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‘Ancient grains’ regain popularity through healthful reputations, versatility

Chefs looking to offer foods that are innovative but not weird, healthful but delicious, and creative yet authentic are resurrecting “ancient grains.”

Generally hearty, nutritious and loaded with heritage that can be an effective selling point, these grains — or sometimes seeds, as in the case of quinoa and amaranth — make for robust additions to salads, breads, pancakes or virtually any grain-based item. They also can be substitutes for more common grains such as wheat, rice and corn.


Farro, a type of wheat from the Middle East and the Mediterranean, was once common throughout that region and an important staple in ancient Rome. It fell into disuse in most of the world in recent centuries, although it continued to be grown in central Italian regions such as Lazio, Tuscany, Umbria and Le Marche. Recently, though, its popularity has begun to spread again.

“I grew up eating farro,” said Fabio Trabocchi, who hails from Le Marche and is the chef and owner of Fiola in Washington, D.C. “It’s used in our diet, and it’s been eaten for centuries and centuries.” He said farro pasta and farro flour have again been made available.

At Fiola he makes farotto, which is like risotto, but made with farro instead of rice. 

“It’s a different texture than rice, but the creaminess is the same, if you do it correctly,” he said, adding that proper cooking of farotto is essentially the same as cooking risotto.

“You don’t have the al dente bite that you get with rice, but you have a chewier texture,” he said.

Justin Fertitta, chef of The Toucan & the Lion in New York, makes a farotto seasoned with orange peel, lemon peel, lemon grass, kaffir lime leaf and buttercup squash. He tops the farotto with pumpkin seeds roasted with olive oil, salt and sweet Spanish paprika, and drizzles it with yuzu juice. The dish is finished with goat cheese, olive oil, thyme and crushed red pepper.


This seed used by the ancient Aztecs is a popular addition to granola bars because of its high protein content. It tends to get slightly gummy when cooked, which Daniel Campbell, executive chef of Tallulah and Bella Piatti in Birmingham, Mich., said could be alleviated by simmering it in water or broth with a little oil instead of cooking it at a boil.

Carrie Nielsen, executive chef of Good Earth in Edina, Minn., cooks amaranth with brown rice, barley and red quinoa for a side dish. She cooks all of the grains together in one part grain to two parts water flavored with tamari and rice wine.

Shirley Chung, head chef of China Poblano in Las Vegas, uses amaranth to add “little bits of deliciousness” to her tuna ceviche.

She boils it in salted water for about 20 minutes, until the seeds puff up, and then she strains them and lets them dry overnight. They are placed in a chinois and deep fried in oil for about 15 to 20 seconds to crisp up the seeds. They are then tossed with soy sauce, onions, cilantro, Fresno chile and a little lime juice, and sprinkled on the tuna ceviche.


Quinoa, which originated in the Andes, is perhaps the most popular of the ancient grains, appearing in items ranging from salads to pancakes. Two cookbooks about the seed are being published this year — “Quinoa Cuisine” by Jessica Harlan and Kelley Sparwasser, and “Cooking with Quinoa: The Supergrain” by Rena Patten.

High in protein, gluten free, and a good source of manganese, magnesium, phosphorous and folic acid, this seed is a favorite of nutritionists as well as diners who are avoiding wheat, but many chefs like it, too.

“First and foremost, I happen to love the flavor. The fact that it’s a superfood is even better,” said Boston chef-restaurateur Michael Schlow.

“It’s got a certain inherent light nuttiness to it, but lighter than buckwheat or amaranth,” he added. “I was fascinated by the texture, the flavor and how it adapted to different things.”

One of his favorites is a salad of quinoa, cucumber and tomatoes. 

“It’s refreshing and good for you, but still substantial,” he said. He plans to flavor that with mint and cilantro and serve it with salmon at Happy’s Bar & Kitchen, an American restaurant he’s opening near Fenway Park.

Sparwasser said quinoa comes in many varieties, but that the three most popular are red, white and black. They can also be combined into what’s called “rainbow quinoa.” Quinoa flour is readily available, as is “flake quinoa,” which can be prepared similarly to oatmeal.

She said the variously colored quinoas cook and taste a little different — white being the most neutral, red being nutty, and black being more firm and seedlike.

Some chefs cook quinoa similarly to rice, simmering it with between 1 1/2 and two times the volume of liquid to grain. Others cook it more like pasta, adding it to salted boiling water.

Michael Stebner, executive chef of four-unit True Food Kitchen, a subsidiary of Fox Restaurant Concepts in Scottsdale, Ariz., uses quinoa in place of bulgur in a tabbouleh-like salad that also has green beans, tomatoes, cucumbers, olives, feta and watercress, tossed in a lemon-oregano vinaigrette. He also uses it in pancakes, folding cooked quinoa into a gluten-free batter, giving the breakfast item more substance and texture.

Juan Placencia, chef of Costanera, a Peruvian restaurant in Montclair, N.J., coats fish in cooked quinoa, and then deep fries it for his chicharrón de pescado.

He boils the quinoa pasta-style until it’s cooked, but still al dente. Then he drains it, shocks it and drizzles it with a little vegetable oil so it won’t clump or stick. It can be refrigerated for a day or two, he said. He coats the fish in flour and egg wash, and uses the cooked quinoa as breading.

Wheat berries and millet

Other ancient grains include wheat berries, or husked kernels of wheat left whole, and millet, a gluten-free, high-fiber grain whose origins date back millennia. 

Millet was often eaten as a gruel, and Rene Caceres does something similar at Forum restaurant in Boston, where she serves it hot and sweetened with toasted walnuts, Concord grapes, nutmeg and lemon.

One drawback to millet, she said, is that it needs to be soaked overnight.

Kim Alter, chef of Haven in Oakland, Calif., soaks wheat berries overnight and makes them into a sort of risotto, sautéing them with onions, deglazing with wine, adding plenty of salt, and then cooking them slowly over low heat for about 1 1/2 hours. 

Alter noted that the wheat berries are a popular side dish for chicken, but she currently serves them with trumpet mushrooms that she confits and quickly fries to crisp up, along with sous-vide carrots, baby bok choy and a fennel salsa verde, made by cooking the chopped bulb with shallots and mixing it with preserved lemon, chopped fennel fronds, olive oil, salt and vinegar. She tops it with a fried chicken or duck egg. 

Contact Bret Thorn at [email protected] [3].
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