Cultivated tastes

A roundup of grains your diet should include

Buckwheat. The food, not the dude.

Buckwheat. The food, not the dude.

Buy various grains in bulk at the Sacramento Natural Foods Co-Op, 1900 Alhambra Boulevard; (916) 455-2667;

Cultivated grains form the staple diet of most of the world. They’re tasty, easy to prepare, and their very different textures and flavors make them versatile in cooking. Some grains, for example, barley and quinoa, are invaluable for people who can’t tolerate wheat or gluten, enabling them to eat dishes such as breakfast cereal, gluten-free breads and cookies.

All grains should be kept in an airtight container in a cool, dark cupboard, where they will keep for up to one year.

Barley is an ancient grain. There are two types—hulled or pot barley and pearl barley. Pearl barley is less nutritious than hulled barley, but is not as chewy and cooks faster. Barley has a mild nutty flavor and is most often used in soups and stews, but also makes a good side dish or salad and can be used to make a pilaf or risotto instead of rice. Add 1 cup pearl barley to 2 cups cold water in a saucepan and bring to a boil. It will take about 30 to 45 minutes to cook. Hulled barley will need longer. Quick-cooking barley is similar to pearl barley, but takes only about 10 minutes to cook, as it’s been pre-steamed.

Buckwheat is a dark-colored grass seed, rather than a grain, but is cooked like grain. It is usually milled into flour and used to make pancakes. Combined with oats and cooked, they make a delicious hot breakfast cereal. Roasted buckwheat groats (sometimes known as kasha) have a nutty flavor. Kasha is often cooked in a stock with onions, olive oil and fresh parsley.

Bulgur is a form of whole wheat that has been cleaned, steamed or parboiled; dried; and then ground into grains of several different sizes. It has a deliciously nutty flavor and is the principal ingredient of tabbouleh. Although the term bulgur is often used to mean cracked wheat, the two products differ, as bulgur is precooked and thus needs only minimum preparation before eating.

Couscous is a coarsely ground semolina pasta and is a staple in many North African countries. It is traditionally steamed and fluffed to separate the granules. Parboiled or “instant” couscous is available, which cuts down the cooking time considerably, but always follow the instructions on the package, as too much boiling and stirring can reduce it to a starchy mush. Couscous doesn’t have much flavor of its own, but absorbs other flavors in a dish and is used in stews, soups and salads.

Oatmeal has a light, mealy flavor and is used in oatcakes, bread, broth and hot oatmeal breakfast cereal. It also makes a crisp coating for fish before frying. Oatmeal is made by grinding oats into four grades: fine, medium, rough and pinhead (coarse). Stone-ground oats have by far the best flavor.

Oats and oatmeal are full of valuable nutrients and also contain one of the highest levels of soluble fiber found in any cereal, which is essential for healthy digestion. Research has also shown that soluble fiber can help to maintain a healthy heart when eaten as part of a low-fat diet. Oats can also help to lower cholesterol; they act like tiny sponges, soaking up cholesterol and carrying it out of the bloodstream.

Quinoa (pronounced “keenwah”) is a mass of tiny, bead-shaped grains with a firm texture and slightly nutty flavor, with a hint of bitterness. The ancient Incas grew the grain high up in the Andes and regarded it as a staple of their diet. It is gluten-free and easy to prepare, cook and digest. Its fluffy texture and flavor make it a very good alternative to white rice or couscous. When cooked, the grains quadruple in size and become almost translucent. Quinoa can be prepared in the same way as rice. The cooked germ should have a slight bite to it.