Choosing brown rice or whole wheat bread is a great start but what other whole grain options are there? The good news is that there are many varieties of whole grains and they are becoming a lot more accessible in grocery stores. Here are just a few examples of some common whole grains:
Quinoa (pronounced keen-wa): This ancient grain-like crop originating in South America has become very popular recently because of its numerous health benefits. Although quinoa is considered a whole grain, it's actually a plant that is closely related to beets, spinach and Swiss chard. It has a very high protein content and is the only grain that is a complete protein, meaning that it contains a balanced set of all nine essential amino acids. It's also gluten-free and easy to digest. Quinoa comes in three main varieties: white, red and black. It only takes about 10-15 minutes to cook and has a fluffy, slightly crunchy texture and mild, nutty flavor. You can also buy quinoa flour, quinoa pasta and quinoa flakes. Quinoa is a great choice for salads, pilafs, soups or as a binder for meatballs in place of breadcrumbs.
Oats: Oats are loaded with fiber, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. Most oats in this country are steamed and flattened to produce old-fashioned, quick or instant oats. If you prefer a chewier texture, try steel-cut oats. They are whole oats that have been cut down in size with steel blades. They take a little longer to cook than old-fashioned oats but they make a delicious and hearty breakfast dish. Try grinding old-fashioned oats up and using them as a healthy coating on chicken breast or fish instead of breadcrumbs.
Barley: One of the oldest cultivated grains, barley comes in several different varieties. Hulled barley is covered barley that has been minimally processed to remove only the tough inedible outer hull leaving the bran layer intact. Pearl barley, which is the most common type sold in stores, has been polished, or "pearled" to remove some or all of the bran layer along with the hull. Technically this means pearl barley is a refined grain but it's still healthier than other refined grains because some of the bran may still be present and it is still high in fiber. Barley is also sold as quick barley, barley flakes (similar to oats), barley flour and Scotch barley (which are coarsely ground). It has a mild nutty flavor and chewy texture that's good in soups, stews, risottos, or breakfast cereal.
Bulgur: Made from wheat kernels that are steamed, dried and cracked. Bulgur is common in Middle Eastern dishes like tabbouleh, a salad made with vegetables and fresh herbs. Most types of bulgur only need to be soaked to become tender, which makes it a great option for a nutritious side dish on a busy weeknight.
Wild Rice: Despite its name, wild rice is not a rice at all but rather the seed of an aquatic plant native to the Great Lakes region of the US. It is very high in protein, more than twice that of brown rice. It's usually sold in blends with other types of rice because of its high price and strong flavor. Its dark color adds striking appearance to dishes like pilafs and salads.
Farro: An Italian grain made from emmer, an ancient strain of wheat. Farro cooks in about 30 minutes and has a pleasant, chewy texture. Similar to barley, to get the whole grain benefits of farro you want to look for products labeled "whole" farro rather than "pearled," which has had some of the bran layer removed. Try farro in salads and baked casseroles.
This is just a short list of whole grains. There are many others including less common grains like amaranth, millet, spelt, grano and kamut. Not sure how to get started? Use my recipe for Farro Salad with Corn, Tomatoes and Edamame as a starting point. To ensure that your salad has lots of flavor, season the cooking liquid when cooking the farro or whatever grain you are using. Also, be sure to toss the cooked grains with the dressing while it's still warm so that it fully absorbs it. Use ingredients with varied flavors, colors and textures like fresh vegetables, crumbled cheese and chopped nuts. And finally, toss in some fresh herbs for an extra pop of flavor.
Farro Salad with Corn, Tomatoes and Edamame
Makes 6 side dish servings
1 cup farro
4 cups water
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 clove garlic, smashed
1 ½ cups cooked corn (I grilled fresh corn and then cut the kernels off)
8 ounces grape tomatoes, halved (about 1 ½ cups)
1 ½ cups edamame, cooked
1/3 cup chopped parsley
1 ounce feta cheese, crumbled
2 tablespoons sherry vinegar
2 tablesooons extra virgin olive oil
1/2 teaspoon Dijon mustard
¼ teaspoon kosher salt
1/8 teaspoon black pepper
Place the farro, water, salt and garlic in a medium saucepan and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to a simmer, cover and cook until farro is done, 25-30 minutes. Drain the farro.
Meanwhile, make the sherry vinaigrette. Place the vinegar, oil, mustard, salt and pepper together in a small jar or other container with a lid. Cover and shake until combined. Alternatively, you can whisk the ingredients together in a bowl.
Stir the warm farro together with the vinaigrette, corn, tomatoes, edamame and parsley in a large bowl. Adjust seasoning to taste. Sprinkle cheese on top. Serve salad warm or chilled.
One serving: Calories 234; Fat 7.6g (Sat 1.4g); Protein 10.9g; Carb 30g; Fiber 5g