“Grains are a big part of how I eat and, for a cook, come with near endless possibilities. They are great carriers of flavour, as happy simmered into a porridge with a little milk and a pinch of cinnamon as they are paired with robust chilli or preserved lemon. They are also affordable, rich in nutrients and sit happily in a jar awaiting your next meal.
I vary the grains I eat as much as I do the vegetables. In my kitchen, I have a bottom shelf with a colourful line up of jars: red quinoa, black rice, yellow millet, golden amaranth and dusky pearl barley. These homecooked whole grains seem easier to digest: they’re filling and sustaining without me wanting to spend the rest for he day on the sofa.
Varying the grains I eat means I’m maximising my chance of getting the goodness each different one fosters. I like to cook them in big batches and have them at the ready, either in the fridge or frozen, whenever I need something quickly. To add to some roasted roots, maybe, or give texture to a soup or stew, perhaps to cook with milk in a morning porridge or to roast in the oven so they crisp up a little.
Here are the grains (and pseudo grains, such as quinoa, buckwheat and amaranth, which look and cook like grains, but are actually seeds) that I cook most often, and what to do with them.
Quinoa (red, black and white)
2 parts water to 1 part seed
I first like to dry toast quinoa in a pan before cooking until it starts to make a popping sound – this adds a deeper, toasted flavour. Simmer for 12 minutes, or until all the water has been absorbed and the little curly germ has popped out. I keep the pan on the heat until I can just hear the popping sound again, to make sure all the water is gone. British-grown quinoa is getting easier to find.
2 parts water to 1 part rice (long grain) or 2 ½ to 1 (shorter wholegrain)
Rinse the rice under running water. I toast it first in a pan with a little oil for 1-2 minutes, stirring all the time, to give it more flavour. Bring to the boil, then reduce to a steady simmer, cover with a lid (trying not to peek in) and cook for 30 minutes for basmati and 45 minutes for short wholegrain, until the rice is tender. Remove from the heat, and leave covered to steam for 10 minutes.
2½ parts water to 1 part seed
Amaranth is a tiny seed, a little like quinoa. Also like quinoa, it was eaten by the Aztecs, but grows happily in the UK too. It can be cooked slowly for porridge or used in salads and stews. Bring to the boil, then simmer for 20 minutes, or until the seeds are fluffy and the liquid has been absorbed.
2 parts water to 1 part seed
Buckwheat comes in two forms: kasha (toasted) and buckwheat groats (untoasted). I use the latter, raw buckwheat groats, which I rinse under running cold water until it runs clear, then bring to the boil and simmer for 20–30 minutes, or until tender. (If you want to use kasha, you’ll only need to simmer for 15–20 minutes. If you like, you could toast the groats yourself in a dry pan for 1–2 minutes, until they smell nutty.)
2½ parts water to 1 part grain
Millet is a little sunny, yellow, perfectly round grain. It fluffs up like couscous when cooked or, if cooked for longer, becomes smooth like mash. It has a slightly sweet, comforting, almost milky flavour. Use it like quinoa or couscous in salads, cook slow to a mash or cook the flakes with milk like porridge. Bring to the boil, then simmer for 25 minutes until fluffy and the liquid has been absorbed. Fluff up with a fork. You can also toast it to add a nutty flavour in the same way as quinoa.
3 parts water to 1 part grain
Spelt is a cousin of wheat and an ancient grain grown in Europe for centuries. Bring to the boil, then simmer for 1½ hours, or until tender. Note: spelt does contain gluten if that’s something you need to consider.
3 parts water to 1 part grain
Bring to the boil, then turn the heat down and simmer for 45–50 minutes, until tender. Pearl barley also contains gluten.
2 parts water to 1 part grain
Freekeh is unripe wheat that is harvested while still young and soft, then roasted or sun-dried to retain more of its nutrients and proteins. It has a smoky, nutty, almost herbal flavour. Wash the grain first by swirling in water and rubbing them. Drain and repeat until it runs clear. Bring to the boil, cover, and simmer until the water is completely absorbed (about 15 minutes for cracked grain and 45 minutes for wholegrain). Remove from the heat and use a fork to fluff up.
How to prepare grains
These grains and pseudo-grains, like pulses and nuts, will benefit from soaking. It will speed up their cooking time and make them easier to digest. An overnight soak in double the amount of cold (ideally filtered) water is ideal, but a couple of hours is good too – and if you don’t have time it’s not the end of the world.
