The good grain guide: Why stick to rice and pasta when there are so many other versatile varieties?

Alice-Azania Jarvis finds out why quinoa and millet are not just for health nuts

"For a long time, I didn't give a second thought to grains," says Anthony Demetre, the Michelin-star-winning chef and the proprietor of Wild Honey, Arbutus and Les Deux Salons. "They've always been seen as a kind of sandal-wearing, health-freak food."

All that changed when he was diagnosed with Coeliac disease, an inherited inability to digest gluten, six years ago. Heavily present in wheat, rye and barley, gluten – a type of protein – has become a standard presence in our diet. Try looking for a snack that doesn't contain it in some form; it's difficult.

"I was dumbstruck," he says. "I love Italian foods – pizza and pasta – and relish the luxury of French pastry. My wife is Parisian so we go there all the time. The thought of not being able to enjoy that any more made me hugely depressed." Still, he endeavoured, as he puts it, to "change his lifestyle," and began experimenting with ways of cooking that didn't rely on wheat products. In doing so, he discovered a passion for grains and has created dishes as diverse as quinoa ice cream – on the menu at Les Deux Salons – and buckwheat ravioli.

"As a chef, I feel it's my duty to introduce new ingredients to the public," he says. "It's not just about not being able to eat wheat. You don't have to be a coeliac to enjoy quinoa or polenta. They're great in their own right."

Of course, not all grains are wheat-free and not every grain is suitable for the gluten intolerant. Semolina, used to make couscous, is a wheat product, though that's no reason for most of us to ignore it. Grains, in all shapes and sizes, have something to offer.

Quinoa

"It is massively versatile," says Demetre. "It doesn't need to just be a wheat substitute. At my restaurants I've used it in all kinds of innovative ways. We do a quinoa ice cream, which involves toasting the grains in a dry pan and then immersing them in a warm custard. They soak up the liquid and acquire this wonderful amber colour and flavour. You can serve quinoa as a salad, as a garnish on soup – even sautéed. All you need to do parboil, then sauté and it's lovely and crunchy."

Quinoa is also incredibly good for you. Its high levels of protein and unusually balanced set of amino acids make it a favourite of vegetarians, who can struggle to find complete proteins. It's high in fibre, phosphorous, magnesium and iron. Given this, it's not surprising sales have soared lately.

"Over the past couple of years, it's become much more popular," agrees Aylie Cooke, associate grocery coordinator at Whole Foods Market. "People are aware of the benefits, but they're also interested in the taste."

For quinoa novices, the most straightforward way to start using it might be with a salad – simply prepared, it will keep in the fridge for a quick, last-minute meal. "It cooks very much like pasta," says Demetre. "Twelve minutes and then refresh with some cold water and add some oil."

Polenta

Made with ground cornmeal, the Italian peasant food has become a staple on fashionable menus in the UK. Most often seen in its slow-cooked, porridge-y form, it can also, once cooked, be shaped into patties and fried to create crostini di polenta, topped with anything from mushrooms to chopped liver, or polenta fritta, little nuggets – polenta "chips" – to be dipped in sauce and salsas. But it doesn't end there. "Polenta batter on fish is great," says Demetre. "It's just a matter of mixing polenta and water and dipping the fish in. It's also terrific in baking – plenty of Italian cakes use polenta in the same way they do ground almonds."

Buckwheat

Not, despite its name, anything to do with wheat – and therefore perfect for coeliacs such as Demetre. "I make buckwheat porridge, cooked on the stove with milk or water and flavoured with whatever you like: honey, salt and so on." Buckwheat is also the basis for the famous savoury galettes of Brittany as well as Japanese soba noodles, found in everything from salads to stirfries to soups. At Feng Sushi, the soba noodle salad has been a menu staple for 12 years. "In Japan, soba noodles are commonly served cold on a bed of ice," explains the restaurants' founder Silla Bjerrum. "The noodle salad is a great substitute for pasta salad." Making your own noodles, she says, is possible – if a little tricky. "It's very similar to making pasta." Indeed, Demetre uses buckwheat for just that – as a basis for ravioli, stuffed with goat's cheese, spring greens and lemon.

Rice

"Basmati rice is wonderful, but there's so much more out there too," says Whole Foods Market's Cooke. "The big thing for us at the moment is sprouted rice – it's sprouted for a set period and then dried. The process releases more nutrients, which means it is similar to normal rice in texture and flavour – though slightly nuttier – but much healthier. It's really popular across the Far East and has become more so in the US and the UK."

