Whole grains are nearly perfect foods. They contain the majority of nutrients necessary for human health: carbohydrates, protein, fats, vitamins, minerals and fiber. The term “whole-grain dishes” refers to dishes that are made with all the parts of a grain seed: the pericarp, endosperm, and germ. Various traditions of using food to heal the body, such as macrobiotics and Ayurveda, stress the importance of “preserving the life force” of what one eats. What this means is that the closer food is to its original state, the more energy and nourishment we can derive from it. Grains are the kings of all food groups; and whole grains are their most complete and potent forms.
In the eyes of modern science, it makes little difference whether grain is bleached, polished, milled or precooked. Viewed through the beliefs behind “food energetics”, however, grain is no more the sum of its parts than a human being would be if reduced to a pile of organs and flesh. If we want to preserve the life force of grains – where their real healing and nourishing powers lie – we would do well to use them in their natural (unprocessed) and complete states. Many grains used for bread, like wheat, rye and barley, are inherently tough and require some kind of processing before they will be usable. Millet, oats, quinoa, couscous, buckwheat and rice, on the other hand, can all be considered “dish grains” because we can cook them in their natural forms. These grains also serve as good, nutritional alternatives for people with wheat allergies.
Because whole grains are so simple and bland, they create a kind of “blank slate” upon which we can experiment with texture, color, flavor and aroma (much like we can do with tofu). Preliminary preparations like dry roasting, sautéing, and soaking will affect flavor and texture. Other cooking methods include baking, boiling, pressure cooking and steeping. Grains that are prepared in these ways will need to be flavored with sauces, condiments, vegetables, or herbs and spices. Second-stage methods for cooking whole grains include braising, marinating, and deep-frying.
Oil, which not only adds flavor but also helps to distribute other seasonings evenly throughout a dish, is essential for seasoning grains. Some good oils to use include olive (particularly extra-virgin), hazelnut, sesame, corn and safflower. Before cooking with any oil, be sure to note its “burn point” as printed on the bottle, so you’ll know how well it can withstand high heat.
There are nearly endless ways to accentuate whole grains to create a variety of dishes. Condiments can be made from roasted nuts, seeds, and sea vegetables. We can add such vegetables as mushrooms, shallots, carrots, cabbage, kale, onions and garlic, as well as a broad range of herbs and spices from basil and thyme to ginger. Whole grains do not even need to be cooked only in water: vegetable stock, nut milk, and even fruits juices help to create unique and delicious dishes, and vinegar, beer and wine work well as braising liquids. There are so many ways to prepare tasty and nourishing meals that preserve the full potency (and health-giving power) of whole grains.