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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Looking for little ways to eat healthier? Start with whole grains.

By Alice Callahan


For me, a meal isn’t complete without a hunk of whole-wheat bread to dip into my soup, or a pile of brown rice to soak up my curry. Whole grains provide sustenance and comfort.


And lucky for us, they’re a main feature of the Mediterranean diet, which is an approach to eating that emphasizes whole, mostly plant-based foods.


Whole grains are different from refined grains in that they contain all three parts of a grain kernel: the starchy endosperm, which provides carbohydrates, protein and some B vitamins and minerals; the germ, rich in healthy fats and vitamins; and the bran, a concentrated source of fiber, minerals and B vitamins.


When we eat whole grains, the fiber and healthy fats slow digestion, resulting in smaller spikes and dips in blood sugar. Fiber can also reduce blood cholesterol levels, support a healthy gut and lower the risk of developing colorectal cancer, cardiovascular disease and Type 2 diabetes.


Aside from great nutrition, whole grains add a variety of flavors and textures to any meal: the nutty complexity of farro, the heartiness of barley and the crunch of oats toasted in granola or on top of a fruit crisp.


Below, we offer strategies for eating more whole grains, along with some recipes selected by our colleagues at NYT Cooking.


What to keep in your pantry


To help you meet your whole-grain goals, try stocking up on these affordable and shelf-stable basics:


— Rolled or steel-cut oats

— Whole-grain, low-sugar breakfast cereals like shredded wheat, muesli and wheat flakes

— Whole-grain bread

— Whole-grain crackers to dunk into hummus or top with cheese

— Popcorn (consider popping it yourself so you can control the ingredients)

— Dried grains like millet, farro, brown rice, quinoa, bulgur and barley to use in main dishes, as simple sides or as additions to soups and salads


Meal ideas that center whole grains


Once you have some ingredients on hand, you get to start playing around with recipes.


For our Mediterranean diet series, we and our colleagues at NYT Cooking have selected a few recipes that incorporate the ingredients we’re highlighting. This is not intended to be a meal plan, but rather inspiration for how to include more of these healthful foods in your week.


For breakfast, you might have whole-wheat toast with peanut butter and a side of fruit, plain yogurt with fruit and granola, or a steaming bowl of oatmeal topped with nuts and dried fruit. You could try Martha Rose Shulman’s cozy bulgur maple porridge, or Melissa Clark’s granola with dried apricots and pistachios; the not-so-secret ingredient, Melissa says, is olive oil, the favored oil of the Mediterranean diet.


Lunch could be a sandwich on whole-wheat bread — maybe made with cheese, avocado, hummus, lettuce and tomato — or leftover veggies wrapped in a whole-grain tortilla. But if you have time to cook, Yewande Komolafe’s toasted millet salad with cucumber, avocado and lemon is light and packed with flavor. Or try Sohla El-Waylly’s quinoa and broccoli spoon salad, with crispy raw broccoli and crunchy pecans to complement the fluffy quinoa.


For dinner, I’m trying to break my usual bread-and-rice routine to cook some whole grains I don’t use often enough. This could be as simple as quinoa or millet with a side of veggies and steamed fish. Or maybe Kay Chun’s baked barley risotto with mushrooms and carrots or Yasmin Fahr’s farro with blistered tomatoes, pesto and spinach. For the chilliest January nights, I’m thinking of Melissa Clark’s turkey, farro and chickpea soup. Join me?



Quinoa and broccoli spoon salad

By Sohla El-Waylly



This easy chopped salad fits loads of texture and flavor onto a spoon by combining finely chopped raw broccoli with chewy dried cranberries, crunchy pecans, fluffy quinoa and chunks of sharp cheddar cheese. The mixture is tossed in a punchy mustard vinaigrette that soaks into the florets, only getting better as it sits. Feel free to substitute the quinoa for any grain, like brown rice, farro or buckwheat groats, though the cook time may vary.



