The power of whole grains

Barley with snow peas and carrots (Provided photo — Yvona Fast)

Most Americans associate whole grains with whole-grain products like bread, breakfast cereal, crackers or pasta. Few people eat whole grains as part of a meal. Mostly we eat potatoes or pasta with supper, bread in a sandwich for lunch, cereal for breakfast.

But the whole, cooked grains are great as a side in place of potatoes. They can serve as a bed for sauces, veggies and proteins the same way pasta does. Grains combine well with other ingredients in salads, casseroles and skillets. They can even be part of desserts, like rice pudding.

We think of wheat as the staff of life. But after people developed agriculture, different grains were the main form of sustenance in different cultures. Rice was the primary source of carbohydrates in the Orient. In North America, it was corn. In the Middle East, it was wheat as well as barley. In Africa, sorghum and millet were used. Quinoa was used in parts of South America. Worldwide, grains became staples because they can be dried and stored for a long time, and can be easily moved from place to place.

The most common grains are corn, rice, wheat, barley and oats. Millet is one of man’s earliest foods, pre-dating both wheat and rice. Sorghum, an African grass, is popular in the mid-west and is also made into a sweet syrup. Wild rice is the seed of an aquatic grass native to the mid-west region of Minnesota and the Great Lakes. Although quinoa, buckwheat and amaranth are cooked in the same way as grains, they are not true grains because they are not in the grass family, but instead are leafy plants.

Grains are plants in the grass family with small, edible seeds. Whole grain means that the entire seed is consumed; it has not been tampered with. The grain consists of the starchy part, or endosperm — which is often made into flour — the center or germ where the seed is, and the outer shell which contains much of the bran and fiber. When grains are milled into flour, often the bran and the endosperm — wheat germ, in the case of wheat — are discarded.

Whole grains are nutrient-dense complex carbohydrates rich in vitamins — especially folic acid and vitamin E — minerals like magnesium, potassium and selenium, fiber, oils, proteins and numerous micronutrients, antioxidants and phytochemicals.

Whole grains can reduce diabetes risk because they take longer to digest than refined grains and prevent insulin spikes. The fiber in whole grains helps you feel full and keeps your digestive tract working smoothly. This is why whole grains can reduce the risk of constipation, obesity, diabetes, heart disease and stomach and colon cancer.

Flour is often refined — in this way, grains can become baked goods like breads, pastries, tortillas and rice cakes. But when flour is refined, nutrients are lost. Chlorine gas is used to make flour white, creating the byproduct alloxan, which has been implicated in diabetes because it interferes with insulin production in the pancreas. The refiners add some vitamins back in; the end product is called enriched flour.

When baking, substitute half the flour with whole wheat flour or oats. With a food processor, you can make rolled oats into oat flour. Experiment with adding other flours, like corn, rice or buckwheat.

It is best to eat the whole grains, rather than pasta or baked goods they’re made into when milled into flour. Grain-based dishes include pilafs, risottos, puddings and stuffing for poultry. They can be added to soups, stews, casseroles and salads. Grains are easy to cook in large quantities, so you can make a big batch, then add to various meals throughout the week.

Here are a couple recipes to get you started.

Whole Grain Stuffed Sweet Dumpling or Acorn Squash

Thanksgiving is coming up! This is great in a roast turkey, but also try it in an acorn or delicata squash, or in stuffed peppers.

Stuffing Ingredients:

1 cup cooked grain like buckwheat, millet, wild rice or barley

1 large onion, peeled and diced

4 oz. mushrooms, cleaned and diced

2 apples, cored and chopped (no need to peel)

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 or 2 teaspoons salt (or to taste)

1/2 teaspoon pepper

1/2 teaspoon turmeric

1 egg, beaten

1 cup fresh minced parsley

1 cup fresh minced kale, optional


Preheat oven to 400 F.

To prepare squash:

Cut squash in half with a sharp knife; remove seeds.

Brush inside of squash with olive oil and balsamic vinegar.

Roast squash halves for about 40 minutes, or until soft.

Remove from oven and fill with stuffing; sprinkle with shredded sharp cheese, if desired. Return to oven and bake 10 minutes or until cheese melts and squash is heated through.

To make the Stuffing:

To cook grain, combine one cup grain, 2 cups broth or water with a half-teaspoon of salt. Bring to a boil; lower heat to simmer. Cook until liquid is absorbed. The time will vary with the grain, so check directions on the package.

While grain cooks, sautee onions and mushrooms in oil about 10 minutes. Add chopped apples and cook another 10 minutes.

in large bowl, mix cooked grain, salt, pepper, turmeric, beaten egg and parsley. Stir in onions and mushrooms.

Serving: This is enough to stuff 4 squash halves.


¯ Bake as a casserole.

¯ Double or triple recipe and stuff into turkey or chicken before roasting. Great for Thanksgiving!

¯ Fill roasted squash halves or bell peppers and place in oiled baking dish. Bake 10 min. Quinoa is a good choice for stuffing squash or peppers.

Autumn Barley Stew with beans and kale

I have recipes for variations of Lentil-Barley Stew in a couple old cookbooks… The More with Less Cookbook and Whole Food for the Whole Family… and my own version on p. 213 of Garden Gourmet. Since it is a stew it is easy to adapt to your tastes and likes. Here I’ve substituted black beans for the lentils. You could also try a different grain, like millet or rice.


1 tablespoon olive oil

1 onion

1 carrot

1 stalk celery

4 ounces mushrooms

1 clove garlic

1/2 cup dry black beans

1/2 cup millet, barley, brown rice or another grain

6 cups chicken or vegetable broth

2 – 4 cups kale or collard leaves, chopped coarsely

1 can tomatoes


Add oil to soup pot and heat. Peel and dice the onion, and add. Wash and slice carrot and celery, and add. Clean and chop mushrooms and add. Peel and mince garlic and add.

Cook about 5 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Add beans and grain. Pour in broth. Bring to a boil, then lower heat to simmer.

Add chopped kale, and cook about 30 minutes, or until grain and beans are cooked through.

Add tomatoes and cook 5 to 10 more minutes.

Taste and adjust seasonings.

Serves 4 to 6, depending on size of servings.

Option: Use canned black beans and add at the end with the tomatoes.


Meals from your Garden, CSA or Farmers’ Market,” Yvona Fast lives in Lake Clear and has two passions: cooking and writing. She can be found at www.yvonafast.com and reached at yvonawrite@yahoo.com or on Facebook at Words Are My World.


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