Food: Grain power

We have embraced Mediterranean staples such as olive oil but sadly still regard grains with suspicion. Michael Bateman welcomes some starchy recipes
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
IN THE second part of my selection from Mediterranean Grains & Greens, the new book by the award-winning American cookery writer Paula Wolfert, we look at grains (wheat, barley, rice and corn). These, as much as olive oil and wine, are the foundation of Mediterranean food. "Grain is the canvas," says Wolfert, "the platform on which Mediterranean cooking is built."

Bread is such a staple of British life that it leaves little room for other starchy immigrants. True, we finally admitted Italian pasta, and Asian rice is waved in. But, in spite of an ongoing affair with the food of the Mediterranean, few of its basic grain products make it to these shores.

In her book, Wolfert lists the many versatile flat breads and numerous forms of pasta, the risottos and polentas from Italy, the paellas and arroces of Spain, north African cous cous and, from the eastern Mediterranean, bulgar, which is made into tasty and filling pilafs, kibbeh and tabbouleh. The recipes she has selected are essentially those of the home cook, which have evolved over time, passed on from mother to daughter to grand- daughter. Here is a checklist, with Wolfert's observations.

BULGAR The main staple of the eastern Mediterranean. Wheat grain boiled until soft, rolled out and dried, then sieved into grades by size. It can either be cooked, as in pilafs (with vegetables or meat, covered with stock and simmered for 20 minutes), or moistened and eaten raw with pounded lamb, kibbeh, or mixed herbs for tabbouleh. COUS COUS Not a grain, but semolina flour processed into granules. Unless you're in a village in the Mahgreb you'll only be able to buy commercial varieties and, as they have been semi-cooked, they only need reconstituting in half their weight in water, before steaming for 10 to 15 minutes. Halfway through cooking, season with salt and whisk in a little butter for lightness.

POLENTA This staple of north-west Italy, made from rich yellow corn, is available in coarse to fine grinds. It's boiled and eaten (as we might use mashed potatoes) as an accompaniment to many dishes, sometimes runny and sometimes thick, or poured out and left to cool until stiff, when it can be cut up and grilled, to be eaten like bruschetta or toast. Since stirring a volcanic pan of spluttering polenta patiently for an hour is not the modern cook's idea of spending quality time, Wolfert promotes the no-stir method. She realises that she risks being dubbed a heretic, but pleads that she adapted it from the instructions on a packet of Italian polenta bought in New York.

The method. Preheat oven to 350F/180C/Gas Mark 4. For six people, use an 8 litre (14 pint) ovenproof pan and pour in 380g (13oz) medium- to coarse-ground polenta and 1.75 litres (three pints) water, two teaspoons of salt and two tablespoons of butter. Cook for one hour and 20 minutes. Remove and stir. Cook for 10 minutes more. Rest for five minutes. Cooked polenta keeps in the fridge for a few days. Runny polenta can be thickened by heating it in a double boiler (or use a small pan inside a larger one part-filled with boiling water).

PAELLA RICE Short-grained and stubby, this is a very absorbent rice, in total contrast to the starchy long-grained rice we eat to accompany moist, spicy Eastern dishes. The best paella rice is Bomba, a variety of Calasparra rice grown near Murcia in Spain. It has a phenomenal capacity to take up liquid. An authentic Paella Valenciana should contain rabbit, snails and beans, but tourists insist on seafood.

The secret of cooking Spanish rice dishes, says Wolfert, is to start with a rich sofrito, a mixture of finely-chopped vegetables (onions, tomatoes, peppers both fresh and dried, and garlic) fried in oil to a jam-like consistency. Such dishes are cooked in a wide, shallow pan which should be filled to a depth no higher than the width of a thumb. The boiling liquid (water or chicken or fish stock) is added first to the sofrito and, when bubbling, the rice is sprinkled on. After a quick stir it is not disturbed again. Cook it for 10 minutes rapidly, then lower the heat and cook for 10 more minutes. Off the heat, cover with a cloth and rest for five minutes.

RISOTTO RICE The most common variety of this plump, medium/short-grained rice is the all-purpose arborio. The larger-grained carnaroli rice suits savoury, meaty risottos; the smaller-grained vialone nano, seafood risottos.

Wolfert gives a recipe for a startling magenta-coloured risotto. For six people, eaten as a first course, you need 285g (10oz) carnaroli risotto rice and 1.1 litres (2 pints) chicken or meat stock. Add 1.3 litres (214 pints) water and a pinch of salt to the stock, which should be brought to simmering point in a saucepan.

In a frying pan, sizzle three tablespoons of shredded pancetta in one and a half tablespoons of olive oil, then add 225g (8oz) of washed and shredded red Treviso-style radicchio and braise it, covered, over a low/medium heat for 20 minutes. In another pan, cook one finely- chopped onion, until golden, in two tablespoons butter and one and a half tablespoons olive oil. Stir in the rice and "toast" for one minute. Raise heat to medium and stir in 100ml (4fl oz) strong red wine, preferably Barolo.

When absorbed, stir in the stock a ladleful at a time until absorbed. After about 10 minutes stir in the braised radicchio and juices, and cook until the rice is done, stirring all the time, another five to 10 minutes. Add four tablespoons grated Parmesan and salt and ground black pepper. Stand for five minutes before serving.

Mediterranean Grains & Greens by Paula Wolfert, published by Kyle Cathie, pounds 25, is available to readers at the reduced price of pounds 22, including p&p (0171 840 8772)




Paula Wolfert declares this version of tabbouleh, inspired by Samira, a Druze cook in northern Galilee, to be extraordinary. It's vibrant with cumin, cinnamon and rich red paprika. Samira uses verjuice, the filtered juice of unripe grapes, to get tartness and fruitiness but lemon juice is fine. The greens should be completely dried before using.

Serves 6

70g/212oz fine-grain bulgur

350g/12oz stemmed flat-leaf parsley, washed and dried

50ml/2fl oz fresh lemon, lime, verjuice or sour green grape juice

34 teaspoon salt or more to taste

6 spring onions, white and 10cm/4in green leaves

14 teaspoon or more ground Sri Lanka cinnamon to taste

14 teaspoon or more ground cumin to taste

freshly ground black pepper

pinch of paprika

pinch of sugar to taste

1 large red ripe tomato, peeled, seeded, and chopped

3 tablespoons olive oil

handful finely shredded aromatic mint leaves, preferably spearmint

1 head cos lettuce (romaine)

Place the bulgur in a fine sieve. Shake it to remove any dust, rinse under cool running water and drain. Let it stand for 10 minutes, then press out all the moisture. Meanwhile, finely chop the parsley. In a mixing bowl, combine everything but the mint and lettuce, blending well. Cover and refrigerate for at least two hours before serving (it tastes even better after 24 hours). Fold in the mint. Correct the seasoning, and serve with lettuce leaves.