Maybe your experience with whole grains is like mine: For years I wanted to include more of them in my family’s diet. I would try them, one after another — quinoa, wheat berries, farro, spelt — a meal with each, and the remainder of the uncooked grain would sit in the pantry for months, and then we’d feed it to the chicks. I liked some of them well enough. But not well enough to make them again and again.
I’ve been wondering when a whole-grains cookbook would make a thorough convert of me, my husband, and even our young children. So when “Grain Mains,” by veteran cookbook team Bruce Weinstein and Mark Scarbrough, came along, I set out to discover if they had, in fact, successfully supplied that need.
Our first ventures were not entirely promising. Oat and amaranth pancakes have a pleasing texture, and they behave more nicely in the pan than ordinary pancakes, and they also don’t leave you in glycemic withdrawal an hour later. But it takes a lot of maple syrup to make them taste like much of anything.
Falafel burgers, fried in a skillet in minimal oil, offer a passable imitation of deep-fried falafel, though they won’t satisfy the confirmed falafaholic. The harissa sauce you make to accompany them is truly disappointing, unless you salt it liberally. Wheat berry salad with zucchini, boiled lemon, and almonds assembles an interesting variety of textures without entirely adding up in taste (I wonder if the boiled lemons were meant as an easy-to-find substitute for the more rousing taste of preserved lemons).
But as we explored further with one whole-grain entree after another, the recipes began to deliver consistently pleasing results. Many are also remarkably quick to prepare, if you don’t count the overnight pre-softening soak required by a number of whole grains.
Farro with nectarines, basil, and toasted pine nuts teeters intriguingly on a fruity, salty balance beam, the salty ricotta salata and sharp edge of fresh basil powerful and soothing against the faintly nutty backdrop of the farro. A “Lebanese-inspired” brown rice salad with chickpeas and grapes makes a great fast weeknight meal, and if you happen to have sumac and Aleppo pepper on hand (which the authors suggest as a substitute for paprika and black pepper), the outcome turns out as redolent of spice as a Middle Eastern grocery.
Thinking back on it later, I felt it might have been unfair to waste a recipe test on quinoa with asparagus and shiitakes, since I have long known that asparagus and shiitakes together make a surefire combination. But at least I can report that even quinoa, my least favorite whole grain, rocks the gustatory boat with that pairing. A sprinkling of orange rind is an inspired stroke, simultaneously adding light and sweetness. A dish of stir-fried buckwheat groats (the unhulled berries of the grain) draws on an old technique — coating the groats in egg before toasting them, then simmering them in broth, and it uses sesame oil for stir-frying an Asian-style dish. The egg merely separates the groats, the oil doesn’t smoke, the aromatics sweat out nicely, and the whole thing is a hit at the table.
Although you might not at first think of sweet corn as a whole grain, a mock ceviche with roasted corn and shrimp makes a very welcome addition to the collection. The combination of lime, radishes, bright red onion, and cilantro has a summery seductiveness, and I ended up making it three times in two weeks despite being busy with testing other dishes.
It’s not a small task: converting us refined-carb-loving masses to the gospel of whole grains. But Scarbrough and Weinstein know what they’re doing, and they use a free hand with flavorful ingredients and varied textures, anything to avoid the specter of a long, boring, beige meal.
“Grain Mains” may not, in the final reckoning, be the whole-grains cookbook that will change your life, assure your longevity, and hand you the keys to the heaven of righteous eaters. But at the moment, I can’t think of a better one.T. Susan Chang can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.