Grainy Goodness

The nutty flavors and chewy textures of whole grains are not only good for you, they pair wonderfully with wines of diverse origins.

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.” 

Fish and Fennel Stew with Ouzo Over Couscous

“Couscous is a classic fish pairing in the Mediterranean,” says cookbook author Maria Speck. “The fish is so tender that you need an equally tender whole grain to help mop up the sauce. A strong, chewy whole grain like wheat berries would overwhelm the dish.”

Recipe courtesy Maria Speck, author of Ancient Grains for Modern Meals (Ten Speed Press, 2011).

For the stew

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1½ cups chopped yellow onion
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 large bay leaf
2 medium fennel bulbs (about 1½ pounds), cored, quartered and thinly sliced crosswise
¼ cup ouzo or other anise-flavored liqueur
2 cups vegetable broth
1 28-ounce can diced tomatoes
1½ pounds skinned halibut or other white-fleshed fish, patted dry and cut into 1-inch pieces
2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
Fine sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

For the couscous

1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil or unsalted butter
¾ teaspoon fine sea salt
1¼ cups whole wheat couscous

To finish

½ teaspoon sugar
¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Salt, to taste
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
¼ cup finely chopped fennel fronds

Heat the olive oil in a Dutch oven or large heavy-bottomed pot over medium heat until shimmering. Add the onion, garlic, bay leaf and fennel. Cook, stirring frequently, until the vegetables soften, about 5 minutes. Add the ouzo and cook until syrupy and almost no liquid remains, about 2 minutes. Add the broth and tomatoes and bring to a boil. Decrease the heat to maintain a simmer. Cover and cook until the vegetables are crisp-tender, about 15–17 minutes.

While the stew simmers, place the fish in a large glass bowl. Sit at room temperature for 15 minutes, then drizzle with the lemon juice and season with salt and pepper. Set aside.

Meanwhile, make the couscous. Pour 1½ cups of water, olive oil and salt into a heavy medium saucepan and bring to boil. Remove the saucepan from the heat. Stir in couscous, cover and let sit until the liquid is absorbed, about 10 minutes.

To finish, add the fish to the stew, stir gently and return to a simmer. Cook, leaving the lid slightly askew, until the fish is fork-tender and opaque throughout, about 3–4 minutes. Add the sugar and pepper. Taste and adjust for sugar, salt and pepper. Remove from heat, drizzle the stew with the olive oil and let sit with the lid slightly askew for 3 minutes.

Fluff the couscous with a fork and divide among deep plates. Scoop the fish stew over the couscous and garnish each serving with fennel fronds. Serves 6. 

Wine Pairing: With its strong anise element from the fennel and ouzo, this stew needs a wine that will complement it without being overpowering. Stephen Malarick, a Boston-area wine professional, recommends a Vermentino like Cantina di Santadi's 2011 Villa Solais, which features citrus and herbal notes to offset the anise. The wine's crisp acidity stands up to the tomatoes. 

Lamb Burgers with Bulgur and Mint

In tough times, grains were often added to meat to stretch each serving. This dish adds an extra flavor dimension, combining the nutty, rich flavor of bulgur with aromatic lamb in this take on Middle Eastern kofta, spiced lamb meatballs made with bulgur, cumin and cinnamon. 

Recipe courtesy Maria Speck, author of Ancient Grains for Modern Meals (Ten Speed Press, 2011)

¾ cup medium-coarse or coarse bulgur
1 pound ground lamb
1 cup grated yellow onion
½ cup finely chopped fresh mint
¼ cup finely chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon freshly ground cumin
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon fine sea salt
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
2 pinches cayenne pepper

Place the bulgur in a large bowl and cover with 1½ cups of hot water. Let sit until most of the water is absorbed and the kernels are tender with a bit of chew, about 20–30 minutes. Drain the bulgur in a fine-mesh sieve, pressing on the kernels with your hands to squeeze out as much of the water as possible.

Position a rack about 6 inches from the heat and preheat the broiler. Oil a 12-inch cast-iron skillet or the bottom portion of a broiler pan.

Return the bulgur to the bowl. Add the lamb and all the remaining ingredients. Combine thoroughly, but gently, with your hands, handling as little as possible. Shape mixture into 6 burgers, each about 3 inches in diameter, and place in a single layer in the prepared pan. 

