Mix up your summer palate with a few “alternative” grains!

We constantly see ads and health claims, particularly on food labels, about how important it is to get our daily dose of whole grains.  Considering their long list of health benefits (low in fat, good source of fiber, protection against disease, etc.), whole grain foods are certainly worthy of the attention they receive.  But are there other ways to work them into your diet besides the usual wheat bread, oatmeal, or brown rice?  Certainly! Below are a few “alternative” grains that you may not be familiar with or may be unsure how to use in cooking.  Not only do these grains offer unique nutritional benefits, they are also fairly simple to prepare and can be used in many familiar dishes.

1.Quinoa: One of my personal favorites! This so-called “super grain” (pictured above) is gluten-free and contains all of the essential amino acids, so it’s a great source of complete protein (1/2 cup contains more than 4 grams).  As an added bonus, it provides some important vitamins and minerals such as iron, calcium, Vitamin E, and phosphorus.  Quinoa is often a bit harder to find in a typical grocery store but is often offered in the organic or natural foods section.  I personally get mine from the bulk-item section of Martins.

To prepare: Rinse well and then bring one part quinoa and two parts water to a boil; cover and simmer on medium-low heat for 15 minutes.

Use in cooking:  Quinoa can be used in place of rice for lots of your favorite dishes such as stir fry, chili, or as a bed for chicken or fish.  Mix it with some black beans and salsa and sprinkle some reduced-fat shredded cheese on top for a protein-packed meal with a spicy kick!

2. Buckwheat:  Sometimes referred to as “kasha” (roasted) or “groats” (hulled, crushed kernels), buckwheat is another gluten-free seed that is a great source of fiber, folic acid, vitamin B6, calcium, protein, and iron.  For the bread-lovers out there, buckwheat flour can be used in baking and has a robust, slightly sweet taste, so it is best used in combination with lighter flours.

To prepare: Rinse buckwheat groats and then bring one cup  groats and two parts water to a boil; reduce heat and simmer 20-30 minutes until tender and water is absorbed.

Use in cooking: Buckwheat can be added to summer salads, or to casseroles or soups to give them a hardier flavor.  If you are using it as a main/side dish, you can add chopped onions, sea salt, and any desired herbs during the last 10 minutes of cooking time for a flavor-packed meal.  Finally, as I mentioned above, buckwheat flour can be used to make muffins, breads, or pancakes.

3. Millet: A common food in Africa and Asia, millet is a cereal grass with a mild flavor and a texture similar to wild rice when prepared.  Not only is it packed with protein and magnesium, but it’s also a good source of vitamin B6, zinc, and iron.  Because of its mild taste, millet works best in dishes with richer flavors and spices.

To prepare: Roast uncooked millet in a dry pan for 3-5 minutes; bring 3 parts water to a boil and add one part millet.  Cover, reduce heat, and simmer for 20-30 minutes until tender and all water is absorbed.  You can also add any desired herbs, spices, or salt during the last 10 minutes of cooking time.

Use in cooking: You can use millet for hot cereal and add cinnamon, nuts, and dried fruit for a tasty breakfast dish.  You can also use it in pilaf, substitute it for rice, and add it to casseroles, soups, or other main dishes.

These are only a few ideas to get you started, but hopefully they will allow you to mix up your whole grain experience and discover some new, nutritious foods in the process! As a final note, for those looking to save some time (which includes most of us), you can cook up a large pot of any of the above, remove the serving you want to eat immediately, and then refrigerate the remainder for up to a week.  When you’re ready for lunch or dinner, just add some veggies, meat, or beans and you’ve got yourself a quick meal with a nutritious, whole grain base – bon appetite!


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