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Ancient grains bring new textures, nutrients to traditional dishes

Hanna Zepp, general manager at Bagby Pizza, talks about using ancient grains such as quinoa and farro in the restaurant's salads and grain bowls. (Algerina Perna/Baltimore Sun video)

The food of the pharaohs is back.

Ancient grains like farro and spelt are popping up on restaurant menus and on grocery store shelves in increasing numbers as Americans become more health-conscious and concerned about what's on their plates.

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Just look in the cereal aisle. Kellogg's and Kashi recently introduced breakfast mixes that include quinoa, barley and other ancient grains.

They're not alone. Manufacturers are cranking out ancient-grain products like crackers, cookies, pasta and even tortillas.

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Local chefs are paying attention to the demand and adding the grains to their menus. You'll find dishes that include farro at The Brewer's Art in Mount Vernon, quinoa at Bagby Pizza Co. in Pikesville and black rice at Level in Annapolis.

"I use black rice for a different texture and visual appeal," said Josh Brown, Level's executive chef. "It's an interesting focal point for a dish."

Not to mention that Chinese royalty once nibbled on the grain, also called "emperor's rice," thousands of years ago.

While ancient grains are getting a lot of publicity, there really isn't an official definition, according to the Whole Grains Council, a nonprofit consumer advocacy group.

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It describes them as grains "that are largely unchanged over the last several hundred years." That disqualifies a common form of wheat, which has been bred through the decades to withstand diseases, extreme temperatures and pests.

In general, the Whole Grains Council counts original types of wheat like einkorn, emmer (or farro), Kamut and spelt, as well as black barley, red and black rice, sorghum, teff, quinoa and amaranth among several others as ancient grains.

Whole grains are considered ancient grains for the most part, except when they've been modified, as in the case of modern-day wheat, said Kelly Toups, program director of the Whole Grains Council, in an email.

Consumers should keep in mind that grains must include 100 percent of the original kernel — bran, germ and endosperm — to be considered whole. Pearled grains have had their bran, or outer coating, removed and are not considered whole grains.

"Pearled barley doesn't have as many nutrients," said Alison Massey, an outpatient registered dietitian at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore. "This is where label reading is important."

Massey points out that ancient grains like freekeh and farro are good sources for fiber. "People are becoming more familiar with them and cooking with them more often," she said. "But healthy whole grains don't need to be exotic."

She advises clients to use grains like brown rice and black barley in recipes where they would normally use white rice.

"See how it turns out," she said.

In addition, you'll be getting more whole grains into your diet, as recommended by the 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which calls for eating three to five servings or more of whole grains every day.

An interest in whole grains, particularly ancient grains, led Ann Taylor Pittman, executive editor of Cooking Light magazine, to write the book "Everyday Whole Grains: 175 Recipes from Amaranth to Wild Rice."

"Quinoa is almost old hat, as cooks are asking to learn more about millet, sorghum and amaranth," she writes in her book.

It's been a mission at the magazine, she said.

"We all need to get used to our pizzas being a little more brown, and our sandwiches looking brown, and our pasta looking a little more brown," she said. "And we need to use more brown rice and more wild rice."

Her quest to move away from refined grains and incorporate more whole grains into her life was personal as well as professional. She and her husband are raising twin boys.

"I talk about it, maybe too much, in my role as a mom and the head cook in my family," she said. "I think that's a wonderful position to have — that I can be a nutrition gatekeeper for my family."

Pittman is also pleased that restaurants are embracing whole grains. The term "whole grain" was used on 40 percent more menus last year compared to four years ago, the Whole Grains Council reported.

"I think that's something that people tout as a point of pride because whole grains have such great flavor and texture to play with," Pittman said.

Chris Becker, the executive chef of the Bagby Restaurant Group, which oversees Fleet Street Kitchen in Harbor East, the new Bagby Pizza Co. in Pikesville and other restaurants, has used various grains in his kitchens, even puffed-up quinoa for a dessert.

Hanna Zepp, general manager of Bagby Pizzo Co. in the Woodholme shopping center, holds a salad made with ancient grains including quinoa, red quinoa, black barley and farro cooked in vegetable stock and tossed with parsley.
Hanna Zepp, general manager of Bagby Pizzo Co. in the Woodholme shopping center, holds a salad made with ancient grains including quinoa, red quinoa, black barley and farro cooked in vegetable stock and tossed with parsley. (Algerina Perna / Baltimore Sun)

"What I love is they're very nutritious, and they add a hearty element and texture to things," he said. "They've gained traction."

At Bagby Pizza, diners will find a grain-medley salad that includes seasonal vegetables like sugar-snap peas, radishes, asparagus and greens with a mix of grains like quinoa and farro, dressed with a light vinaigrette and a peanut drizzle. Chicken can be added.

"There's a versatility and deliciousness," Becker said.

Andrew Weinzirl, executive chef at The Brewer's Art, is serving farro with a rabbit leg braised in hard cider.

"As far as grains go, it has so much more depth of flavor," he said. "There's an earthiness, nutritiousness and grassy notes to it."

Many professionals agree that using and eating ancient grains can be intimidating at first.

"Anytime there's something a little unfamiliar, people might be a little hesitant to try it," Pittman said. "A lot of recipes I developed are family favorites."

She suggests using whole-wheat flour instead of all-purpose flour in chicken and dumplings, using whole-grain flour for making crackers and substituting bulgur for white bread crumbs as a binder for meatloaf (see recipe).

"That's a way to get a buy-in," Pttman said. "Chocolate-chip cookies [see recipe], those kinds of things, that's a good place to start."

But the main thing is to try ancient grains.

"I want to encourage people to experiment with it, to play with it and have fun," she said. "Be bold."

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