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Against the Grain

Ancient and Rustic Grains Rise to the Forefront of Top Western Menus

Alicia Harvie

Grains are so basic to our diet that they often go unnoticed. Shoved to the side of the plate, they commonly accompany more exciting fare like meats and fish or serve as a blank slate upon which fancy sauces and stews are designed to shine.

No longer. Artful chefs are incorporating ancient grains, seeds, and more esoteric grain varieties into their menus, challenging diners to explore starches in a whole new manner. The most innovative establishments have moved these staples from supporting characters to
main stars.

More grist for the mill

Between farro, quinoa, wheatberries, barley, amaranth, bulghur, millet, spelt – the list goes on ad infinitum – a chef interested in ancient grains will face no shortage of flavors, colors and textures to play with. Chefs already taking the plunge cite a wealth of benefits that these special grains bring to their establishments.

  For Mark Sullivan, Executive Chef at Palo Alto’s Mayfield Bakery and Café, the versatility of ancient grains is their major draw. “There’s been an explosion with these grains, really. What I love is the different flavors you get, depending on how you treat them. If you toast them, they get nutty. If you simmer them in broth, they become rich in that flavor. You can use their flour to make pasta or use the grains to make a risotto. You can add them to a soup.”

“Ancient grains are some of my favorite ingredients,” exudes Daniel Patterson, Executive Chef at San Francisco’s Coi and owner of Oakland’s hit new establishment, Plum. “I have to be careful not to use them too much. He’s also quick to note the versatility of ancient grains. “At Plum we have a chicken-giblet fried farro paired with a slow-cooked farm egg and sprouts. We have a lamb stew with sunchokes and wheatberries. We’ve done a buckwheat pancake. Grains are really complementary to anything.”

Jason Knibb, award-winning Executive Chef at Nine-Ten in La Jolla, finds that ancient grains help add depth to his menu. “I first found these grains working in Utah, where the mountain climate brought heartier flavors. You get smoky, earthy tones out of them, which is fun to play with. Here in La Jolla, we tend to use grains like quinoa, farro or barley to give more sustenance to vegetarian plates, though they pair well with meats too.”

Daniel Burckhard is Executive Chef at San Francisco’s the Tipsy Pig, a “gastrotavern” that relishes opportunities to surprise its diners. Ancient grains have never disappointed. “I love ancient grains. It’s nice to have something people have never had or heard of. We serve a lot of heavier dishes here – pot pies and mac ‘n cheese – so I always try to keep something light and healthy on the menu in contrast.”

Ancient grains also help chefs defy the limits of seasonal cooking, particularly in winter months. “In the winter, when there’s not a lot of fresh produce, these grains can be substituted on the plate,” Chef Knibb
offers. “It’s diversifying.”

Acting in concert with these advantages are the  
undeniable health benefits ancient grains bring, especially compared to other starches and more conventional counterparts. “As cooking generally evolves away from protein-based dishes, which is inevitable for health and environmental reasons,” Chef Patterson explains, “these grains will become a much bigger piece  of how we feed ourselves – whether at the highest level of cuisine or at home cooking in a way that’s comforting and nourishing.”

Fawning over farro

Asked what grain is the clear hit among diners, chefs answer almost unanimously in favor of farro.

“As grains have come to the forefront of the menu as a healthy way of eating and star ingredient, farro offers a great story to boot,” explains Don Dickman, Executive Chef of Santa Monica’s Barbrix. “Farro is the original wheat. It originates from Tuscany – a very romanticized region of Italy.”

But farro offers more than mere talking points. “It has a unique, nutty flavor, yet it feels light compared to other grains,” he continues. “Once cooked, the grains stay separate and it doesn’t feel starchy or gluey like rice might. We’ve experimented with everything out there. Texturally, farro works best.”

For Executive Chef Greg Murphy, farro was the perfect grain for the rustic cuisine at Bouchon, which also boasts a long wine list sourced entirely from Santa Barbara County. “As a grain, farro is a little bit heavier, so you can pair it with wine and it stands up to gamier meats like venison. We caramelize onions really dark and throw the farro in, then cook it in chicken stock and red wine. It goes on our smoked venison dish.”

“Our menu changes every single day, but we use farro fairly consistently,” offers Jed Cote, Sous Chef at Oakland’s red-hot establishment, Pizzaiolo. “Our cuisine draws heavily from Southern Italy and Sicily. So it just fits.”

With a dynamic daily menu, Cote must devise creative, unique utilizations for farro. “Some dishes we run over and over again, like our Georgia white shrimp with farro, wild nettles and hot pepper. We also use ground farro for pastas. It has a wonderful rustic, earthy, wheaty-flavor that we pair with fava beans and fresh Bellwether Farms ricotta.”

“I like to work farro into the menu because it’s a little different,” offers Chef Knibb. “We have a dish where we use green farro, which has a nice smoky quality and texture. We prepare that with duck. Instead of smoking the duck we do it with the grains, which plays off the tender duck flavor and a wild huckleberry puree. You get a nice winter flavor.”

Spotlight on the “super grain”: quinoa

Any discussion of ancient grains would be incomplete without mention of quinoa, a South American seed native to the Andes region. Packed with nutrition and the only “grain” that serves as a complete protein, quinoa has long been popular among health nuts. But more recently, it has found a place in fine dining establishments and more elevated preparations.

“Seven or eight years ago quinoa was considered too rustic to put on a fine dining menu,” explains Chef Burckhard. “But the younger chefs especially are
getting creative with it.”

