Rice and Grains: A Culinary Adventure
The world is in-love with rice. Grown all over, from Europe to the Americas, the Middle East to Japan and South-east Asia, rice is a staple of many a diet. In Italy it’s the medium-grained Avorio rice (introduced by Spain) that dominates, followed by Arborio which is used in risottos. In the Americas, most rice is imported from the United States, where the long grain Patna and the medium grain Carolina are the most popular. The Iranians, like the south-east Asians, grow and eat long grain rice, the Indians Basmati, while the Japanese prefer a glutinous medium-grained rice that’s more practical to use with chopsticks.
However, there is a huge environmental cost to all the rice that’s grown: Fred Pearce’s must-read book ‘When the Rivers Run Dry’ begins with some staggering statistics: it takes between 2,000 and 5,000 litres of water to grow just one kilo of rice. No, I did not mistype that, between two and five thousand litres. That’s more water than many households use in a week. Compare that with 1,000 litres to grow a kilo of wheat, and a ‘mere’ 500 litres for a kilo of potatoes, and rice begins to look like a luxury the world just can’t afford.
On top of this, once rice is harvested, the seeds are run through a huller to remove the outer grain husks, leaving you with brown rice, ready for cooking. Deliciously nutty-flavoured and highly nutritious – what could be wrong with that? Yet, perverse beings that we are, we put most of our rice through another stage: we remove the germ and the inner husk (bran), and then we polish the grains using glucose or talc. This procedure ensures two things the manufacturers have decided we want: it makes the rice look nicer, and it makes it cook more quickly. It also, however, removes most of its natural nutritional content: vitamin E, thiamin, riboflavin, niocin, vitamin B6, folacin, potassium, magnesium and iron, not to mention around 75% of its fibre.
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Now I love creamy risottos and saffron-flavoured paellas as much as the next person, and I reserve the right to eat Madhur Jaffrey’s ‘Spicy Basmati Rice’ and Delia Smith’s ‘Saffron Rice’ until the day I die, but these days I am opting out of bland, nutrition-free varieties, and going for something altogether darker, chewier and nuttier instead. Brown, or unrefined, rice is becoming increasingly visible on the shelves of mainstream supermarkets, and further brown rice varieties, such as basmati and short grain, are becoming available in specialist shops.
But why stop at rice? With every visit to my local health food store, I get more daring, buying a variety of grains that have far more taste and ‘bite’, let alone nutritional value, than ordinary rice.
Kamut, or Khorasan Wheat
From Egypt, this delicious, dark, nutty grain contains selenium, zinc, magnesium and Vitamins B and E. Another good thing – it doesn’t need soaking and cooks within about twenty minutes. Just use as you would white rice, nice and simple.
An ancient grain that’s been around far longer than the wheat-hybrids of today, spelt is a useful alternative for those suffering from wheat allergies. A great source of niacin and fibre, it does need soaking for a few hours and takes about forty minutes to cook.
Pearl barley is often used in soups and stews, but give me its wholegrain cousin any day. High in dietary fibre, selenium, manganese and phosphorus, it comes available par-boiled, and so takes just 25 minutes to cook.
Bulgur Wheat and Couscous
Bulgur (also spelt Bulghur) is cracked wheat grains, while couscous (or is it cous cous?) is made from durum wheat that’s been milled and rolled. Nutritionally, bulgur provides more oomph – with more fibre and magnesium than its counterpart and marginally fewer calories and carbohydrates.
Bulgur wheat works brilliantly whenever you might use couscous, such as with North African Tajines and Middle Eastern stews. One of my favourite side-dishes, red pepper bulgur pilaf, is a wonderful compliment to grilled meats, and a fantastic addition to any barbecue or buffet.
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I’ve become rather a fan of quinoa, a wonderful grain that hails from South America and is so good it was once known as ‘the gold of the Incas’. It’s high in protein and amino acids, has a nutty flavour and a lovely, unusual texture that seems to pop as you chew it. It cooks quickly too, taking around twelve minutes to boil, so is a perfect fast food.
A tiny part of the wheat kernel, wheat germ is one of life’s super-foods, containing more nutrients per ounce than any other vegetable or grain. It’s rich in potassium and iron, riboflavin, calcium, zinc, magnesium and vitamins A, B1, B3 and E – all in all great for anti-ageing, preventing heart disease and boosting the immune system.
You could add a little to your flour when making bread or cakes, but I think it’s fantastic when added to breakfast muesli.
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Actually a fruit seed masquerading as a grain, buckwheat is a great alternative for those who are sensitive to wheat. It’s also gluten-free and high in amino acids, flavonoids, which maximise the effects of Vitamin C, and magnesium.
Usually it’s used ground, in blinis or pancakes. I rather liked the look of this one in my local health store, but my first cooking adventure with it wasn’t a great success – I overdid it somewhat and turned it to mush. A quick google search reveals that it works well acting as the ‘glue’ when stuffing vegetables.
Millet – A Secret Superfood
One of the oldest foods in the world, mentioned in the Bible and considered one of the five sacred crops by the ancient Chinese, Millet has long been a staple throughout Africa and India. It grows well in hot climates, on poorly fertilized and dry soils, and is highly nutritious, easily digested and one of the least allergenic grains available. It has a mildly sweet, nut-like flavour and is spectacularly nutritious, containing high amounts of fibre, B-complex vitamins including niacin, thiamin, and riboflavin, the essential amino acid methionine, lecithin, and vitamin E. It is particularly high in iron, magnesium, phosphorus and potassium.
Millet is the world’s sixth most important grain, sustaining a third of the population: in India and the Sahara it’s ground and used to make flatbreads, while North Africans enjoy it as porridge. And what do we in the west do with it? We use it as bird and cattle feed. Their gain, our loss, or should I say – wait for it – their grain, our loss? (Sorry.)
Not just for Vegetarians
Now I’m going to let you in on a shocking secret. I might be buying all these from the health food store, but that doesn’t make me a veggie or a vegan – the truth is, grains like these really lend themselves to hearty stews and meat dishes, too. And not just any old meat – I’ve happily paired grains up with kidneys, sautéd in wine, mustard and crème fraiche, pork hearts, simmered in red wine, tomatoes and herbs, and finely-sliced liver cooked in yoghurt and juniper berries, and they’ve worked tremendously well.
So I say, ditch the bland white rice and embrace the grain. Because let’s face it, if we’re going to continue depleting the world’s fresh water supplies, we might as well get some nutritional benefit out of it.
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