Hearty and Wholesome

Tasty traditions for grains and legumes

Jeff Amberg, food styled by Susan Fuller Slack

Cutting down on red meat? Trying to manage your Type 2 diabetes and prevent heart disease? The acclaimed Mediterranean Diet features such plant-based foods as whole grains and legumes, important sources of vitamins, minerals, and protein and numerous health benefits.

Some grains come from cereal grasses, such as wheat and barley. Other grain sources come from plants that are not grasses at all, such as buckwheat, amaranth, and quinoa. The foundation of most ancient cooking was based on grains. At first, they were simply roasted and eaten. Later, their flavor and digestibility improved when man cooked them in water to produce a type of gruel. Domesticated wheat was grown abundantly in the Tigris-Euphrates Valley. Barley was domesticated for human consumption about 6000 B.C.

Many thriving cultures base their entire existence upon grain production. Wheat has been grown in the Middle East for thousands of years. Whole wheat berries are cooked and eaten or parched and processed into a type of cracked wheat called bulgur.

Since China’s early history, the centerpiece of a meal has been a bowl of rice, and the rhythms of daily life in Japan have also long revolved around the planting and harvesting of rice. Rice is also a staple food in Korea, but barley and millet are often added to the rice pot.

Rice farming in America began in South Carolina around the 1680s with seeds planted as a market crop in the Carolina Lowcountry near Charlestowne. “Golden Seed Rice” (Carolina Gold) was highly esteemed and the catalyst for the “Carolina Rice Kitchen” and all of its heirloom ingredients.

The “new grains” amaranth, quinoa, kamut, millet, spelt, and farro have actually been around for millenniums. From the Fertile Crescent, whole grain farro, a wheat grain that is popular in Italy, looks a little like barley when cooked. Whole grain farro requires overnight soaking, but the semi-pearled variety (with some fiber) cooks faster.

Quinoa and amaranth, native to Mexico and the mountains of South America, are regarded as super grains, although both are actually nutritious seeds. They have high amounts of the eight amino acids that form a complete protein, including lysine, which is usually deficient in grains.

In many countries, grains are the heart of most meals, and their religions honor a goddess of the grain. Check in local specialty markets, gourmet shops, and even your favorite supermarkets to discover less familiar grains (and flours) that our international friends have been eating for centuries. In the interest of good health, include them on your pantry shelves beside our old favorites.

The word “legume” is derived from the Latin legume, which means “seeds harvested in pods.” The edible seeds of legumes are called “pulse” from the Latin puls or “pottage.”

These two terms are often used interchangeably. Dry lentils, garbanzo beans or chickpeas, beans, and peas are in the legume family, but they are called pulses because their dried seeds are edible. An important source of nutrition for people around the world, pulses are cheap, nutrient dense, and can be grown sustainably in many types of climates.

Dried beans are usually oval or kidney shaped, most commonly red and white. Red beans include kidney beans, red beans, cranberry beans, pinto beans, pink beans, Anasazi beans, adzuki beans, and black beans. White beans include navy beans, pea beans, lima beans, great northern and cannellini (white kidney beans). Beans are generally interchangeable in recipes. They are high in vitamins, minerals, fiber, and protein, so smaller amounts of meat can be eaten.

The dried pea family (Fabaceae) includes garbanzo (chickpeas) and black-eyed peas (cowpeas). Fresh peas were not readily eaten until the 16th century. Dried peas are spherical and available in distinctive green and mild yellow varieties. Split peas make a hearty, delicious soup. The British simmer dried marrowfat peas to make mushy peas, beloved with fish and chips. The peas are soaked overnight with a pinch of baking soda to encourage softening. Green split peas work as well. Dried peas are an excellent source of fiber, B vitamins, magnesium, phosphorous, and potassium.

The lentil (Lens culinaris) is the most flavorful of the pulses and is highly nutritious. The word lentil comes from the Latin word lens — the tiny seeds are shaped like a doubly convex lens. Lentils are of ancient origin and one of the earliest plants domesticated in the Old World. Today, the lentil is grown and widely consumed around the world, including in India, the Middle East, and countries in the Mediterranean region.

Lentils come in a variety of colors: black, brown, olive green, reddish orange, yellow, and white. They don’t have to be presoaked, and they are quick cooking. However, some cooks prefer an overnight soak to lessen the effect of complex carbohydrates, called oligosaccharides, which causes gas. On the other hand, oligosaccharides that are resistant to digestion offer another type of fiber and contribute to a healthy digestive system.

