The whole story: grains made simple

Mark Bittman / New York Times News Service /

Published Jul 30, 2013 at 05:00AM

You can’t mention quinoa without hearing about the plight of the Bolivians who can no longer afford to buy their crop because we’re willing to pay so much for it. The word “rice” has become loaded: There are more colors (red? black?) and types (extra-long brown Basmati?) than those of us who grew up knowing only Carolina and Uncle Ben’s could have ever imagined.

What whole grains aren’t is a panacea, or a substitute for anything except the hyper-processed grains that replaced them in the first place. But at this point, the widespread, almost universal availability of farro, quinoa and millet alone would be more important and valuable than all of the gorgeous heirloom beans that have been rediscovered in the last decade. Legumes we already had; these are new to most of us.

Throw in spelt, kamut, wheat berries and brown rice, along with the semi-processed bulgur (cracked and steamed wheat) and steel-cut oats, as well as couscous, which is usually treated as if it were a grain, and kasha (buckwheat groats), and it’s a new world out there.

These questions seem to baffle many people: 1) How do you cook them? And 2) What do you do with them?

These are the answers, in short: Until they’re done. And whatever you’d like.

Glibness aside, the first answer is for real. Whole grains don’t all taste the same — far from it. But they all act pretty much the same, so you can treat them all, including bulgur and steel-cut oats, pretty much the same way: Cover them in abundant salted water and simmer until tender but still chewy.

As great as the grains are, they cannot stand alone; they are role players. They need vegetables, fruits, meat or fish, and they need well-thought-out sauces.