My 6 favourite ancient grains

Written by Catherine Saxelby on Saturday, 01 June 2013.
Tagged: ancient grains, fibre, food trends, food variety, gluten-free, glycemic index, grains, low GI, oats, super foods, trends, vegetarian, wellness

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People are often not sure about what are ancient grains, how to cook ancient grains and how to incorporate them into their everyday meals. So here are six of my favourites and what I like to do with them. Some are better in salads and sides, some become "mushy" when cooked so are useful for soups and thickening, while some make great breads and baked things.

1. Quinoa (pronounced keen-wah)

Quinoa tri colour in bowl2013 is the Year of Quinoa, so it's not surprising that it's making the leap from health food shops to supermarkets. It cooks quickly and I use it in recipes that call for couscous (mine somehow always used to end up gluggy!), bulgur or rice.

It cooks up to make lovely salads and hot side dishes. The most common is the beige or cream-coloured quinoa but you can also buy black, grey and red types which take longer to cook. There's also a tri-colour quinoa which is a mix of the three types (photographed above).

Quinoa has an exceptional nutrition profile being packed with low GI carbs and fibre, along with B vitamins and minerals such as phosphorus, magnesium, potassium and zinc. It's also gluten free. For vegans, it's a must-eat, thanks to its complete amino acid (protein) rating.

2. Barley

Barley pearled loose boxOne of the oldest cultivated grains, barley is closely related to wheat and rye. It was one of the first grains cultivated as a staple food in ancient Egypt and later, Greece, and Rome. These days, most of the barley crop is used to make malt to brew beer and malt whiskey.

It stands out due to its low GI, meaning its carbohydrate is slowly absorbed which demands less insulin, making it useful for staving off hunger pangs and steadying blood sugar levels. It keeps you feeling fuller for longer after eating.

I love pearled barley in soup - just a handful is enough to thicken and enliven a vegetable or lentil soup. It works well in vegetarian dishes (think pilafs, casseroles and hearty salads) or as a barley mushroom risotto.

3. Oats

Oats on timberA childhood favourite of mine and one of my top 20 super foods. Oats have been well-researched for their rich content of a fibre known as beta-glucans which can drive blood cholesterol down. They offer more protein and fat than wheat or rice and have a low GI (Glycemic Index).

4. Kamut™

Kamut pasta cooked to useAn ancient form of wheat, kamut™ (also called Khorasan wheat) makes a superb pasta with a firm mouthfeel and golden colour. I really like to use it in pasta salads as it definitely doesn't go soggy or break up.

I love the story of how Kamut arrived in the US in 1950s - Kamut ended up in the US when a U.S. airman stationed in Egypt mailed 32 kernels to his father who was a farmer in Montana. A small crop was grown commercially for a few years, but it was all but forgotten due to lack of markets and poor yields.

Then in 1977, the Quinn family secured one remaining jar of the large hump-backed seed from which they selected and propagated a specific seed type that was registered as QK 77. The Quinns coined the trade name "Kamut", an ancient Egyptian word for wheat.

5. Buckwheat

Buckwheat closeup finalBuckwheat has a distinctive triangular shape and comes in two forms - toasted darker buckwheat groats (which I prefer and are pictured above) and a greenish raw type. Despite it name, it is not related to wheat and has no gluten. You'll spot it in Russian and Polish recipes eg mixed with onion and mushrooms and finished off with sour cream. To my thinking, it suits hearty soups and casseroles where you're after the strong gutsy texture.

6. Farro/emmer

Farro with pack 1Farro or grano farro is the Italian name for this hulled or 'covered' ancient strain of wheat. It also goes by the name emmer as well as Pharaoh's wheat in the Middle East.

You'll spot farro in Tuscan cooking where it teams nicely with traditional Italian ingredients like garlic, olive oil, oregano and radicchio in salads and accompaniments.

Don't confuse it with spelt - they are two distinct though closely related grains. Farro was the forerunner to spelt on the evolution of wheat.