Go with the grain: Mark Hix cooks with spelt

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This delicious grain is good for your health, wonderfully versatile and coming to a supermarket shelf near you very soon, says our resident chef.

Spelt is slowly working its way on to the shelves of our quality stores and starting to become established among all the other more familiar grains. Having said that, I think most of us are probably still a bit sketchy as to precisely what it is – as well as why we should eat it instead of barley or rice.

Spelt has been grown in Somerset since the Iron Age and as well as being delicious it has great health benefits. Now that I've passed my half century I need to be a bit more conscious of what I'm eating (bloody difficult in my business) and spelt is an obvious example of the type of ingredient we should all be eating more of. It's a great alternative for some people with an intolerance to wheat. Wheat intolerance is becoming more and more common, especially with the high volumes of processed food people are eating these days.

Spelt does, however, contain gluten, so is not suitable for those with coeliac disease. Most importantly, spelt has a really high level of fibre which is significant in lowering the risk of bowel cancer and our spelt-producing friends down in Sharpham Park have teamed up with Bowel Cancer UK to help fight the disease.

Smoked haddock spelt arancini

Makes 15-20

These delicious little deep-fried Italian snacks, that are traditionally made with risotto rice, can be made with all sorts of flavourings, from a simple saffron Milanese to a silky mushroom risotto. I think arancini originated as a way of using up leftover risotto.

You can make these into smaller, bite-sized pieces that you could serve as canapés or larger ones if you want to make more substantial snacks or even into a breakfast dish with a fried egg on top.

100g natural smoked haddock
500ml fish stock
A couple of knobs of butter
1 medium onion, peeled, halved and finely chopped
80g spelt, soaked in cold water for a couple of hours and rinsed
40g freshly grated parmesan or hard cheese
2-3tbsp chopped parsley
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
About 80-100g flour for dusting
1 large egg, beaten
50g fresh white breadcrumbs
Vegetable or corn oil for deep-frying

Put the haddock in a saucepan with the fish stock, bring to the boil and simmer gently for 5 minutes then transfer the haddock on to a plate and strain the stock through a sieve. Melt the butter in a heavy based saucepan and gently cook the onion for 2-3 minutes on a low heat, stirring every so often.

Add the drained spelt and stir on the heat for a minute, season then gradually start adding the stock, a little at a time and stirring every so often, ensuring that each addition of stock has been absorbed before adding the next. Continue adding the stock until the spelt is tender, it should be fully cooked through and quite dry as it needs to stay together when moulded. Stir in the parmesan and parsley and remove from the heat.

Meanwhile remove all of the skin and bones from the haddock and flake the flesh into small pieces and stir into the hot spelt. Re-season if necessary and transfer to a shallow dish to cool, stirring every so often as it's cooling; then transfer to the fridge for an hour or so. Mould the mixture into 10p-sized pieces for canapés or larger if you wish. Have 3 dishes ready, one with the flour, the second with the beaten egg and the third with the breadcrumbs. Pass the arancini firstly through the flour, shaking off any excess, then through the egg and finally through the breadcrumbs.

Preheat about 8cm of oil to 160-180C in a large thick bottomed saucepan or electric deep-fat fryer and fry the arancini a few at a time for 2-3 minutes, turning them with a slotted spoon as they are cooking, until they are golden then transfer on to some kitchen paper.

Savoury spelt porridge

Serves 4-6

Spelt porridge flakes made into a savoury porridge is a great start to the day. Spelt flakes are more robust than normal porridge oats, and they works very well in a savoury dish such as this.

150g spelt porridge flakes
600-650ml chicken stock
A spoonful of double cream
200g diced bacon pieces or lardons
150g open cup mushrooms, sliced or quartered
A couple of good knobs of butter

Put the spelt and stock in a pan, bring to a simmer and continue simmering gently for 5-6 minutes, stirring every so often.

Remove from the heat, stir in the cream and cover to keep warm. Meanwhile, fry the bacon pieces in a dry pan on a medium heat for 3-4 minutes until it begins to colour and crisp and then transfer to a plate with a slotted spoon.

In the same pan, melt the butter, add the mushrooms, season and cook on a medium heat for 2-3 minutes, drain off any liquid and add the bacon to the pan for 30 seconds or so to reheat. To serve, spoon the porridge into bowl and spoon the bacon and mushrooms on top.

Spelt, cheese and spring onion tatie scones

Serves 4-6

These are not scones in the cream-tea sense of the word, but are adapted from the basic scone mixture. Still, they can be eaten for tea, and are delicious with some slices of cured or home-cooked ham or you could serve them instead of fried bread for breakfast with a fried or poached egg on top.

500g floury potatoes, cooked and mashed
30g melted butter
½tsp salt
1 egg, beaten
125g spelt flour, plus a little extra for dusting
1tsp baking powder
120-140g cheddar or hard cheese, grated
8 spring onions, trimmed and finely chopped
Lard or butter for greasing

Put the mashed potato in a bowl and mix in all the other ingredients, apart from the lard, to make a stiff dough. If the dough is a bit sticky, add some more flour. Roll the dough on a lightly floured table to a thickness of about 1cm and cut it into saucer-sized rounds. You can re-roll the dough left at the edges and cut out more rounds.

Score a cross about 2mm deep over the circle to make 4 quarters. Preheat the oven to 200C/gas mark 6. Grease a griddle, heavy cast-iron pan or baking tray with the lard and bake the scones for about 15 minutes until lightly coloured. Eat warm.

Chicken, spelt and wild garlic pilaf

Serves 4-6

2tbsp vegetable or corn oil
2 large onions, peeled and finely chopped
12 chicken thighs, boned, skinned, quartered
180g spelt, soaked in water for 4-5 hours
1.5ltrs chicken stock
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
150g chicken livers, cleaned and halved
A handful of wild garlic leaves, washed, torn
100g butter
Preheat the oven to 175C/gas mark 4.

Heat the vegetable oil in a heavy based, oven proof pan. Season the chicken and fry on a medium heat with the onions until lightly coloured. Drain and add the spelt and chicken stock, bring to a simmer then cover with a lid and cook in the oven for 20 minutes. Remove from the oven and give it a stir and check how the spelt is doing. It can take quite a bit longer than rice; if it's still very firm return to the oven for another 15 minutes and add a little more stock if it's dry.

Heat a little vegetable oil and a knob of butter in a heavy frying pan, season the livers and cook them briefly on a very high heat, turning them in the pan as they are cooking until they are nicely coloured, then transfer to a plate. When the spelt is tender, stir in the livers, wild garlic and butter and re-season if necessary. The dish should have a moist consistency but not quite as sloppy as risotto; add more stock if necessary.

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