Brush the burgers with olive oil and broil until they start browning on top, about 10 minutes. Flip with a metal spatula, brush with oil again and broil until nicely browned, about 5 minutes more. Allow to rest for a few minutes before serving with garlic-spiked yogurt. Serves 6.

Wine Pairing: A red Cotes du Rhone from the excellent 2010 vintage will have spicy notes that pair beautfiully with the rich flavors in these aromatic burgers, say Stephen Malarick, a Boston-area wine professional. Alain Jaume et Fils's 2010 Domaine Grand Veneur Les Champanauvins is a juicy, full-bodied wine that highlights the burgers. 

Gingered-Shiitake Red Quinoa

This deceptively simple recipe is packed with amazing flavor and texture. Mike Rakun, chef and general manager of the Mill Valley Kitchen in Minneapolis, says red quinoa is essential in this recipe for its heartiness and beautiful color. 

“We serve this quinoa under a miso-glazed sea bass with a sweet-and-sour cucumber slaw,” he says. “The acid from the slaw feeds into the grains and gives the quinoa an extra bite.”

Recipe courtesy Mike Rakun, chef and general manager at Mill Valley Kitchen, Minneapolis.

1 cup red quinoa
2 cups chicken stock, vegetable stock or water
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon chopped shallots
2 garlic cloves, crushed
1 teaspoon chopped fresh ginger
½ cup sliced shiitake mushrooms

Place quinoa, stock or water and salt in a small saucepan, and bring to a simmer. Place a lid on the saucepan, turn off the burner and let the quinoa steam for about 20 minutes, or until done. 

In a medium sauté pan, heat the olive oil. Sauté the shallots, garlic and ginger until soft. Add the mushrooms and sauté until cooked through, about 3 minutes. Stir in the quinoa and add salt and pepper to taste. Serves 4. 

Wine Pairing: An oaky Chardonnay will play off the nuttiness of the quinoa, but Rakun leans toward pairing this dish with his favorite wine of the year, the 2009 Pillow Road Pinot Noir from California's Russian River Valley. The wine's earthy elegance plays off the shiitake mushrooms, while its crips acidity highlights the zesty garlic.

 8 Whole Grains You’ve Got to Try

Barley: Likely the most important grain of ancient civilizations, barley is essential for making beer. Look for hulled barley (pearled is the processed version) and soak 1 cup overnight, drain and simmer 40–50 minutes in 2½ cups water. Serve in salads or soups. 



Buckwheat: The main ingredient in Japanese soba noodles, buckwheat is grown in cold climates worldwide. Simmer 1 cup buckwheat groats in 1¾ cups water for 15 minutes. Toss with sautéed veggies. Or grind dry groats into flour to make buckwheat crepes. 


Stone-ground polenta: As a comforting porridge, polenta (or corn grits) has no equal. Simmer 1 cup of stone-ground polenta in 3¾ cups water for 20–30 minutes, or until soft. Stir in Parmesan and herbs and eat soft, or let it harden and then slice. Fry or grill the slices and serve.



Bulgur: The original “fast food,” bulgur is a staple in many Middle Eastern cuisines. Cook 1 cup of bulgur with 1½ cups water for 10–20 minutes, or until just slightly chewy. Serve in soups, salads, mixed into burgers or as the base for a pilaf.


Whole-wheat couscous: Another Middle Eastern and African staple, couscous is a versatile side dish that readily absorbs the flavors around it. Bring 1 cup of couscous and 1¼ cups water to boil. Cover, remove from heat and let steam 5–10 minutes. Use couscous to mop up the flavors of stews.


Quinoa: Called the mother of all grains by the Incas, quinoa is gluten free, high in protein and comes in a rainbow of colors. Simmer 1 cup of quinoa with 1¾ cups water for 10–20 minutes, or until done. Substitute quinoa for rice in almost any dish, stir into soups and salads or use to bake breads or muffins.


Rye: Dark rye has been a staple in Germany and Russia for centuries, largely because of its ability to grow in cold, wet climates. Soak 1 cup of whole rye berries up to 24 hours, then simmer in 1½ cups water for 50–60 minutes. Use the berries in salads or whole-grain breads.



Farro: An ancient wheat cultivated in Italy, farro is deliciously plump and chewy. Soak 1 cup of farro overnight, then simmer with 3 cups water for 25–70 minutes (depending on the type). Simmer in Italian soup, or treat farro like pasta and toss in your favorite toppings.

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