Recently I decided to try some of the specialty ancient grains available in local stores. The term ancient grains refers to cereals that were discovered and eaten millenia ago by our ancestors. Many have fallen from use in modern times, replaced by more factory-farming friendly plants. Judging from the variety available even in such an outpost of civilization as central Maine, the ancient grain business is good. The grains I tried were all organic, meaning non-GMO, no pesticides or herbicides used for growing, storing or processing. I decided to try kamut and spelt in addition to farro, a grain I’ve been eating for a year or so. In the future I will try others.
The three grains are relatives of modern wheat. They were first gathered from wild plants over 8000 years ago. Man (as in most likely–women) learned to plant the wild seeds they gathered and cultivated the grain. This provided a more secure food source for early communities. Farro originated in the Fertile Crescent of the Middle East and was eaten in Egypt. It has a softer texture than some wheats, especially when it is pearled. A semi-pearled grain has had some of the tough outer membrane, the bran, removed. I use semi-pearled Italian farro because it cooks faster than the whole grain, yet still retains an impressive nutritional value. A 1/4 dry cup serving of semi-pearled farro has 170 calories, 0 fat, 0 sodium, 35 g of carbs with 5 g of dietary fiber, 0 sugar and 7 g of protein and also some iron. It is not a complete protein since it does not contain a full supply of lysine and should be paired with another lysine source.
Farro is delicious. It is a very nutritious alternative to rice, especially white rice which is a nutrition wasteland. Farro has a smooth, creamy, rice-like texture with a slightly nutty flavor from the retained bran coat and a wonderful fruity, sweet fragrance. I like to cook it with a handful of dried cranberries and some raw sunflower seeds, simmer in three times its volume of water, covered, for 15 mins until al dente, drain before serving. A perfect breakfast or side dish for pork, turkey or chicken. For a more authentic and jaw-exercising experience, try whole grain farro which should be soaked before cooking to soften the bran layer.
The next culinary adventure is kamut. Enjoyed by the ancient Egyptians and originating around the Nile, kamut grains or berries are huge. They are 3/8″ to 7/16″ long when cooked. Kamut reminds me of tiny beans. It has the same combination of snappy hull with soft insides and enough size to make its presence known in your mouth. The taste is more wheat-like for sweetness, but starchy and similar to beans. The kamut I tried is whole grain, with the full bran coat retained.
Cooking whole grain cereals requires more time. The berries are soaked overnight in at least twice their volume of water. I place them in the fridge to soak. In the old days before refrigeration, I suspect our forebears discovered alcohol through this soaking of the grain. I imagine some slacking hut-wife left the grain to soak too long, (several days at hut temperature) and it fermented. The woman probably drained off the water with the alcohol content into another container and, because she was so lazy, just left the liquid sitting around the fire. Then the hut-husband arrived home from hunting rabbits and birds, an activity that apparently can lead to a powerful thirst, he grabbed the jug of fermentation water for a drink and became the first man to fall in love with home brew.
After soaking the grains overnight, drain the liquid and use it to water something, then add the grain to three times its volume of water and simmer, covered for 30-40 minutes until it is al dente. Drain excess liquid before serving. I tried kamut with a little salt and butter, yummy! The whole bran definitely provides chewing exercise. I would substitute this grain for any bean recipe or serve it as a side dish sweetened up by cooking with any dried fruit, including tomatoes. A serving of kamut provided an excellent nutritional source for ancient Egyptians. A dry 1/4 cup has 160 calories, 1 g fat (not saturated or trans fat,) 0 sodium, 32 g of carbs with 4 g being dietary fiber and 4 g sugars, and 7 g of protein. Again, this grain is lacking in lysine and should be paired with an appropriate amino acid source to form a complete protein for vegetarians. It is also a source of thiamine and niacin.
Finally, I tried spelt. This is a better known type of wheat, at least to me since I’d heard of it. Spelt is related to durum wheat and came from the Middle East. Its use spread to Europe and was especially popular in Germany where it fed the population during the Middle Ages and is still grown today. The berries are smaller than either kamut or farro, very nutty and sweet and lead to plenty of chewing with the bran of the whole grain.
Spelt is prepared in the same fashion as kamut, soaked overnight in twice its volume of water for best results, drained then simmered, covered in three times the volume of water for 40-60 minutes to al dente. Drain the excess liquid. The grain is delicious served warm with some salt and melted butter. The sweetness pairs well with fruits and light meats. I even tried it with melted cheddar and loved it. Mixed with cinnamon, a bowl of spelt did not last long when given to my two granddaughters aged 5 and 2. They gobbled it up and wanted more!
This ancient grain, like the other two, is nutritionally superior to most modern starchy side dishes. A 1/4 dry cup serving has 180 calories, 2 g fat ( not saturated or trans,) 0 sodium, 38 g of carbs with 5 g dietary fiber and 2 g sugars and 7 g protein. Spelt is also low on lysine but is higher in many minerals than the other two grains I tried. It is a good source of calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, zinc, copper and manganese, among others.
Since all three of these grains are related to wheat, they contain gluten and are not for gluten intolerant diets. I pity the ancestors with celiac disease who had to try and survive on wheat grains. I wonder if they figured out what made their guts hurt and tried alternate foods? Luckily, I love gluten and can digest it, so will be adding these heirloom wheat varieties to my diet.