When it comes to the grains on your dinner plate, it’s a good idea to look to the past for future performance and health gains.
Forget what you have heard, not all wheat is a nutritional villain.
With all do respect to your tattered running shoes, the nearly see-through biking shorts you still wear on training rides and the heart rate monitor that you purchased back in the time when Guns ‘n Roses were selling out stadiums, old isn’t always a good thing. But when it comes to the grains on your dinner plate, it’s a good idea to look to the past for future performance and health gains. From spelt to kamut, people are once again discovering ancient varieties of wheat—grains that were cultivated eons before today’s industrial farming. It’s believed that these old-timers offer a nutritional upgrade to modern day hybridized wheat, otherwise known as the supermarkets current public enemy No 1. Cutting to the chaff, here are five great grains to get the carbs you need to go hard and long. Look for them in bulk food stores, health food shops or a good online option is Bobsredmill.com.
Kamut is a brand name for the ancient strain of wheat known as khorasan and was brought to North America from Egypt in 1949, though its true origin is still up for debate. The plump kernels—roughly twice the size of typical wheat kernels—are blessed with a slightly sweet, almost buttery flavor and a chewy bite. From a nutritional standpoint, kamut is a definite overachiever with healthy amounts of dietary fiber, protein, B vitamins, magnesium and selenium—an antioxidant that may help ease the exercise-induced oxidative stress in the body. To up its cache further, kamut grown in America is almost always done so organically.
In the kitchen: The kernels remain sturdy once cooked, making kamut a standout addition to soups, salads and even a replacement for rice in items like burritos. To cook kamut, place 1 cup kernels and 3 cups water in saucepan. Bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer until tender, about 1 hour. Soaking the grains overnight can slash the cooking time by about 30 percent. Also look out for kamut flour and tasty kamut pasta.
This chewy, slightly nutty tasting sibling of modern-day durum wheat is believed to have an 8,000-year-old history of nourishing bipedals. The grain spread throughout Europe, becoming a commonly used foodstuff in Germany where many bakers still turn it into delicious bread. Unlike the wheat used to make a loaf of Wonderbread, spelt has never been hybridized and boasts an impressive nutritional resume that includes plenty of fiber, antioxidants and even some energy-boosting iron.
In the kitchen: Like kamut, the larger size of spelt means it takes a bit longer to cook, up to 1 hour in a pot of simmering water. Consider making a big batch at once and then freezing extras for future uses. A pre-soak for several hours can shorten cooking time by 25 to 30 percent. For your new favorite lunch, combine cooked spelt with chopped vegetables, feta cheese and a lemony vinaigrette. Spelt flour makes a killer batch of pancakes.
What we see on store shelves as farro is actually the Italian name for emmer wheat, a Stone Age strain of hard wheat that is believed to originally hail from the Fertile Crescent in western Asia. It is sometimes confused with spelt due to its similar shape and nutty flavor notes. Farro is a fiber heavyweight in that it delivers 7 grams in a mere quarter cup serving. By helping to promote satiety and stabilize blood sugar levels, triathletes who eat more high fiber foods such as this Italian sweetheart are more likely to maintain their race weights. You may find both pearled and semi-pearled farro. If possible, opt for the latter which will have more of the nutrient rich bran still attached.
In the kitchen: A perk for harried cooks is that farro is quicker to prepare than spelt and kamut. Place 1 cup farro in a pot with 3 cups water and simmer for about 30 minutes, or until the kernels are tender. Since farro is starchier than other ancient wheats, it becomes slightly creamier once cooked. Take advantage of this quality by using farro as a healthy replacement for rice when making risotto. It’s also great in stews or mix it with items like chopped nuts, dried fruit and cinnamon for a crazy healthy breakfast porridge.
As a genetic ancestor to modern wheat, einkorn cultivation is thought to have begun 10,000 to 12,000 years ago in the Fertile Crescent, making it one of the first plants to be domesticated. Before that, Palaeolithic hunters would harvest it from wild plants. Today, production remains low (most occurs in Italy) because it can be a challenge to harvest and mill with a low yield per plant, but interest in einkorn is on the rise as people search for ‘new’ health foods to embrace.
Many foodies praise einkorn for its nuttier taste than everyday wheat. For a grain, einkorn contains notable levels of carotenoids—potent antioxidants most often found in brightly colored fruits and vegetables. It’s also thought to deliver higher levels of protein than typical wheat. While evidence remains mostly anecdotal, some believe that ancient forms of wheat like einkorn are easier to digest than mass produced wheat. This could be due to lower levels of gliadins (gluten proteins) that can be hard for sensitive tummies to digest. However, these grains remain off limits for those with celiac disease.
In the kitchen: Einkorn berries are smaller than wheat, spelt or kamut berries making it a good option for harried cooks. Generally, you can cook einkorn in a water to grain ratio of 2-to-1 for about 30 minutes. Use it as a side-dish for meats like fish and chicken, toss with veggies and dressing for a hearty salad or try simmering with warming spices like cinnamon and then topping the cooked grains with Greek yogurt. Einkorn flour has a ‘softness’ that lends it itself to making great quick breads, cookies, muffins and pancakes.
While technically not an ancient grain, freekeh (FREAK-eh) is so awesome we are willing to look the other way. This Middle Eastern “green” version of wheat is prepared using Old-World methods in that its harvested while still under ripe, then sun-dried and finally roasted for a fresh smoky flavor and chewy bite. Think of it as the bacon of the grain world. Because it’s gathered young, freekeh retains maximum nutritional value including healthy amounts of protein, fiber, minerals and even the vision-protecting antioxidant duo lutein and zeaxanthin.
In the kitchen: To prepare freekeh, add 1 cup of the kernels to 2 1/2 cups boiling water. Reduce heat and simmer over medium-low until tender, about 20 minutes. Then use it to add a nutritional boost to salads, tabbouleh, soups, and even veggie burgers. Or start your day off right by topping cooked freekeh with milk, maple syrup, chopped nuts and a handful of berries.