A prime example is Executive Chef David Spero, who leads Tableau, a signature fine dining locale at the Wynn Las Vegas, where quinoa is featured on its high-end menu. “We loved the idea of quinoa and a new grain to play with,” he says. “We like its versatility. Its mild nuttiness compliments almost anything you pair it with. We used to serve it as a stuffing in poussin. Right now, we have a fruit quinoa salad we serve with chicken and caramelized onion and thyme jus. We like introducing something edgy like quinoa in the context of familiarity.”

Jessica Hsian is Head Chef at SpiritLand Bistro, a Santa Barbara establishment that places top quality local ingredients in the context of international fare. She is well versed in a variety of ancient grains, (her hit amaranth cookies are a prime example), and is a special fan of quinoa. “We’ve had great success with quinoa, and other grains of course,” she offers. “Rustic grains are like any other ingredient. There’s a wide variety of flavors, colors, and textures which should be taken into consideration. Any item in a dish should enhance the overall product and rustic grains can add new depth to dishes. Red quinoa adds a wonderful crisp, toasty note to a rich duck breast.”
Situated in San Francisco’s Financial District,Urban Picnic offers globally-inspired, healthy foods in a casual setting. Its health-conscious focus makes quinoa an attractive option for the menu. “A lot of consumers in this area are particular about eating carbs and watch their calories,” explains Consulting Chef Tim Luym. “Quinoa is the perfect fit for them. It works like a grain where it fills up the customer, yet it’s high in protein and several nutrients.”

  One of Urban Picnic’s most popular dishes is its kale and quinoa salad. “We soak the quinoa in water and then cook it as we do with rice, at a two-to-one ratio. We toss it with soy sesame vinaigrette. Quinoa absorbs those flavors and adds texture and nuttiness to it. It goes really well with the kale. The quinoa serves as a salad topping, as if you added garbanzo beans or peanuts.”

Rarer breeds

While farro and quinoa reign supreme in popularity, some chefs have used more esoteric grains with great success, proving there are no bounds to this trend. In fact, in a culinary universe where diners are increasingly looking for integrity, variety and novelty on a menu, the rarest grains offer a great avenue for distinguishing a menu.

“Grains have gotten to sound like wine,” says Jim Maser, who co-owns Berkeley’s Café Fanny along with celebrated chef Alice Waters. “Where did it come from and who grew or processed it? It’s all very important. The guest is much more informed now and they’re much more curious. Adventuresome diners want to know. And you’ve got to speak to them through your menu.” 

Maser is no stranger to unusual grains. He’s been serving Café Fanny’s signature sweet millet muffins for 25 years, spending six months to perfect the recipe back when the establishment opened. “It took us a while to figure out how to work with it,” he explains. “By itself, millet’s texture is a little coarse. I experimented and put it in a Cuisinart for literally two seconds to buff it. That broke down the grain just enough to absorb the batter’s wet ingredients. The millet softened, making it less crunchy, and releasing its flavors.”

After years of perfecting the recipe, Maser has figured out how to showcase every unique characteristic of millet. “The texture is its predominant tone,” he explains. “It looks very pretty because of the contrast between the millet and muffin dough – the muffin is golden brown but the millet keeps its light yellow colors. Our diners can’t believe it. They love it.”

Chef Burckhard’s latest foray into ancient grains has introduced diners at the Tipsy Pig to Ethiopian black barley, a dark variety of pearled barley that was largely unknown until recently. Burckhard prepares it much like a cacciatore, situated in a salivating pan-seared scallop dish that is paired with cauliflower puree and braised rainbow chard. “I was looking for something new,” he explains. “I had used lentils, red quinoa and farro before. I wanted something I’d never worked with. I like that it’s the only grain where there’s no processing involved from farm to table. You can digest the whole grain.”

“I love the color and contrast that a darker grain provides,” he continues. “Most of our flatware is white and with all these fall colors on top of the black barley, it’s really pretty plated.”

Respecting the source

Perhaps not surprisingly, chefs have different views on how to treat ancient grains, many of which developed over thousands of years of cultivation within distinct culinary traditions. 

For some, it is critically important to pay homage to that history. “We’re always careful to respect the origin of an ingredient,” says Chef Dickman. “I won’t do anything too fusion-y. But there’s plenty of room in that box to keep seasonal and move it around. Part of printing a menu each day is changing it up a bit. We have a lot of regular customers so we need to keep it interesting.”

“All of these grains are very ancient,” explains Chef Patterson. “Something like quinoa is thousands of years old. Using them allows you to trace back the history of a food through culture. There’s a fascinating element about grains in that they lead you to a broader understanding of how people have traditionally fed themselves.”

However, this knowledge doesn’t limit his utilization of the grains. Rather it allows him to understand their unique qualities so he can use them more effectively. “I think it’s important to understand it before you can improvise. You need to know what the standards are. But ultimately, why would I recreate traditional dishes? I’m not them. I create something that is meaningful to me.”

Chef Hsian offers a similar analysis. “A lot can be learned from indigenous preparations, so as much as possible we draw upon that. Sometimes however, that information isn’t readily available. It’s also fun and rewarding to incorporate rustic grains in place of more conventional starches or flours. Also, because rustic grains are gaining in popularity, there are wonderful new products that present these grains with a twist, such as quinoa pasta, allowing for a multitude of uses that might not have occurred traditionally. At the end of the day, the culinary possibilities are endless.”  

Pan Seared Day Boat Scallops, Cauliflower Puree, Black Barley, Sofrito, Braised Rainbow Chard, Chorizo/Medjool Date Relish
Inspiration for Executive Chefs