Whole grains: They’re healthy, trendy, tasty and diverse

Orange, ginger and Dijon-glazed vegetable and buckwheat skillet includes meat, but tofu can be substituted.
Orange, ginger and Dijon-glazed vegetable and buckwheat skillet includes meat, but tofu can be substituted. The Penguin Group, reprinted by permission

Are you old enough to remember when whole grains were relegated to health food stores and only diehards were eating them?

Those days are over.

With so much variety, along with a wealth of new and exciting recipes, an abundance of nutritional benefits and plenty of flavor and texture, all kinds of whole grains have come out of hiding and gone mainstream in recent years. The farrow salad with nectarines is a mainstay at the downtown vegetarian restaurant Mother. Wicked West Pizza in West Sacramento uses whole wheat flour in its dough. Chipotle has a brown rice option, as do many Thai restaurants these days.

And all kinds of eateries are finding ways to introduce quinoa, couscous, millet, spelt, amaranth, wheat berries and more into salads, stews and side dishes.

With good reason. You already know about the high fiber content that eases the digestive process. But it may surprise you to learn that many whole grains are also excellent sources of protein and have a nutrient profile that can make them an all-star in your culinary lineup. For a rundown on whole grain nutrition, check out the website

That doesn’t mean whole grains have to be a sacrifice when it comes to flavor. As restaurants are finding, there are simply so many ways to enjoy them. They can be the centerpiece of a meal, play a supporting role or add a creative component to a side dish. You can tuck them into a salad or sneak them into a dessert in place of more common but less nutritious processed grains like white wheat flour.

The newly published cookbook “Moosewood Restaurant Favorites,” for instance, suggests serving its hearty Moroccan vegetable stew over a bed of couscous. That’s a quick and easy way to add flavor, texture, fiber and a dose of nutrients to an already healthy and delicious dish.

For the accompanying recipes with this story, we referenced an excellent book, “Grain Power” (Pintail, 240 pages, 2014) by Patrica Green and Carolyn Hemming. (On Twitter they’re @QuinoaQueens, which says plenty about their commitment to ancient grains.)

I’ve had something of a quinoa reawakening of my own. Using an Instant Pot electric pressure cooker, I can make quinoa in one minute under pressure with no fuss or need to watch over the pot. Other, heartier whole grains like wheat berries and pearled barley take longer, but they require little to no cooking prowess. If you’re looking to up your whole grains repertoire, I highly recommend getting an Instant Pot or other electric pressure cooker, which also can be used as a rice cooker and slow cooker.

In “Grain Power,” the authors talk about whole grains, or ancient grains, and, as the name suggests, explain that they have been used as sustenance going back centuries. Some of the ingredients we think of as whole grains are not, it turns out, actual grains but seeds. Quinoa is one of them. If you’re trying to build up your pantry with grains, you can find almost any grain in the bulk bins at the Sacramento Natural Foods Co-op. Mainstream grocery stores are now carrying more grain variety, too, often in small bags from Bob’s Red Mill or in bulk bins of their own.

The authors write: “Healthfulness and superfood properties are huge benefits, and ancient grains also provide unique textures and flavors that add a whole new dimension to many meals that you’re already eating. The ease of cooking and the versatility of ancient grains means you can easily incorporate them into your existing meals.”

Several once-obscure grains and seeds have now become household names. Take chia, which burst into mainstream consciousness several years ago with the publication of “Born To Run,” about the athletic exploits of Mexico’s Tarahumara people. Not only did the book help trigger the barefoot or minimalist shoe boom, it sent many people to health food stores looking for chia, those tiny black seeds that resemble poppy seeds but are loaded with protein, fiber and healthy carbs. They also have an abundance of antioxidants and omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids.

Quinoa, of course, has also grown in popularity, based on its reputation as a so-called superfood. With its pleasing mild nutty flavor, light and fluffy texture when cooked and its high quality protein, fiber and other nutrients, quinoa is a grain we all should try sneaking into more and more dishes, especially salads.

In the new book “How Not To Die,” Dr. Michael Greger recommends three servings of whole grains daily. According to the book, an analysis of two major studies “found that people who eat more whole grains tend to live significantly longer lives independent of other dietary and lifestyle factors. No surprise, given that whole grains appear to reduce the risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, obesity, and stroke. Eating whole grains could save the lives of more than a million people around the world every year.”