If you can't find sprouted rice, brown rice is stocked in virtually every grocery store and has a lot to recommend it – both in terms of health benefits and flavour. "In fact, if you want to make sushi at home and you don't have much time, brown rice is better than regular sushi rice as it's much more durable and requires less preparation," explains Bjerrum. "When I first started using it, I just used normal, short-grain rice but now you get the special unpolished version for sushi. I'll just cook it in the way I might do basmati, then put a tiny bit of sushi vinegar in with some olive oil and let it cool in the pot. You can use it to make maki rolls – the nutty, slightly sweet flavour is really delicious. I like to add a few poppy seeds, too."

Millet and amaranth

"Millet is an absolutely lovely grain," says Cooke. Small and yellow, it's not as soft as quinoa, and has the somewhat dubious distinction of being the primary preserve of the uber-health-conscious, thanks to its high concentration of vitamin B, calcium, iron and zinc. "It's got a lot else going for it besides being healthy! I make a delicious millet risotto, which is a great simple supper. It's so straightforward, you just cook it as you would rice. Likewise, it's terrific in salads." Indeed in India it is ground and used to make flatbread, while variations on millet porridge, both sweet and savoury, can be found across Russia, Germany and China.

Similar to millet, amaranth – rich in iron, magnesium, phosphorus, and manganese – remains relatively unknown among even the most experienced of cooks. It's popular in Mexico, where it is served popped like popcorn and mixed with chocolate – though, like quinoa and millet, can also be the basis of salad, porridges and risottos.

Semolina and couscous

Semolina – long the stuff of school-dining notoriety – is, these days, more likely to used for coating fish and introducing texture to biscuits than for being boiled into lumpy submission. Still, semolina pudding remains something of a classic across northern Europe, served as it is with jam and fruit. And, of course, semolina is responsible for that summertime staple: couscous, made by sprinkling semolina with water and rolling it into pellets.

Spotted on every barbecue table across Britain circa 1997, couscous doesn't have to be quinoa's boring cousin. Bjerrum brings an eastern edge to her couscous salad by introducing edamame beans as well as "toasted seeds, nuts, and maybe even some organic tofu". Made with wheat, semolina is firmly off-limits for coeliacs, although it remains a healthy choice for others, sitting low on the glycemic index, and boasting high levels of vitamin B.

Buckwheat Ravioli filled with Goat's Cheese, Spring Green and Lemon. Sweet tomato vinaigrette

Buckwheat pasta

kilo buckwheat flour
250ml egg yolk
50ml milk
2 pinches of salt

Make the pasta by bringing all the ingredients together, cling film and chill for 1 hour

Ravioli mix

750g spring greens – nettles, borage, garlic leaves
200g goat's curd cheese
50ml olive oil
1 tbsp chopped mint
2 lemons – zest and juice
Nutmeg
Salt and pepper

Wilt the spring greens down with the olive oil and lemon juice. Strain the greens, hand chop to a coarse pulp. When cool, incorporate the goat's curd, chopped mint, nutmeg and salt andpepper. Chill until completely cold and this is the filling for your ravioli

Sweet tomato

1kg San Marzano tomatoes – chopped finely
4 cloves garlic – grated
1 tbsp dried oregano
100ml olive oil
1 tbsp sugar
Salt and pepper

Cook this out for about an hour until you have a thick tomato relish. Add more olive oil if need be – this will be your vinaigrette

Finish with grated Parmesan and green salad leaves of your choice

Salad of quinoa, beetroot, sunflower, pumpkin seeds and pomegranate

150g cooked beetroot (you could add different varieties if you like)
50g cooked quinoa
2 tbsp pumpkin seeds
2 tbsp sunflower seeds
4 tbsp pomegranate seeds
1 Lemon
Splash of good-quality red-wine vinegar
Olive oil
50ml Grilled rapeseed oil, or good-quality normal rapeseed oil
Salad leaves (ideally sweet and bitter)
Salt and pepper
Castor sugar

Warm the beetroot slightly and drizzle with olive oil, red-wine vinegar, sugar and salt to taste. You are aiming for a sweet and sour effect. Lightly colour (golden brown) the pumpkin and sunflower seeds in the grilled rapeseed oil, add the cooked quinoa and pomegranate into the seeds and oil. Season with salt, pepper and lemon juice. Place the beetroot on the plate, and spoon over the quinoa etc, scatter over the sweet and bitter salad leaves, and serve.

Comments