Pairing Wine with Grains
Chefs across the country are turning to whole grains, not only for the health benefits—which include a lower risk of heart disease and help with weight management, according to the American Society for Nutrition—but because they are delicious.
“Our restaurant is founded on the belief that great-tasting cuisine is good for you, so whole grains are a natural part of our menu,” says Mike Rakun, chef and manager at the Mill Valley Kitchen in Minneapolis. “Whole grains have great flavor and texture, and our customers are excited and curious about them.”
“The bran and germ are intact in whole grains, and they’re both extremely nutritious, with a lot of fiber, vitamins, minerals and protein,” says Maria Speck, author of Ancient Grains for Modern Meals (Ten Speed Press, 2011). “But I like grains because they have amazing texture, subtle but distinct flavors and wonderful colors.
“I grew up in Greece and Germany,” she says, “where whole grains are a part of the culinary fabric and not a reviled ‘health food.’ ”
Speck divides whole grains into two groups: quick-cooking and slow-cooking.
Whole grains like bulgur, cornmeal, couscous, farro, oats and quinoa are ready in a matter of minutes.
Bigger, harder grains like hulled barley, brown rice, kamut, rye, spelt and wheat berries usually need soaking for a few hours or up to overnight before cooking.
Even with soaking, whole grains are simple to prepare—a fact even savvy cooks don’t seem to realize. Both Rakun and Speck get many questions about how to prepare whole grains, as most people believe they’re difficult. Not so, Speck says. She likens grains to cooking a steak.
“Who am I to say your steak has to be medium-rare?” says Speck. “Grains are the same. Some people like a chewier texture, and others like a softer, more comforting texture.”
Like most starches, whole grains usually take a back seat when pairing a dish with wine, says Rakun. Look at the overall character and flavor of a dish, and select a wine based on the meat, herbs, dressing or other dominant flavors, he says.
That said, you might consider the type of grain as an extra element of a pairing. Some, like cornmeal polenta, are relatively neutral, while others, which may have toasty or nutty nuances, marry well with assertively smoky or toasty wines, often with an element of oak aging.
Once you’re ready to try whole grains, don’t just swap out whole-wheat pasta for regular, or brown rice for white, Speck says.
“If you trade your favorite dish for a ‘healthy’ version, you’ll just resent whole grains,” she says. “Use them in innovative ways, and you’ll bring a whole new dimension to your meals.”