All lentils are basically interchangeable, but some cook up more firmly and hold their shape better, like the brown and green varieties. These are especially good in salads and side dishes. Fiber-rich French grey-green lentils are sold with the seed coat and are a bit firmer when cooked. Yellowish inside, they have a slight peppery taste. Egyptian red lentils are sold without the seed coat and quickly cook into a puree. In India, they are used to make spicy dhal, a group of pureed lentil dishes that vary throughout the subcontinent. Brown lentils are the most common in area supermarkets. (Ethnic markets and gourmet shops carry other kinds.)

Protein-rich lentils offer calcium, Vitamins A and B, iron, and phosphorus. They are low fat and an important source of cholesterol-lowering fiber. One cup of cooked lentils is about 30 calories. Lentils are used for gluten-free flour and, increasingly, are being used in cereals, chips, energy bars, and pastas to boost the nutritional profile and fiber content.


Spicy Lentil Soup

Highly nutritious, lentil soup is an integral part of many Middle Eastern diets. It is the perfect food for a winter meal. Lentil soup has had a place in traditional medicine throughout history. In the Bible, Esau sold his birthright for a bowl of the nourishing potage. Three-to-4 ounces of chopped ham, kielbasa, or prosciutto can be added during the final 15 minutes of cooking. The soup can be pureed, but leave a small portion unprocessed for texture. The great Chef Auguste Escoffier said, “Soup puts the heart at ease, calms down the violence of hunger, eliminates the tension of the day, and awakens and refines the appetite.”   

1 rounded cup brown or green lentils

3 tablespoons olive oil

1 cup chopped leeks, shallots, or onion

2 stalks celery, finely diced

2/3 cup carrots, diced

2 teaspoons grated fresh ginger root

2 cloves minced garlic

2 tablespoons tomato paste

6 to 7 cups chicken or vegetable broth

1 to 2 teaspoons ground cumin, to taste

1 teaspoon sea salt, or to taste

1/2 teaspoon coarse black pepper, or to taste

1 teaspoon dried thyme

1 small, hot chili pepper, seeded, minced, or 1 tablespoon red pepper harissa, optional

1/3 cup finely chopped fresh cilantro leaves or flat-leaf parsley

1 to 2 tablespoons red wine vinegar, to taste

Plain Greek yogurt for soup topping, optional

Rinse lentils in a colander under cool water; drain well. Heat oil in a deep saucepan. Saute the shallots, celery, carrot, ginger, and garlic 4 to 5 minutes, until soft. Stir in lentils and tomato paste, 6 cups broth, cumin, salt, pepper, thyme, and chili. Simmer 30 minutes. Add cilantro, vinegar, and the remaining cup of broth, if desired. Cook 15 minutes or until lentils are soft. Add red wine vinegar and adjust seasonings. Serve warm with yogurt. Makes 6 servings.


Mixed Grain-Stuffed Bell Peppers

Grain mixtures can create interesting flavors and textures in dishes. Whole grains need longer cooking time than cracked or pearled grains; cook each one carefully following package directions. Quinoa is the seed-like fruit of the plant Chenopodium quinoa. An important food for the ancient Incas, it has survived for thousands of years thriving under the most severe ecological conditions. Saponin, a bitter compound that coats the seeds, is removed during processing, but package directions still may recommend a quick rinse. Farro (emmer) is the ancestor of modern wheat and has a pleasant, chewy texture and nutty flavor.

1 cup cooked red quinoa, following package directions

1 cup cooked farro (recipe below) or barley

4 to 5 large bell peppers (any color), halved lengthwise, seeded

3 tablespoons olive oil

1 large onion, diced

1 medium carrot, diced

2 stalks diced celery

4 large, wiped, diced mushrooms

1/2 cup bell pepper, diced

1 small zucchini, finely diced

2 large garlic cloves, minced

1/2 pound spicy or plain bulk country or Italian sausage

Sea salt and black pepper, to taste

1/2 cup fresh herbs, minced (choose one or several: basil, oregano, thyme, rosemary, or parsley)

Veloute Sauce to bind, as desired (see recipe at ColumbiaMetro.com)

3/4 to 1 cup grated Parmigiano, Asiago cheese, shredded provolone, or crumbled feta cheese

