Simply Ancient Grains – just don’t call it healthy

Click here to read an excerpt and buy directly from Random House

Click here to read an excerpt and buy directly from Random House

The mission of this book is unmistakable: to bring the diversity of flavors, textures and culinary potential of ancient grains back into our modern kitchens. Think about your pantry right now – how many different grains comprise the bulk of your diet? Most American’s will find corn and refined wheat flour, and little else. However, according to the Whole Grains Council, ancient grains like amaranth and teff are in demand. Korshan Wheat is basking in the limelight with a 686% increase in 2014 sales. Demand dictates supply, which (hopefully) means we will be seeing more Ancient Grains on the shelves.

“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” is the mantra of those who don’t care to venture beyond corn chips and Wonder bread. While you may not see any problem with such a myopic approach to nourishment, Maria Speck certainly does.

Why ancient grains?

Her first answer to “why ancient grains?” isn’t about nutrition (even though she does cite the fact that quinoa is a complete protein unto itself) or the environment (preserving biodiversity, and ancient grains are de facto non-GMO and organically grown) but about flavor. In Simply Ancient Grains, Maria Speck brings twenty-one unique grains to your table – many of which are increasingly available to American consumers. While not all the grains in this book are gluten-free, most of them naturally are. A full two-thirds of the recipes in this book are gluten-free, and the remaining recipes have gluten-free options.

“Burgundy bulgur with blueberries and orange blossom water” is the very definition of decadence…and Maria Speck would be serving this for breakfast. Garnished with Greek yogurt and pomegranate seeds not only makes this recipe visually stunning (the full-color close-up photos in this book will make your mouth water) but perhaps the most interesting dish you’ve held on your tongue. A little sour from the plain yogurt and orange zest, bright sweetness from the blueberries and honey, and creamy to the last bite.

The first thing that came to mind when looking at the recipe for “Freekeh soup with spicy harrisa shrimp and dates” was: what the heck is freekeh?! Luckily, there’s a complete listing in the beginning of the book of every ancient grain used in the recipes, a little history about where the grain came from, how they are best prepared (pre-soaking, washed or unwashed, etc.) and references to Maria’s favorite recipes with each grain.

What’s the big deal about gluten-free, anyway?

I’ve wondered at this most of my life – coming of age during the Atkins fad that made “carbs the enemy”, having to avoid yeast (especially breads and pastries) like the devil when I was fighting Candida, travelling to Europe in 2004 where they truly believed all Americans were stark-raving mad for criminalizing carbohydrates; and now I scratch my head and wonder why all my friends insist on gluten-free lifestyles for their families. Simply Ancient Grains answers the gluten question from both sides.

First, did you know gluten intolerance was nearly unheard-of until the 1950’s? Is it any coincidence that the advent of GMOs and bleached flours coincide with an inability to properly digest these mutated and poisoned grains? Given this hypothesis (which really does make perfect sense to me…) I am so grateful for the wise seed-keepers of the world for continuing to sew and harvest grains the way our ancestors have for centuries – chaff be damned. Maria presents her lucky readers with a smorgasbord of traditional recipes from her Greek and German heritage that are naturally, completely gluten-free.

Just don’t call it healthy

It seems Maria Speck doesn’t have much time to indulge in diet fads, nutritional hype, or scientific data. She trusts her palate and her gut – and the thousands of years that humans have been eating, enjoying and thriving on these dense and delicious grains. Simply ancient grains is the beginner’s book of choice for folks (like myself) who don’t experiment too much in the kitchen, and who would rather eschew grains altogether (blasphemy!) than take the time to cook a pot of rice. In this book, we are reassured again and again: “you can do it!” We are given tips on overnight soaking, what grains cook faster, and making a big pot of grains on the weekend to enjoy in a variety of amazing recipes throughout the week.

My absolute favorite part about this book was her rant against the health fad associated with ancient grains. Why does something have to be labeled as “healthy” to be “good”? She cites an interesting study where participants were given a choice of two snack bars: one was labeled “healthy” the other was a “candy bar”. The participants who indulged in the candy bar reported feeling more satisfied for a longer period of time, whereas the ones who ate the “healthy” bar still felt hungry and often went for a second or third! Of course, it was the same bar with a different label.

This book is not for calorie counters, but it is for everybody else who wants to expand their palate and have a delightful guide into the wide world of ancient grains. I gratefully received this book from Blogging for Books for this review.

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