomatoes, quartered; 4-inch piece cucumber, small diced; 1 cup minced flat-leaf parsley; 2 Tbsp. minced fresh mint; 1/4 cup olive oil; 2 Tbsp. lemon juice; 1/2 tsp. sea salt; freshly ground black pepper and toss well.
I was asked to cater a dinner for a family on Kauai once, and they requested that I cook my then-famous "millet burgers." The family I was cooking for enjoyed a macrobiotic diet, and I was catering for them and some guests visiting from the Midwest. One of the guests came into the kitchen as I was preparing to cook my millet, and when he saw me cooking what he referred to as "bird food" he laughed. "I'm a meat eater," he told me. "There's no way you'll get me eating burgers made from birdseed!" I assured him I wasn't going to force-feed him and had a backup plan so he didn't go hungry. By the end of that meal, my carnivorous friend had assured me that if we went into business together I would be able to retire a multimillionaire in a year. If I could get him eating "birdseed" and coming back for seconds, I had made my fortune. He talked about opening a chain of restaurants across the United States serving up "birdseed" and other such delicacies in the most innovative ways.
Millet is a grain I was first introduced to as an alternative to a childhood staple—mashed potatoes. Cooked together with parsnip or cauliflower and mashed, the consistency resembles potatoes and makes a delicious topping for Shepherd's Pie. Although grains in general tend to be more acidic, millet, quinoa and buckwheat are relatively more alkaline and therefore soothing to the system. Millet is one of the least allergenic and easily digested grains. It is also gluten-free and can be ground into a flour to use in baking.
Millet is high in magnesium, potassium, iron for building blood and phosphorus to promote healthy bones and teeth. It is nearly 15 percent protein and is high in fiber, B complex vitamins and some vitamin E. Because of its mild, sweet flavor, it is said to be nourishing to the spleen and stomach.
Growing up in Ireland, barley was very much a part of our diet. It was used as an ingredient in soups and stews and was also one of my grandmother's most relied on medicinal foods. If we were ever suffering from a cold or flu, she would brew up some barley water to administer. She also claimed it cured kidney infections. Of course it's used to brew our national drink, Guinness, so if we didn't eat it, we sure did drink it.
Like most whole grains, barley is high in dietary fiber, particularly beta-gluten soluble fiber, which is said to promote healthy blood sugar as it slows down glucose absorption, so it is an excellent food for diabetics. When sprouted, it is high in maltose, a sugar that is the basis for malt syrup, which is an excellent sugar substitute. I use it a lot to sweeten puddings, muffins or to drizzle on my porridge in the morning.
Barley can be easily incorporated into your daily diet. Cracked barley or barley flakes can be cooked up for a warming breakfast or can be added to soups and stews to give heartiness and flavor, cooked and added to salads with raw or cooked vegetables or ground into a flour to use in making breads, cakes or cookies. Since its outer hull is too tough for consumption, barley is most commonly used as pearl barley, which has the hull and germ removed. You can also use hulled barley, which preserves the bran. Barley can be cooked much the same as rice, but pearl barley cooks in about 40 minutes, whereas hulled barley takes about an hour for a more chewy texture and can be cooked longer for a softer texture. Here's a simple barley salad you might enjoy:
2 cups cooked pearl or hulled barley
1 shallot, minced
2 Roma tomatoes, diced
About 6 pitted black olives, chopped
1 cup lightly steamed mange tout, cut diagonally in half
1/2 cup chopped almonds, lightly toasted
Fresh basil leaves—torn
2 Tbsp. olive oil
2 Tbsp. lemon juice
1 Tbsp. honey or maple syrup
1 tsp. Dijon mustard
Big pinch sea salt
Combine the barley, shallot, tomatoes, olives, mange tout in a mixing bowl. Whisk together the dressing ingredients and drizzle on the salad, mixing well. When ready to serve, sprinkle with toasted almonds and torn basil leaves.
A Sip and a Splash
Many people who have difficulty digesting dairy products are turning to alternatives such as milk made from soy, whole grains or nuts. There's a vast range of milk on the shelves of health food stores and many supermarkets these days, the most popular being soy or rice milk. I would caution against using soy milk made from nonorganic beans as soy is one of the main genetically modified crops, so if this is a concern for you, check to make sure the soy you're consuming is from non-GMO beans. Rice or oat milk make a lovely alternative, and you can easily make your own milk from nuts or grains.
I hope you enjoy my Shepherd's Pie, which is a dish I grew up on. My mum made it using minced beef or lamb and topped it with mashed potatoes. In place of the potato, I'm using creamed millet, made from a combination of millet and parsnip, and I'm substituting azuki beans for the meat. Azuki beans are used a lot in both sweet and savory dishes in Asia and are said to be nourishing for the kidneys.