A recipe challenge to help you get whole grains into your mouth,
not just your kitchen.
I fell in love with wheat berries in 1993. I was working at a thrift store in Seattle, and every now and again, when I got tired of cheese toast – which I made by the sleeve of multigrain bread for the volunteers who helped me stock the store – I would drive to a fancy deli called Plenty and buy a pint of wheat berry salad.
I am a sucker for anything red. Tinted garnet from shredded beets, that salad drew me first with its color, and held me with its texture and taste. The wheat berries popped in my mouth like edible pearls: this was fairy tale food.
Picture royal chefs simmering pearls for a princess just until the inside is tender and the outside provides some resistance to the curious tooth. Real garnets lend color to the imaginary dish. The delicate princess in this fantasy is fortified by eating jewels, and her lovely opalescent skin grows lovelier still, taking on just the slightest pink glow as she absorbs the nutrition of these decorative edibles.
I am not prone to think myself a princess of any sort – well, maybe a tomboy princess, riding my bike like a horse – but that salad really sent me. I spent my weekends decoding it, and eventually came up with a formula that has backboned many meals. Summers, I make vats of the stuff and we eat it down to zero.
The Grains Cookbook by Bert Greene helped me figure out wheat berries. Not that they are a great mystery, but I was intimidated, trying to use something I normally knew as flour. When I first read recipes for wheat berries, I felt like I would be cooking roots or bark – parts of the plant that support a product, like lettuce or maple syrup – but are not inherently edible.
Such hesitation is a common symptom, I think. Foods can seem pretty mysterious as you step beyond what you know. Maybe this is evolutionary safety at work. I saw it up close with my second son, who regarded any food as suspicious.
Felix was appalled by bananas, sweet potatoes, rice cereal – anything that wasn’t breast milk. The first food he willingly ate was soft ice cream when he was a year old. By that time, I was so thin from feeding the both of us that if he wanted asphalt with gravy, I would have gladly served it on a silver platter.
Now that he is nine, he is finally inquisitive about food. He hasn’t cottoned on to wheat berries yet, but that’s okay. All the more for me.
Here is a little wheat berry tour – a basic how to cook the grain, a formula for wheat berry salad, and a vegetarian twist on Incan Pork Stew, which I used to make from that great cookbook of Bert Greene’s. I have a lot of friends who are vegetarians, and much as I believe in meat, I like the challenge of figuring out how to make a meaty dish I adore into one that suits most dinner guests.
WHEAT BERRY CHILI
- 2 TBSP oil
- 1 cup onions, diced
- ¼ cup chopped garlic
- 2 TBSP ancho chili powder
- 2 tsp cumin powder
- 2 tsp salt
- ½ tsp cayenne pepper
- 1 tsp marjoram
- 4 cups cooked wheat berries
- 2 cups cooked red beans
- 1 ½ cup pureed cooked squash
- 1 cup beer
- 1 14.5 oz can of tomatoes
Saute the onion and garlic in a medium hot pan. Add spices, and let them heat a minute. Stir in the rest of the ingredients plus 2 cups water, bring to a boil, and simmer for 30-45 minutes.
Note: I used a pale ale. If you don’t want to use alcohol, you might add a few tablespoons of red wine or cider vinegar to balance out the flavors.
RECIPE: WHEAT BERRIES
- 2 cups wheat berries
- 2 quarts water
Rinse wheat and pour off chaff. If you’d like, you can soak these overnight or for a few hours, or just boil them now. Bring to a boil and cook 45 minutes to an hour, until they reach the desired tenderness. If there is residual water, drain it. Cool the cooked berries and store for a few days in the fridge, or longer in the freezer.
RECIPE: WHEAT BERRY SALAD
- ½ cup shallots, minced
- 1 cup fennel bulb, chopped
- 2 cups beets, shredded – raw or roasted
- 2 cups parsley, chopped
- 2 cups cooked wheat berries
- ½ cup dried apricots, chopped
- 2 TBSP balsamic vinegar
- 1 cup almonds, chopped
- 2 TBSP whole cumin seeds
- ¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
- 2 TBSP lemon juice
- salt and pepper to taste
Combine shallots, fennel, beets and wheat berries in a large bowl.
In a bowl topped with a plate, steep apricots in balsamic vinegar and a few tablespoons of boiled water for 5 minutes.
Toast cumin and almonds in a hot dry pan until cumin is fragrant and almonds are tan, stirring frequently.
Whisk together lemon juice and olive oil with salt and papper.
Add almond and apricot mixtures to vegetables, and stir to combine. Pour dressing over everything and mix well. Serve chilled or at room temperature.