Greger’s favorite sources of whole grains are barley, brown rice, buckwheat, millet, oats, popcorn, quinoa, rye, teff, whole wheat pasta and wild rice.

When you look at the health benefits and the prospects of significantly prolonging life, it may seem like whole grains are something of a culinary sacrifice. But that’s not the case. What’s exciting about the recipes in “Grain Power,” including the three listed below, and a growing library of other grain-centric recipes, is that these ancient grains are finding new relevance in an array of breakfast, lunch and dinner dishes that are both healthful and delicious.

Blair Anthony Robertson: 916-321-1099, @Blarob

Orange, ginger and Dijon-glazed vegetable and buckwheat skillet

Tender, crisp veggies with a glaze of fresh orange juice, ginger and Dijon mixed with sirloin or your choice of meat, seafood or fried tofu on a bed of hot buckwheat.

3 cups water

1 1/2 cups buckwheat groats

2 teaspoons freshly grated orange zest

1 cup freshly squeezed orange juice

1 tablespoon liquid honey or pure maple syrup

1 teaspoon mild Dijon mustard

1 teaspoon Sriracha or pinch of red pepper flakes

2 tablespoons grapeseed or vegetable oil

1 pound beef sirloin tip, chicken or pork, or tofu

4 cups broccoli florets and pieces

2 cups thinly sliced carrots

1 red bell pepper sliced

1 tablespoon puréed ginger

2 teaspoons minced garlic

3/4 cup green onions, sliced diagonally

Tamari or soy sauce (optional)

In a large saucepan, bring the water and buckwheat to a boil. Reduce to a simmer, cover and cook for 15 minutes. Remove from heat and drain off any liquid. Fluff with a fork and replace the cover.

Whisk together the orange zest, orange juice, honey, Dijon and Sriracha in a small bowl. Set aside.

Heat large skillet or sauté pan with a lid on medium heat. Add 1 tablespoon oil and the sirloin or other meat or tofu; cook on each side until desired doneness. Remove from pan and set aside. Slice the meat after it has rested for 8 minutes.

Add the remaining tablespoon of oil to the skillet and reduce heat to medium-low. Stir in broccoli, carrots, red pepper, ginger and garlic. Cover and allow the juices to collect in the pan. If the pan appears dry, add a tablespoon or two of water. Cook the vegetables for a bout four minutes, then pour in the orange juice mixture and replace lid until hot.

Remove lid and stir in the sliced beef. Reduce sauce until slightly thickened and vegetables are crisp but tender. Sprinkle with green onion. Serve over warm buckwheat and encourage your family and guests to add tamari or soy sauce if they wish.

Toasted coconut fruit salad with quinoa and pineapple lime dressing

Easy and so tasty, this is a great option for breakfast, brunch, lunch or anytime health snack.

1 1/3 cups water

2/3 cup quinoa seeds

1/4 to 1/3 cup unsweetened dried coconut

3 ripe kiwis, peeled, quartered and each quarter cut into thirds

1 cup diced strawberries

One 14-ounce can pineapple tidbits, drained, juice reserved

1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lime juice (about 1 lime)

Combine the water and quinoa in a medium saucepan. Bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer and cook with the cover on for 15 minutes. Remove from the heat and set aside with the cover off to cool completely.

Preheat a saute pan on medium heat. Add coconut. Stir constantly until it turns a golden color and is fragrant (1 to 3 minutes). Remove from the heat and set aside to cool.

In a medium bowl, toss the quinoa, kiwi, strawberries and pineapple with the reserved pineapple juice and lime juice. Sprinkle with coconut just before serving.

Creamy vanilla fig millet cereal

1 1/2 cups water

2/3 cup millet seeds

1/2 cup light coconut milk

5 dried figs (any type), chopped

1 1/2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract

1 teaspoons honey or maple syrup

Bring the water and millet to a boil in a medium saucepan. Cover, reduce to a simmer and cook for 15 minutes. Remove the lid; stir in the milk and figs. Simmer, uncovered, until the milk has reduced and the cereal is creamy. Stir in the vanilla and honey. Divide between two bowls and serve.