Green onion, chopped

Cook grains; set aside. Preheat oven to 375 F. Put pepper halves into a large, shallow, ovenproof dish, cut sides up. Partially bake 15 minutes while preparing the grain filling. Heat oil in a large skillet with deep sides. Saute the onion with the carrot, celery, mushrooms, bell pepper, and zucchini until nearly tender. Mix in garlic. Add sausage in pieces; stir and cook until meat is crumbly. Add in seasonings and herbs. Put mixture into a large bowl, stir in quinoa and farro. Mix some of the Veloute Sauce to the filling as a binder, as desired. Taste to adjust seasonings. Stuff mixture into partially baked pepper halves. Sprinkle with cheese. If desired, drizzle a little tomato juice or broth in the pan. Bake 20 minutes or until filling is hot. Garnish with green onion. Serves 6.


Spice-Scented Couscous

Couscous, a durum wheat semolina product, is considered pasta, but it looks like, tastes like, and is served as a grain. A staple in North African diets, it is traditionally steamed several times in a two-tiered pan (couscousiere) and fluffed after each steaming. Couscous is also made with grains such as rice, millet, and sorghum. Whether purchased by bag or bulk, semolina couscous has been steamed at least twice and only needs to be plumped with hot liquid. The recipe is versatile: stir in one cup of prepared bulgur (partially cooked cracked wheat) or 2 cups sauteed, diced carrots and zucchini squash. Serve with grilled lamb kabobs, roast lemon chicken, or with a Mediterranean vegetable stew.

2 tablespoons butter, unsalted

1 medium onion, finely chopped

2 garlic cloves, minced

1 teaspoon gingerroot, minced

1/8 teaspoon cumin seeds

Pinch of ground cinnamon and nutmeg

1/4 teaspoon ground turmeric

1 cup couscous

1 3/4 cups homemade or packaged chicken broth, heated

Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

1/3 cup raisins, plumped in sherry or hot water

1/4 cup toasted, slivered almonds

2 tablespoons each fresh mint and cilantro leaves, chopped

Preheat oven to 200 F. In a large skillet, heat butter over medium-low heat. Add onion, garlic, and spices; cook 4 minutes or until onion is soft. Stir in couscous; reduce heat to low. Stir in the hot broth and cover 5 minutes or until absorbed. Stir in raisins and almonds. If the couscous seems too moist, spread over a large baking sheet and dry in the oven 10 to 12 minutes, stirring one or two times. Taste to adjust seasonings, if necessary. Serves 4.

Cooked Farro

One cup of farro offers multiple health benefits, and more fiber than brown rice or couscous. Fiber helps prevent spikes in blood sugar levels and can help lower LDL cholesterol levels. It is an excellent source of protein, minerals, and some B vitamins. Here, farro is boiled like pasta in a generous, unmeasured amount of water, then drained when done. For quicker cooking, soak overnight. Serve the cooked farro as a breakfast bowl with ingredients tossed in and a topping of eggs, cooked to taste. For a sweeter version, add agave nectar, Greek yogurt, and fresh berries or other fruits.

1/2 cup emmer farro (the type most commonly found in the U.S.)


Pinch of sea salt

Bring water to boil in a large saucepan, then add farro. Reduce to a medium boil and cook 25 minutes or until tender, yet still slightly chewy. Drain farro well and divide between two deep serving bowls. Season to taste and add toppings of choice. Farro can also be cooked in the amazing Instant Pot, which is a combination rice cooker, pressure cooker, and slow cooker.


Tips for Cooking Pulses: Beans, Peas, and Lentils

Sort through dry beans, peas, or lentils before cooking to remove any foreign matter like tiny stones or shriveled beans. Soak dry beans in room temperature water overnight (2 cups beans/10 cups water). For a quicker method, bring water and beans to a boil; set aside and soak 4 hours. Black-eyed peas, lentils, and split peas don’t need soaking.

Drain off soaking water, and rinse beans well. Put into the pot with the measured amount of liquid (water or broth). Add seasonings, if desired, like aromatics (onion, garlic), herbs, spices, or salt. Beans toughen if they are old, if you use hard water, or if you added an acidic ingredient to the pot. Simmer beans on low heat until tender, but not mushy. Keep covered with liquid; stir gently. Refrigerate leftover beans up to 5 days.

One pound of dried beans equals 5 to 6 cups cooked beans. When using a can of beans (about 16 ounces), drain them and rinse briefly to remove extra sodium. This will produce 1 2/3 cup.