Yield: 4 to 6 servings

Total time: 30 minutes


Ingredients:

Kosher salt

1 cup quinoa, rinsed

1 lemon

3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

3 tablespoons Dijon mustard

2 tablespoons honey

2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar

Freshly ground black pepper

1 large bunch broccoli (about 1 1/2 pounds)

1 medium tart and crisp apple

4 ounces sharp cheddar

3/4 cup toasted pecans, roughly chopped

1/2 cup dried cranberries


Preparation:

1. Bring a medium pot of water to a boil on high and season aggressively with salt. Add the quinoa, then reduce the heat to maintain a simmer; cook until plump and tender, about 15 minutes. Transfer to a fine-mesh sieve; rinse with cool water and drain well.

2. While the quinoa cooks, finely grate the zest of the lemon into a large bowl then cut the lemon in half. Add the olive oil, mustard, honey and apple cider vinegar, plus the juice of 1/2 lemon; whisk together. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

3. Peel the stem of the broccoli and trim off the dry end. Finely chop the entire broccoli and add to the dressing. Core the apple then finely chop the apple and the cheese; add to the broccoli and toss to combine.

4. Add the cooked quinoa, nuts and cranberries and toss to combine. Taste and add more salt, pepper and lemon juice, as needed. Store, refrigerated, for up to 3 days.



Farro with blistered tomatoes, pesto and spinach

By Yasmin Fahr



Here is an Italian-inspired recipe that uses store-bought or homemade pesto to season farro, which is then tossed with fresh spinach, roasted tomatoes, red onions and mozzarella for a complete vegetarian meal. Make it with fresh-from-the-market cherry tomatoes when they’re in season, but during the rest of the year, use grape tomatoes, as they tend to be more flavorful than cherry during the colder months. If you’d like, substitute arugula, or cooked broccoli raab or kale, for the spinach. It tastes delicious warm or cold the next day — and topping it with shrimp, chicken or scallops can make it feel new again. Before reheating, add a bit more spinach, drizzle it with a little olive oil and give it a good stir.



Yield: 4 servings

Total time: 40 minutes


Ingredients:

Salt and black pepper

1 cup farro, rinsed

2 pints cherry or grape tomatoes

1 small red onion, peeled, quartered and cut into 1-inch wedges

2 tablespoons olive oil, plus more for the farro

1/2 teaspoon red-pepper flakes

1/4 cup store-bought or homemade pesto, plus more to taste

Zest and juice of 1 lemon

2 packed cups baby spinach

1 (4-ounce) ball fresh mozzarella, torn into chunks, or 1/2 cup ricotta salata, crumbled (optional)

1/4 cup fresh flat-leaf parsley or basil leaves and tender stems, roughly chopped


Preparation:

1. Heat the oven to 400 degrees. Bring a large covered pot of well-salted water to a boil. Add the farro and adjust the heat to maintain a medium boil. Cook uncovered, stirring occasionally to make sure nothing is sticking to the bottom, until tender and not too chewy, about 30 minutes.

2. Meanwhile, on a sheet pan, combine the tomatoes and onion wedges with the oil, making sure everything is well coated and glistening, then season with salt, pepper and the red-pepper flakes. Roast until the tomatoes blister and slightly deflate, 25 to 30 minutes.

3. When the farro is done, drain, then pour into a serving bowl or back into the pot. Toss with some olive oil, then mix in the pesto. Add the lemon zest and juice, then stir in the spinach. Set aside to cool slightly.

4. Scrape the onions, tomatoes and their juices into the farro; season with salt and pepper as needed. Add the cheese, if using, then garnish with herbs and serve.





Toasted millet salad with cucumber, avocado and lemon

By Yewande Komolafe


Cooked millet has a taste and aroma that’s subtly reminiscent of raw hazelnuts, and as with hazelnuts, toasting millet first really deepens its flavor. If you want to work ahead, toast and cook the millet, set aside and toss in the other ingredients when ready. Sharp mint leaves, creamy avocado, crisp cucumbers and bright lemon really round out this dish, which makes a lovely side dish, an afternoon snack or the base of a protein-focused grain bowl. Millet is marvelous, but a wide variety of grains will work just as well.



