The older it is, the better the story. And ancient grains have a long tale to tell, with more than 5,000 years of delicious plot twists. These golden oldies are appearing on Westchester restaurant menus as yet another back-to-basics facet of the artisanal culinary movement.
Wheat, oats, rye, and barley have been filling farm fields just as long, but these so-called ancient grains—such as quinoa, teff, kamut, and spelt—are much more mysterious to modern-day diets. A decade ago, the average eater wouldn’t know what quinoa was, much less how to pronounce it (keen-wah).
Now, it’s shifting from fringe to mainstream: In January, even Cheerios debuted an ancient grain cereal made with quinoa, puffed spelt, and kamut.
What’s the difference between a primeval cereal and a modern one? Ancient grains are those that have remained intact, consumed the way our early ancestors ate them, without extensive modification or crossbreeding, according to the Whole Grains Council, a nonprofit consumer advocacy group formed in 2002.
It’s a hefty food group. Grains provide nearly 50 percent of the calories eaten worldwide and are some of the least intensive foods to produce, according to the Whole Grains Council. Chefs are incorporating these grains into their salads, entrées, soups, breakfast items, desserts, and baked goods.
“It’s all coming back, from back in the day,” says Kevin Allmashy, executive chef and owner of Chef’s Table in Scarsdale. “I’m very happy about it.” Working in the restaurant industry for 25 years, Allmashy sees the infusion of ancient grains into the modern American diet as a changing of the guard. He’s introducing a new ancient grain once a week as a special.
Quinoa is by far the most popular. Allmashy’s wild Atlantic salmon accompanies quinoa with fresh herbs, cooked in a vegetable stock flavored with a hint of fennel. He also makes a quinoa and grilled vegetable salad with toasted walnuts and cranberries, dressed with basil-infused oil.
“When you taste it, you get that nuttiness,” he says of the high-protein quinoa, which is actually a seed but treated as a grain.
Chef Ihsaana Muhammad uses ancient grains in the savory dishes and desserts she creates at Recologie’s Vistro Café, a vegetarian and vegan bistro in New Rochelle.
“I like to use traditional food in an unconventional way. I like the health factor, and I like the fact that people don’t even know that they’re eating it if you cook it properly,” Muhammad says. Her decadent quadruple chocolate cake at Vistro contains quinoa. When a recipe calls for conventional white flour, Muhammad often uses spelt flour. She makes her pancakes with millet. On her website, www.bydimples.com, Muhammad sells Ruby Dee’s Life Essentials Oatmeal Cookie, named after her late grandmother, the celebrated activist/actress. The cookie has quinoa flakes, quinoa flour, hemp seeds, oats, oat flour, and spelt flour in it.
Since opening in November, Wolfert’s Roost in Irvington serves a Captain’s Catch for two, with seasonal vegetables and quinoa salad. The grain salad, made with preserved lemon and red onion, is also offered as a side dish. It’s a crowd pleaser, says chef/owner Eric Korn.
“They like quinoa, and they want it,” Korn says. “I think it’s delicious, and it’s a little bit different, and yet, it’s not too out there.”
After Thomas Costello was diagnosed with celiac disease more than a year ago, the Thyme chef/owner transformed his eatery into a 98-percent gluten-free establishment and lost 40 pounds. Thyme serves New American cuisine in Yorktown, showcasing his experiments with buckwheat, chia, sorghum, and millet in weekly specials.
“I see it more and more in supermarkets, so there’s got to be more of a demand. I don’t think it’s just a trend. It’s a lifestyle,” Costello says. “It’s not going away.”
Some of our favorite ancient grains
Amaranth: Once a staple of Aztec culture, the small, peppery kernels resemble brown caviar when cooked; gluten-free
Buckwheat: A cousin of rhubarb, buckwheat tolerates poor soil and thrives without pesticides; find it in Japanese soba noodles, Russia’s kasha; gluten-free
Einkorn: Generally thought to be the most ancient of wheat varieties. Today, this drought-tolerant grain is still grown in Austria, southern France, Italy, Germany, and Eastern Europe.
Farro: Later abandoned for easier-to-hull durum wheat, farro was one of the first cereals ever domesticated in the Fertile Crescent. Centuries later, it served as the standard daily ration of the Roman legions.
Kamut: The Khorasan heirloom grain was once pushed aside by monoculture agriculture. Kermit is the ancient Egyptian word for wheat.
Millet: This group of small, similar grains is a leading grain staple in India and commonly eaten in China, South America, Russia, and the Himalayas; used in porridge and desserts as flour and in alcoholic beverages; gluten-free
Sorghum: Believed to have originated in Africa, sorghum can be eaten like popcorn, cooked into porridge, ground into flour for baked goods, or even brewed into beer; gluten-free
Spelt: Also known as “big farro,” spelt has panache. Twelfth-century mystic St. Hildegard is said to have written, “The spelt is the best of grains.”
Quinoa: Hailing from the Andes and cultivated by the Incas, this popular nutty grain is actually a seed that comes in white, red, and other colors; gluten-free
Teff: The source of nutrition for an estimated two-thirds of Ethiopians, the versatile grain comes in red, brown, and white and is most often seen as the spongy injera flatbread; gluten-free