Food Grain Game: Meet your new menu MVP

Grain Game: Meet your new menu MVP

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Even the most tentative home cook should have a few go-to kitchen tricks up her sleeve. We all need a dish that is versatile and easy to prepare with readily available ingredients. It should be wholesome and nutritious. And it has to be show-stoppingly delicious.

I’m about to give away a couple of my most treasured culinary secrets because I’m generous like that. And because these dishes are just too good to keep to myself.

I’ve spent years perfecting my grain game and now I’m paying it forward. Consider it my gift to stressed and overburdened cooks everywhere.

My love of grains started with brown rice and wheat berries, but I found when I added other grains to the mix, it resulted in even more texture, more flavor and more nuance to what is essentially a very simple dish. After some experimentation I settled on this compatible and complimentary five-grain combo:

Wheat berries: The whole kernel of wheat, including the bran, germ and endosperm. It has a hearty texture and delicate, earthy taste.

Farro: An ancient grain, often called emmer. Similar to wheat berries with a slightly nuttier taste. Common in Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cuisine.

Barley: Lots of us drink our barley in the form of beer, but it is also a delightful grain to add to this mix. It has a creamy, chewy texture.

Brown rice: This humble household staple is loaded with essential vitamins and minerals and is a good source of fiber.

Wild rice: This delicately flavored plant is actually a grass species that grows in the water. Wild rice is higher in protein than most grains and is loaded with vitamins and antioxidants. It adds contrast and texture to the five grain mix.

Because I use this five-grain mixture in so many meals, I buy them in bulk, mix them at home and store them in glass containers. I use equal parts of the first four grains and less than half the amount of wild rice—it’s pretty pricey.

To cook the grains I use a ratio of 1:2 1/2, one cup of grains to 2 1/2 cups of liquid. I like to use homemade chicken stock, but vegetable, chicken or beef stock from a box or can is fine. Put the stock and grains in a pot with a tight-fitting lid, add a splash of olive oil or a pat of butter, three cloves of garlic and bring the stock to a boil. Turn the stove down to simmer, cover with the lid and cook for about 40 minutes until the grains are soft but not mushy and the liquid is absorbed.

Now here’s where you let your imagination take off. The grains make a lovely side dish, but you can also use them for a casserole, salad or vegetarian main course.

Five Grain Salad with Maple Mustard Dressing

2 cups cooked grains
1/4 cup chopped pecans or walnuts
1/4 cup dried cranberries
1/4 cup chopped scallions
1 cup arugula or baby spinach
crumbled feta or blue cheese

Dressing
1/4 cup pure maple syrup
1/4 cup Dijon mustard
1/4 cup apple cider vinegar
1/4 cup canola oil
1 clove garlic minced

Combine the dressing ingredients in a jar and give a vigorous shake.
Combine first five ingredients for the salad and dress lightly (a little dressing goes a long way). Top with crumbled feta.

The Best, Easiest Dinner Casserole You Will Ever Make

3 cups cooked grains
2 cups cooked chicken (leftover or rotisserie chicken from the store is A-OK)
1 pound breakfast sausage, crumbled and cooked (I love Jimmy Dean Hot Sausage)
1 can Campbell’s Golden Mushroom Soup

Vegetarian Version

3 cups grains (cooked in vegetable stock)
1 15-ounce can black beans, drained and rinsed
2 cups butternut squash, one inch dice, roasted (or any roasted vegetable)
8 ounces baby bella mushrooms sliced and sautéed
1/4 cup mushroom or vegetable broth

For both versions, preheat oven to 350 degrees, combine all the ingredients in a casserole dish and heat, uncovered for about 30 minutes.

This dish couldn’t be simpler or more versatile. Don’t like chicken? Leftover steak or cooked ground beef work great too. Tofu’s terrific. Do you have leftover roasted veggies? Throw ’em in. Let you imagination take flight.

Keep a cup or two of cooked grains in your refrigerator at all times. Drop them into soup, add them to stews, or throw them in your next salad.

You can thank me later.

Candace Karu makes her living writing about food, fitness and travel. She lives near the ocean in an old farmhouse with two ill-behaved dogs and two hard-working barn cats.

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