Go for the gusto with whole grains and fruit

This baked apple stuffed with rolled oats, apricots and almonds held together with molasses and honey is not only delicious, but also better for you than most baked goodies. BY JACK CLEMONS
January 16, 2012

As I mentioned last week, when trying to limit unhealthy foods in your diet, a few helpful strategies would be avoiding processed foods and adding a selection of whole grains. The specific characteristics of whole grains are in their name; 100 percent of the original kernel is present: all of the bran, germ and endosperm.

Rice (not white)
Wild rice

The bran is the high-fiber outer shell that protects the seed; the germ is where the seed will sprout, and the endosperm is the large starchy section. Refined grains use only the starchy endosperm, not the whole grain. Even if the grain is rolled, cracked or crushed, it will deliver the essential nutrition of the whole grain.

While some whole grains are typically on the menu (corn, rice and wheat), others don’t show up very often (bulgur, barley and buckwheat) and some might be unfamiliar (amaranth, spelt and teff). Although I’ve never tried cooking with any of the grains from the last group, I’ve had tasty multigrain breads and interesting baked products made from them.

The grains in the middle group are featured in dishes ranging from tabbouleh salad to hearty soups and soba noodles. Bulgur is created by the boiling, drying and cracking of whole wheat kernels that are then sorted by size. Because of the way bulgur is produced, it cooks in the same amount of time as dry pasta, about 10 minutes. This ease of preparation makes bulgur a good base for pilaf, porridge and salads.

Barley has more of a personality than you’ll find in the ubiquitous bowl of barley soup. It’s one of the oldest cultivated grains, and necklaces of barley were found buried with Egyptian mummies. In 1324, King Edward II standardized the quirky measurement known as the inch to “three grains of barley, dry and round, placed end to end lengthwise.” As for cooking barley, it depends on which kind. Barley groats, or hulled barley, has only the outermost husk removed and takes at least an hour to cook. Pearl barley has been polished to remove the hull and bran; it takes about 40 minutes to cook. If the recipe doesn’t specify, you should be able to guess based on the cooking time.

Buckwheat isn’t a strain of wheat but a cousin of rhubarb (and a character on “The Little Rascals”) with a signature earthy flavor. The grain has a triangular shape and a hard outer shell that is removed before grinding. The nutty flavor of buckwheat flour offers a lovely contrast to sweet garnishes for pancakes and savory broths for noodles. Kasha is hulled, cracked and toasted buckwheat groats, most often seen in a dish called varnishkas with sautéed onions and bowtie pasta.

Before I leave you with a few recipes featuring whole grains, I wanted to repeat an important aspect of a healthy diet: avoid processed foods. For many of us with a sweet tooth, the first thing that comes to mind under this warning is the tempting array of treats in the bakery aisle. What about dessert? Step away from the cupcakes and consider fresh fruit. The baked apple in the photo is stuffed with rolled oats, apricots and almonds held together with molasses and honey – not only delicious, but also good for you.

Baked Apples
2 firm apples
1 T honey
1 T molasses
1 T orange juice
1/4 t lemon zest
2 T slivered almonds
1/4 C dried apricots
1/4 C rolled oats
pinch ground ginger
pinch cinnamon

Preheat oven to 350 F. Cut off the tops of the apples and remove the seeds in the center with an apple-corer or sharp paring knife; set aside. In a small skillet, combine the honey, molasses, orange juice and lemon zest; cook over very low heat until completely liquid, then remove from heat. Finely chop the apricots and almonds; add to the skillet along with the oats and spices. Place cored apples in a baking dish and fill with stuffing mixture. Add 2 T water to the bottom of the pan, cover the apples with aluminum foil and bake for 35 minutes. Remove the foil and bake an additional 5 minutes. Yield: 2 servings.

Breakfast Porridge
2/3 C bulgur
1 1/3 C water
1/4 t cinnamon
2 T raisins
1 T chopped pecans
1 T pumpkin seeds
1 T honey

Combine the bulgur, water and cinnamon in a saucepan; bring to a boil. Reduce heat to very low, cover and cook for about 12 minutes. Stir in fruit, nuts and honey. Serve with milk, if desired. Yield: 1 serving. Alternative preparation: after contents reach a boil, cover pan tightly and remove from heat. After 25 minutes add fruit, nuts and honey.

Mushroom Barley Pilaf
2/3 C sliced mushrooms
2 sliced green onions
1 T olive oil
1 C pearl barley
3 C vegetable broth
1/4 t rosemary
1 T Parmesan cheese

Heat olive oil in medium saucepan; add mushrooms and green onions. Sauté until softened. Stir in barley, broth and rosemary. Bring to a boil; reduce heat to low, cover and cook until tender, about 45 minutes. Sprinkle with Parmesan cheese to serve. Yield: 3 to 4 servings.

Buckwheat Pancakes
2 C buckwheat flour
2 C buttermilk
2 eggs, lightly beaten
pinch salt
1 t baking soda
2 T melted butter

The night before, combine flour and milk in a large bowl, whisking until smooth. Cover with plastic wrap and set in a warm location. When ready to cook, coat a skillet with nonstick cooking spray and set over medium-low heat. Add the remaining ingredients and stir vigorously to remove some of the excess air. Ladle 1/4 C batter into the skillet for each pancake. Cook until bubbles form, about 3 to 4 minutes; turn and cook the other side for about 2 minutes.