Yield: 4 servings

Total time: 45 minutes, plus cooling


Ingredients:

1/2 cup millet or other grains, such as barley, farro, brown rice or kasha

Salt and black pepper

1/4 cup olive oil

1 tablespoon lemon zest plus 1/4 cup juice

1 tablespoon honey

1 pound English or Persian cucumbers, quartered lengthwise into 1/2-inch spears, then cut crosswise into 2-inch pieces

1 packed cup mint leaves

1/4 cup sliced almonds (optional)

1 avocado, pitted and sliced into quarters


Preparation:

1. To a small pot set over medium heat, add the millet and toast, swirling the pan constantly until the grains begin to crackle, become fragrant and deepen in color to a deep tan, about 10 minutes.

2. Turn heat to low and carefully add 1 1/4 cups water, season with salt, bring to a simmer and cook, partly covered, until the millet is softened, about 15 minutes. Remove the millet from the heat, and stir in 1 tablespoon olive oil and let sit covered for at least 10 minutes. Fluff with a fork, and allow to cool to room temperature. You can do this step ahead and store the cooked millet in the refrigerator for up to 3 days. (If using other grains, toast first, then cook according to package directions.)

3. While the millet cooks, make the vinaigrette: Combine the lemon zest, juice and honey in a small bowl and whisk to incorporate. Add the remaining 3 tablespoons of olive oil and whisk until emulsified. Season with salt and pepper.

4. Toss the cooled millet with cucumbers, mint, almonds (if using) and half of the lemon vinaigrette; divide among bowls. Top each bowl with an avocado quarter and dress with spoonfuls of vinaigrette.



Baked barley risotto with mushrooms and carrots

By Kay Chun


Wholesome and nutty, barley is a superb alternative to Arborio rice in this risotto, since it’s naturally plump and chewy when cooked. The grated Parmesan and butter stirred in at the end release the barley’s starches, creating a silky, creamy texture. Make sure to use pearl barley, not hulled, since it cooks much faster and is more tender. As for the mushrooms, white button, cremini and earthy shiitakes are a tasty, accessible mix, though any combination of oyster, king trumpet and maitake would raise the bar. Still, the best thing about this risotto, which is a satisfying vegetarian weeknight dinner (or side to any large roast or fish) is that it’s baked, taking away the pressure of constant stirring at the stove.



Yield: 4 servings

Total time: 45 minutes


Ingredients:

3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1/2 small white or yellow onion, finely chopped (about 1/2 cup)

5 garlic cloves, thinly sliced

1 pound mixed mushrooms, such as white button, cremini and shiitakes, halved if small, quartered if large (about 7 cups total)

Salt and black pepper

10 ounces pearl barley (about 1 1/2 cups)

1 medium carrot, very thinly sliced into rounds (about 1 cup)

2 ounces grated Parmesan (about 1/2 cup), plus more for serving

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

1/4 cup chopped chives


Preparation:

1. Heat oven to 425 degrees. In a large Dutch oven or heavy pot, heat 2 tablespoons oil over medium. Add onion and garlic, and cook, stirring occasionally, until softened, about 3 minutes. Add mushrooms and remaining 1 tablespoon oil, and season with salt and pepper. Cook, stirring occasionally, until mushrooms start to soften, about 3 minutes.

2. Stir in barley, carrot and 4 1/2 cups water, and bring to a boil over high heat. Cover, transfer to the oven and bake until barley is tender and chewy and almost all of the liquid is absorbed, about 30 minutes.

3. Stir in Parmesan and the butter until slightly thickened and creamy. Season with salt and pepper.

4. Divide among shallow bowls. Sprinkle with chives and more Parmesan, to taste.

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