Move over potatoes. Make way, pasta. Wild rice, brown rice, couscous, bulgur wheat, quinoa (keen-wa) and barley are rolling into town! When you are looking for a side dish with a twist, look no further than the versatility of grain. Grains are an excellent source of protein, vitamins, iron and dietary fiber. In addition, each type of grain has its own distinctive flavor, making them as tasty as they are nutritious.
Barley is a mild-flavored kernel-shaped grain known for its success at adding thickness to stews and soups. Barley is also a great addition to casseroles containing winter vegetables such as carrots, root veggies, and onions. The two most often used (for cooking) types of barely are pearled barley and hulled barley. Pearled barley is barley that has been milled. Because of this, it takes only 40 minutes to cook. Hulled barley–barley with its outer layer removed–is more nutritious than pearled but takes a full 90 minutes to cook.
If you want a grain that’s a snap to prepare, you’ve found it in bulgur wheat. Bulgur wheat’s latest and greatest claim to fame is tabbouleh salad, a Middle Eastern wheat and vegetable salad that has become wildly popular in the U.S. Bulgur wheat cooks by rehydration: in other words, pour twice the amount of boiling water or broth over dry bulgur and let it stand for 45 minutes. Bulgur wheat is often used as a ground beef substitute in vegetarian cuisine. When cooked in vegetarian chili, for example, the bulgur texture becomes very similar to ground beef–but lends more fiber and far less fat!
Okay, we admit it: couscous is not a grain. It is a tiny pasta made from fine semolina wheat. Couscous is like a very light grain, making it ideal for those who are just beginning to experiment with specialty grains. Like bulgur, couscous is a breeze to prepare. The same method of rehydration (two cups of water or broth to 1 cup of couscous) is used, except that couscous will absorb the liquid much quicker than bulgur will. Couscous will be ready in a quick 5 minutes! Couscous makes a fluffy bed for chicken or fish kebabs.
Quinoa is not a new grain to South Americans. In fact, it’s been growing in their fields for years (the Incans loved quinoa so much they called it “the mother grain”). Quinoa has a wonderful nutty taste and aroma, which explains why it is commonly used in salads, soups, pilafs and side dishes. Like couscous, quinoa is an ideal grain to try if you are new to the world of grains or are one for instant gratification. In a saucepan filled with a ratio of 2 cups water to 1 cup quinoa, the grain will cook in 15 minutes. More and more supermarkets are stocking this “ancient” grain on its shelves, so don’t let its funny name scare you off!
Wild rice is not really rice at all: it is the seed of a grass grown in Minnesota and Canada. Wild rice has an assertive flavor, so you may want to combine it with other grains before serving it straight. (It is also very expensive, since it’s hand-harvested.) Many people are more willing to consume wild rice than they are brown rice, so consider serving wild rice at your next dinner party or family meal. Wild rice is delicious in soups and great paired with split peas. It is one of the longer-cooking grains, using three to four times the amount of water or broth versus grain. The rice must simmer for a full 45 minutes to 1 hour before serving. The results are worth it!
Brown rice is probably the most familiar of all these grains. Try to substitute brown rice for white rice when you can because brown rice is more nutritious–it contains more fiber. If you are in a hurry, quick-cooking brown rice will suffice. But whenever possible, cook up a batch of brown rice and store it in a container in the refrigerator for future days when you don’t have time to let it cook slowly. Brown rice cooks in double the amount of water or broth and it needs to simmer for a full 45 minutes.