If you’re a home cook looking for new ways to conjure up wholesome food for your family, you can always look back into the deep past for a few ideas.
No, we don’t mean grandma’s recipe book. We’re going back even further, to ancient grains.
These cereals have been given a new lease of life, as research shows that 40 percent of shoppers want a greater variety of wholesome grains in their diets, and some 20 percent are willing to pay a premium for them.
Environmental organisations like the World Wildlife Fund are also discovering that ancient grains are a way to diversify crops and replace the world’s dependency on just 12 food sources, particularly corn, soy and wheat. The organisation wants to promote these ancient grains so we can vary our food sources to reduce the negative impact of modern food production on the environment.
Which grains are we talking about? Let’s take a look at a few examples.
Spelt, or Triticum spelta, is an ancient form of wheat formed from the natural hybridisation of emmer wheat and goat grass. Known for its reliability, versatility and storage qualities, spelt has a thick outer husk that helps to protect it from disease and pests, which makes it easier for farmers to grow without fertilisers or pesticides. While the grain requires a bit more time to dehull or dehusk, the glume surrounding spelt kernels helps protect and retain its nutrients.
This ancient grain contains several essential nutrients, such as iron, magnesium and zinc, and is a good source of dietary fibre. All these nutrients benefit the heart and digestive system by helping to reduce the risk of diabetes and cardiovascular-related diseases, as well as regulating our metabolism. Spelt is also favoured for its high carbohydrate content. The energy burst it provides prompted the Romans to nickname it the “marching grain”.
Because of spelt’s closeness to wheat, they share similar nutritional profiles. Spelt contains a delicate form of gluten and, like wheat, is not suitable for those on a gluten-free diet, or those with celiac disease.
If you’re thinking to cook with spelt, you can enjoy the nuttiness of this ancient grain either whole or ground into flour for bread or other baked goods. The grain’s mellow flavour also makes it a popular choice in place of rice when dishing out comforting mushroom risotto or pilaf dish with white wine – a great accompaniment to pork dishes.
Or if you prefer a spicy salad, this curried spelt salad is one to go for with its mixture of mustard seeds and curry powder giving it an Eastern touch. Just remember to boil the spelt until tender if you’re using it in savoury dishes.
Amaranth is what’s known as a pseudocereal: it’s technically not a cereal grain but shares a comparable set of nutrients to wheat and rice. Because starchy amaranth seeds are gluten-free, they are a great substitute for other grains.
Amaranth encompasses more than 60 different species of grains, some of which have been cultivated for about 8,000 years, spanning the Maya, Inca and Aztec civilisations.
The name reflects the unique nature of this plant. The Whole Grain Council explains that the name amaranth comes from the Greek amarantos, which means “the never-fading” or “the one that does not wither”.
Amaranth is tall with broad leaves that are lined with deep red or purple veins and impresses with bright red, gold or purple bushy flowers. True to nature, amaranth’s flowers hardly fade when harvested and dried. Leaves can be eaten too, and are often used as a staple vegetable in Asian stir-fries or soups.
Nutritionists say the sandy and yellow seed of the amaranth is a valuable source of protein and iron, and is likely to be the only grain that contains vitamin C. Its generous vitamin B content can help to maintain energy levels and aids in the production of serotonin, which affects mood and is important for regulating sleep.
The nutty and mild taste of amaranth means it can be used as a substitute for quinoa, while its gelatinous texture is ideal for soups and risottos. Cooking amaranth is easy. You simply boil it in a heavy bottomed pan and when the water reaches boiling point it’s done. Bear in mind that cooked amaranth is often a little sticky or clumpy. Used it to make tasty patties or add it to a gluten-free vegan gingerbread cake.
Fonio is an African cereal crop with a long history: cultivated for more than 5,000 years, it’s the oldest grain grown in the continent (this has been confirmed by archaeologists, who have found fonio inside Egyptian pyramids). Fonio incredibly fast-growing – it can be harvested within two months of planting. In fact, fonio is nicknamed the “lazy farmer’s crop” because it is so easy to grow. Farmers simply scatter the seeds after the first rain and wait for the harvest.
The grain is known to be highly resistant to drought or water-stressed environments. Its ability to thrive in harsh, low-quality sandy conditions prompted WWF to include it among a list of 50 “future foods” earlier this year.
But a major challenge with fonio is processing the grain into food. The tiny grains need to have their inedible shells removed to reveal a hulled version or whitened version. This manual process is tedious and time-consuming but machines are increasingly being used in larger production facilities in West Africa.
Like all whole grains, gluten-free fonio is highly nutritious. What sets it apart from others is its high content of two essential amino acids – cystine and methionine – that are largely lacking in other grain crops.
Tastewise, fonio does not differ from its other grain cousins. It’s nutty and earthy, but when cooked it transforms into a rich couscous-like dish. For festivals in Senegal, fonio is prized and sometimes called food for royalty and served to guests of honours.
Fonio’s versatility means it can be used in mock meatballs and patties, or to simply add bulk to soup or rice dishes. The small grains cook easily in five to seven minutes of boiling water. This African peanut sauce goes well with fonio balls, and the recipe insists on a generous helping of peanut butter or coconut milk for a rich finish. You can also use fonio to accompany a bass fillet by mixing the grain with spices and herbs in this West Indies inspired jerk fish dish.