I often cook my grains in vegetable stock, which adds depth of flavour. I often also squeeze the juice of a lemon into the pan, then put the squeezed halves into the pan while the grain cooks to add extra flavour, or add a couple of cloves of unpeeled garlic (which can be squeezed out of their skins and mashed into a dressing later), or some woody herbs like thyme, rosemary or bay. I cook all my grains with a good pinch of flaky salt.
Storing and freezing
Drain your perfectly cooked grains and cool completely – if you want to speed this up you can cool them by spreading out on a couple of baking trays. They can then be stored for 3–4 days in the fridge, or frozen in portions for super-quick dinners.
Millet, harissa and roasted carrot salad (main picture)
If you can find carrots with their tops and fennel with its wispy fronds then you can use these in place of the herbs below. The carrot tops will stand in for parsley and the fennel tops for dill. If millet is hard to find, quinoa or even couscous could step in.
500g fennel (about 2 medium bulbs)
2 medium red onions
Salt and black pepper
250ml Greek-style yoghurt
200g uncooked millet
A small bunch of mint, parsley or dill (or a mix), leaves picked and chopped
50g skin-on almonds, toasted and roughly chopped
For the dressing
4 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1-4 tsp harissa paste, to taste (I used 3 tsp)
2 tbsp lemon juice, freshly squeezed
½ tbsp maple syrup
A pinch of flaky salt, to taste
1 Set the oven to 200C/400F/gas mark 6. Scrub the carrots. Slice them in half lengthways (in quarters if large).
2 Wash the fennel and slice lengthwise into thin sections. Peel and cut the onions into eighths. Put the carrots on a baking sheet and drizzle with a little olive oil. Put the fennel and red onions on a separate baking sheet, then also drizzle with a little olive oil.
3 Roast for 35-40 minutes, or until tender and charred around the edges (the fennel and onions may take longer than the carrots, so remove the carrots first, if necessary). Remove from the oven and season with salt and pepper.
4 Zest the lemon into the yoghurt.
5 Combine the millet with 250ml water and a pinch of salt. Halve the lemon and add it to the pan. Bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer, cover, and cook for 10 minutes, or until most of the water has been absorbed. Remove from the heat and allow to sit for 5 minutes.
6 Meanwhile, whisk the dressing ingredients together, starting with 1 tsp of harissa and adding more at the end to suit your taste. The dressing should be spicy, but palatable. Add the roasted vegetables and fold in to coat well.
7 In a bowl, combine the cooked vegetables and millet, herbs and almonds. Drizzle with dressing and toss to combine well. Serve with the lemony yoghurt on the side.
All green miso soup with perfect brown rice
200g split green peas
225g medium- or long-grain brown rice
1 tsp salt
200g spinach, de-stemmed
1 celery stalk
2 heads of cos lettuce
1 garlic clove, peeled and finely chopped
A small bunch of basil
A small bunch of coriander
500ml hot vegetable stock
2 tbsp miso paste (I use a light brown rice miso)
1 Cook the split peas in boiling water for 25 minutes, or until tender and squishable between your fingers.
2 Meanwhile, rinse the rice thoroughly under cool water. Warm 1 tsp oil over medium-high heat, add the rice and toast until dry and it is starting to smell fragrant and nutty. Slowly pour around 475ml of water into the pot with the rice, and add a good pinch of sea salt.
3 Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to low. Make sure the liquid stops boiling and has reduced to a bare simmer, then cover the pot and cook for 45 minutes. Try not to uncover the pot to check the rice during cooking.
4 At the end of the cooking time, lift the lid and check to see if all the water has been absorbed; a little water on the very bottom is fine, but if there’s more than a tablespoon, drain off the excess. If the rice is still crunchy, add a little more water and continue cooking; check every 10 minutes until the rice is done. Then let the rice stand 10-15 minutes, covered with a lid. This stops the rice from becoming overly sticky.
5 Once the split peas are cooked, drain and return them to the pan. Add the spinach, celery, lettuce, most of the chopped garlic and most of the herbs along with 500ml of hot vegetable stock. Take off the heat, puree until silky smooth, then stir in the miso.
6 Taste, and adjust the flavours, adding a little salt or more miso if needed. Serve in deep bowls with piles of brown rice and the reserved herbs “