What’s Old is New Again

Celeste Restaurant

Ancient grains gain traction with chefs and diners.

Ancient grains gain traction with chefs and diners.

People may not know exactly what they are, but ancient grains are still in demand. In fact, they’ve grown 13.5 percent on restaurant menus in the last year alone, according to research firm Technomic.

Sometimes called super grains, these high-fiber, nutrient-dense grains are naturally cultivated from wild seeds without hybridization or manipulation. Ancient grains suggest stories from centuries ago, at a time when consumers hunger for historical relevance and to know more about their food.

“In their purest form, ancient grains are heirloom and GMO-free, and that’s propelling their popularity,” says Michael Holleman, chairman of the advisory board for the Whole Grains Council and director of culinary development for InHarvest, a supplier of whole grains, rice, and legumes.

Only a few ancient grains are indigenous to the U.S., such as wild rice from Minnesota and golden kamut wheat grown in Montana, but many come from Africa and Australia. Many varieties are considered sustainable because of their natural, heirloom quality and chemical-free care.

Students from The Culinary Institute of America at Greystone in Napa Valley recently harvested two acres of Sonoran red wheat, believed to be one of the oldest wheat grains grown in North America. Chef/instructor Larry Forgione plans to grind the wheat into flour at the nearby Bale Grist Mill for freshly baked bread, pie crust, and more as part of CIA’s Farm-to-Table Conservatory program.

Then there’s quinoa, the white kind, which has become almost mainstream. But, ancient red, white, and black quinoa varieties coming from Bolivia and Peru are gaining in popularity, says Holleman. Kaniwa (pronounced can-ee-wah), also from South America, is making its debut here as a lesser-known sister to quinoa, with its smaller kernels, dark reddish hue, and earthy, fibrous taste.

Black and red rice varieties from Italy also have a strong story to tell. “The deep color not only signals extra antioxidants, they heighten the presentation of a dish,” says Holleman. “Italian black rice from farms in between Milan and Turin is so aromatic because of the richness of the soil in that region, almost like smelling freshly baked bread.” Holleman and his chef team have made arancini out of the rice as well as a sweet and savory chilled stone fruit and corn risotto served like a salad.



I'm still surprised that central European grains such as Dinkel (spelt) and Einkorn have not had a larger presence in the heirloom grain scene yet. When I lived in Germany these were regularly eaten and touted as nutritional miracles, particularly dinkel (spelt).


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