Responding to consumer interest and fanning their own creative interests, more chefs and operators add whole grains to their menus.
The results are varied, delicious and healthful.
Touted by health-food enthusiasts as vitamin-packed superfoods and deemed essential by nutritionists, whole grains suffer a bit under the weight of those high-minded dietary ideals. But one meal with Chef Jason Bond quickly shakes off any sense that whole grains are boring, bland and heavy staples of dull dining. At Bondir, his fine-dining restaurant with locations in Concord and Cambridge, Mass., tiny little freckled bits of amaranth, toasted and then popped, are sprinkled on a salad of beets, roasted squash, shishito leaves and rye berries. Teff polenta is topped with celeriac “risotto,” quail egg and mustard snow. Warthog wheat, a hard, red winter wheat, is smoked and ground in-house to use for bread. On Monday Burger Nights, there is always the option for guests to swap out meat for a whole-grain patty.
“We use tons of whole grains here. If I had to guess, I’d say we have at least 24 kinds in the kitchen that we use on a daily basis,” Bond says.
Bond is hardly alone as he applies his culinary hand to whole grains. Kelly Toups, project manager for the whole grains council of Oldways, says consumer interest is growing; a 2015 survey of 1,500 adults conducted by the Boston-based food and nutrition organization supports the claim; nearly one-third of those polled said that they choose whole grain products whenever they are available. At the Culinary Institute of America’s Healthy Menus R&D Collaborative held last year, Toups says that fully 100% of chefs who attended agree that whole grains are here to stay. She also notes that much of the chefs’ interest is in whole grains that are served intact rather than those that are ground and used as flour. A 2015 Food & Health Survey by the International Food Information Council founds that fully 70% of consumers are trying to incorporate more whole grains into their diets. And finally, the National Restaurant Association’s Food Trends Survey for 2015, with data collected from 1,300 professional chefs, placed natural and minimally processed foods fifth on the hot list. Further down but still notable: non-wheat pasta, healthful meals, ancient gains, quinoa and ethnic flours were named as trends to watch.
On his menus that flaunt sophisticated, refined ingredients such as fresh striped bass, duck breast, wild porcini and matsutake mushrooms, Bondir’s Bond sees no reason that humble, hearty whole grains can’t fit right into that realm. “Our cuisine is ingredient based. Fine dining means celebrating really good ingredients and in that regard, all foods are equal if they have integrity,” he says, adding that grains play important parts in many compositions. “To make a balanced dish, we look for flavor, texture and color, and whole grains can add those elements, bringing a sense of completion to our dishes,” he says.
Grains play a larger role for Bond, supporting his ethos as a chef. “I want to do more than just feed people. With grains, we support small growers who are doing great things and also introduce our guests to interesting foods, things that are healthy and good.” Whole grains have already made inroads into chain restaurants. Toups is quick to recite names of large restaurant companies that menu them. “Dunkin' Donuts has whole-grains bagels. Pei Wei and Genghis Grill offer brown rice as an alternate to white. So does P.F. Chang’s; there, brown rice sales are pretty close to catching up with white rice. Chipotle has whole-wheat burritos and Subway often has whole-wheat bread as an option. Health and wellness is more main-stream and chains realize that,” she says.
“Consumer interest is definitely out there. It’s not a hard sell at all.”
A to T Grain Guide
Use this guide to get to know our grainy friends a little better with ideas on how to use them in the kitchen.
A small, peppery, protein-packed (13% to 14%) gluten-free, South American grain. Can be used in cereal, granola, bread, pancakes and pilaf.
The Ballantyne Hotel, Charlotte, N.C. lunch entrée: Vegetable quesadilla with roasted vegetables, local Jack cheese, tomato jam and salad of amaranth and quinoa.
Almost all barley sold is pearled barley, with the outer bran removed so technically it isn’t a whole grain although it is fiber-rich and healthful. Hulled barley has more bran intact but is slow to cook. Given patience, the result is an agreeably chewy and flavorful grain that can be used in soups, stews, salads and pilafs.
Birch & Barley, Pullman, Wash. Beef and barley soup.
Okay, it’s really not a grain—it’s a kin to rhubarb but it cooks and acts like grain. It long has been used in pancakes, Japanese soba noodles, kasha and some crepes.
Fontaine Caffee and Creperie, Alexandria, Virginia: Zenist buckwheat-flour crepes filled with lentils, spinach and tomatoes in coriander, coconut and curry sauce.
Also called emmer wheat, this is one of the oldest varieties of grain, one of the first to be domesticated. It is common in Ethiopia and increasingly seen in Italian regional cuisine where it is valued for making pasta and in soups.
The Obstinate Daughter, Sullivan’s Island, S.C.: Farro Piccolo: Whole-grain farro with Brussels sprouts, peanuts, balsamic and truffle.
Hard wheat that’s harvested before it is fully mature and then roasted, a process than lends a earthy, smoky flavor. Most typical in Middle Eastern and North African cuisines.
Mediterranean Exploration Company, Portland, Ore.: Warm freekeh salad with chanterelle mushrooms, roasted squash and pistachio oil.
A small, bead-like grain with a nutty taste and crunchy texture; quite edible and used in many world cuisines including India, China and South America, it also is a key ingredient in bird seed. It can be used in bread, pancakes, porridge, stew and rice dishes.
A&J Restaurant Rockville, Maryland: Millet and corn congee.
The Peruvian native is a protein-powered success story, the small grains showing up on an increasing number of menus. There are several varieties and all pretty much cook the same. It is used in salads, cereal blends, pilafs, stuffing and side dishes.
Lyfe Kitchen, multiple locations: Quinoa crunch wrap or bowl with quinoa tabbouleh, crunchy vegetables, avocado, edamame, hummus and hot sauce.
A variety of wheat that was largely left behind as farming mechanized. In its whole berry form it is somewhat milder in taste with natural sweetness. It can be ground and used in flour blends, cooked as a cereal or used in salads. In Italy, it is known as farro grande—big farro.
Mana Restaurant, New York City: Spelt pancakes.
Roughly the size of a poppy seed, this ancient Ethiopian grain, a type of cereal grass, is the smallest whole grain. Small can be mighty though and the nutty, mild-tasting grain is rich in calcium and protein. It can be cooked as a soft cereal and stirred into batters for baked goods.
Bondir, Concord, Mass.: Celeriac “risotto” with summer vegetable mignardises, teff polenta and mustard snow.
A relative newcomer, it is hybrid of durum wheat and rye. Hyped as a miracle crop when it first hit the scene, almost all world production is in Europe. It’s a natural for breads and other baked goods.
Lifeworks Restaurant Group, multiple locations: Triticale with peanuts and Asian seasonings.