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America’s Healthy
Cooking Teacher

A Grain of Truth

The word “grain” resonates deeply with me. It evokes images of simplicity, elegance, beauty and humility. Simply stated, whole grains and grain products are the cornerstone of any healthy, whole foods diet. There is an old saying; “Man cannot live by bread alone.” Well, he (and she) sure can live well on grain! Yes, we need to supplement whole grains with fresh fruits and vegetables, beans, nuts and seeds. With the abundant variety of grains available to us, we could, in theory, survive on whole grains alone. Grains are the link between the plant and animal kingdoms from which we, as humans, draw life.

The majority of nutrients that the human organism needs to sustain life are fully present in whole grains. Water, protein, vitamins, minerals, complex carbohydrates, fats, and fiber compose this miraculous food that not only reproduces itself a thousand times over (with little assistance from us), but can be stored and transported literally without damage or spoilage.

There are three macronutrients (and lots of little micronutrients…) essential to human health: protein, fat and carbohydrates. Protein has the job to build and repair tissue; it’s not designed by Mother Nature to be fuel. Got that? Fat and carbohydrates are, in fact, our real fuel. Whole grains are a source of complex carbohydrates (fiber, minerals, vitamins and other nutrients); they’re slow-burning carbs that nourish our bodies completely.

I know that Paleo and other high-protein diet enthusiasts try to convince us that carbohydrates make us heavy and sluggish, while protein is the nutrient we need to thrive and be lean. The truth is that we need all of them--fat, protein and carbohydrates--to be strong and vital. It’s not carbohydrates that contribute to excess weight, but the kind of carbohydrates we consume. Let me explain.

In traditional cultures, grain was always associated with the fruitful forces of Mother Nature. To these peoples, grain was the key to opening consciousness, carrying the force of life through its deep roots in the earth up through its stem to its fruit, opened to the heavenly force of the sun. In modern botanical thinking, there are about eight thousand species of grasses that are categorized as “grain.”

What does whole grain mean anyway? This name refers to a seed’s anatomical structure—the pericarp, endosperm and germ. So, any reference to whole grains means that the entire grain structure is being used; there has been no polishing, rolling, purling or stripping of the seed. All of the nutritive parts of the grain are intact for consumption.

What about all the hype that grains contribute to being overweight? Yes, simple carbs like white flour, sugar and bread will make you heavy and lethargic faster than you can say carbohydrate, but whole grains, these complex carbohydrates will nourish you like no other food group.

The brain needs glucose to function, but it is the quality of that glucose source that matters. Complex or long-chain carbohydrates, like the kind that dominate whole grains, break down slowly in the blood stream, do not trigger an excessive insulin release and give us energy resources to draw on for hours. Eating brown rice, millet, barley, quinoa, whole grain breads and pasta in balanced proportions is the key to reaching and maintaining your focus, digestive health, ideal weight and your overall wellness.

When shopping for whole grains, look for well-shaped, uniform (size, shape and color) grains. I personally prefer organic grains to commercial varieties. Grain is such an important part of a healthy diet that it only makes sense to obtain the very best quality. Since grain absorbs so much from the soil, any pesticide residue present in the earth will find its way into our grains. But…don’t skip whole grains if you can’t afford organic; purchase what your wallet allows.

Once you have your grain stash, I advise storing them in tightly sealed glass jars in a cupboard or pantry or any cool and dry place. I have gotten into the habit of adding a whole bay leaf to each jar to discourage grain moths. At first, with so many grains available to us, you may wish to label each jar, so you will remember what is what until grains become familiar to you.

In general, cooking styles for grains will vary with respect to amounts of water, cooking time and so forth. You’ll see as many cooking styles as you’ll see grains (or so it seems). So experiment and see what you like the best. What remains constant is rinsing grains. Grains develop a light dust over their surface as they sit because of naturally-occurring oxidation. A light rinsing process will ensure the natural, sweet, nutty taste of your cooked grains. Simply cook the grain according to your recipe. They are easy to cook, versatile and delicious.

The energy and spirit of whole grains keep me enchanted almost more than the delicious flavors. They possess an inner strength that comes from the harmony of water, earth, sun and air, nature’s basic elements of life. By utilizing the whole grain, these powerful energetic qualities are passed on to us, nourishing us completely and restoring us to that same harmony with nature.

A diet with its focus on whole grains will awaken our spirits and open our consciousness to all that the universe has to provide. Our instinct and intuition will guide our choices, helping us manage our lives free from the petty stresses that seem to debilitate people so often.

Looking at grains, we see a great variety available to us. I dare say that, to a newcomer, a natural foods store with row after row of grain products can be quite daunting. But instead of giving in to anxiety, let this abundance reawaken the very essence of humanity in you—your creativity. Choose a few varieties at a time; master them and then expand your repertoire. You’ll find your taste expanding and your culinary horizons widen.

As we celebrate whole grains this September, stock up on some of Mother Nature’s so very perfect foods. You’ll love how deliciously they’ll rock your world.

A few recipes to share

Fried Rice with Sweet Pineapple
Farro with Cauliflower