We hear a lot about increasing our intake of whole foods, but do you know what “whole foods” are? They are unprocessed and unrefined foods, as close to their raw state as possible. Whole foods typically do not have any added ingredients such as sugar, salt, fat, etc. Some examples are fruits and vegetables; unprocessed meats, poultry, and fish; non-homogenized milk and whole grains. Not to be confused with organic foods which are grown without the use of pesticides, etc.
When we’re talking about whole grains, the basic rule is if the bran is intact, it is considered whole; if the bran has been removed, it isn’t. See how easy that can be. A perfect example is the difference between white and brown rice. White rice has been processed, the bran (outer shell right under the hull) has been removed along with most of the nutrients. In brown rice, the bran is intact. If you want to check the nutritional value of various ingredients, check out the USDA’s National Nutrient Database. The problem comes with food packaging and marketing. Beware of package claims and always read the ingredient list. If there are a lot of words you don’t recognize and can’t pronounce, then it probably isn’t the healthiest choice on the shelf.
If you are interested in improving your nutrition, your health, or just want to make smarter choices in the foods you eat, whole grains can be an important part of your diet. There are studies that indicate an increase in whole grains and other high-fiber foods can reduce your chances at getting cancer and developing heart disease. There is also documentation showing that the consumption of whole grains can help your body regulate blood sugar for many hours. This could be a smart change if you are concerned about diabetes. The Food Network’s website has a very good article that breaks down the various whole grains.
You’ve heard me talk about Farro before and it is wonderful. It can be hard to find in some markets, but barley is readily available. Pearled barley is the most common and a better choice than white rice. Pearl barley has the bran partially removed during the pearling process which makes it much quicker to cook. It is an excellent addition to soups and stews in place of rice. You can also use it to make pilafs or risottos. But if you can find it, look for whole hull-less barley for an even richer, nutrient-packed option. Bob’s Red Mill sells whole hull-less barley.
Most of the time when I make a grain or pasta dish instead of water, I use stock as the cooking liquid. It adds a tremendous amount of flavor as well as nutrients and protein to the final dish. As well, I usually substitute some white wine or dry vermouth for a portion of the liquid to add some acid which balances the starch. You can use chicken or vegetable stock depending on your dietary requirements and which flavors you want to perpetuate.
When you are cooking up whole grains, make a double batch. Use half for a salad such as this one and the other half to add to soups, stews, or other dishes. Cook grains will hold several days in the refrigerator giving you some leeway in what you decide to make with it. In addition to the higher nutrition, whole grains keep you full longer, making them a helpful part of your diets. One thing to be aware of. Because the bran is intact, with its natural oils, the grain can spoil much more quickly than other more shelf-stable forms. Always keep whole grains in the refrigerator or freezer for longer storage.
Sherry vinegar is a milder flavored vinegar. If you don’t have it, champagne or rice wine vinegar would make a good substitution. This recipe calls for fairly standard vegetables but you can add whatever you like. Steamed cauliflower, broccoli, snow peas, cucumbers, other types of peppers, spinach, chard, or fennel would all be fun choices to alter the flavor of this salad. Add more or less of whatever you choose and turn this into your own creation. Serving this on a lettuce leaf adds a lot of color to your plate and creates a natural “dish” for the salad.
This is a salad you can enjoy all year long, changing the ingredients to suit the seasons. Because this holds so well in the refrigerator, you can make it a couple of days before a party, freeing you up for other last minute tasks. For the one pictured above, I had cherry tomatoes that needed to be used, and I added some frozen corn kernels and capers. Have fun playing with the various combinations!
- 1-1/4 cup barley, farro, bulgur, wheatberries, or Israeli couscous
- 6 cups lightly salted water
- 2 tbsp canola oil
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 2 shallots, peeled and minced
- 3/4 cup chopped red pepper
- 3/4 cup chopped yellow pepper
- 1 poblano or Anaheim pepper, seeds and ribs removed, and minced
- 1/4 cup minced parsley
- 1 small zucchini, chopped
- 1 small yellow squash, chopped
- 1 medium carrot, grated
- 3 scallions, sliced thinly on the diagonal
- 1/2 cup sherry vinegar
- 3/4 cup canola oil
- Sea salt and ground pepper, to taste
- Lettuce leaves, for serving
- Place the barley and water into a saucepan. Bring the water to a boil, cover the pan with a lid, and simmer the barley according to package directions, until tender. When the barley is cooked, drain it well and chill completely.
- While the barley is chilling, if needed, lightly cook vegetables. Leave vegetables either raw or al dente for texture and health reasons.
- Heat the oil in a small saute pan over low heat. Cook the garlic for 2 minutes until golden brown and transfer to a large mixing bowl. In the same bowl, combine the vegetables and parsley.
- Whisk together vinegar and oil and toss with salad. Lightly dress the lettuce leaves as well. Season and serve on lettuce leaves, one per plate. Store in an airtight container in the refrigerator. It will hold up to one week in the refrigerator.
- Yield: 6 to 8 servings
- You can use any blend of vegetables that you have on hand in the refrigerator or freezer. I would avoid canned vegetables if possible because of the sodium content. Today I had some tomatoes and corn that needed to be used and decided to throw in some capers too!
- The smaller the vegetables, the more tender. If they are very young you have no need to cook them. If they are older, they benefit from a little cooking to tenderize them slightly. A quick 10 or 20 seconds in the microwave with a little water steams them nicely. Adjust timing to the type of vegetable and size of pieces.