No mere compendium of recipes for bread and granola—although these are there, and they’re full of flavor and surprise—Maria Speck’s Ancient Grains for Modern Meals (Ten Speed Press, $29.99) exudes gourmet appeal.
Imagine saffron waffles (made with whole wheat) with orange cream; fig muffins (made with whole wheat) with goat cheese filling; fire-roasted tomato stew with eggplant and farro; acorn squash soup (made with rolled oats) with spicy yogurt topping; leek salad with grilled haloumi cheese and rye berries; amaranth walnut cookies with brandy. A standout is quinoa cakes with smoked trout and lime mayonnaise; another is artichoke-rosemary tart with polenta crust.
Speck’s own origins are Greek and German, and her husband’s roots are Indian and African. So her unpretentiously but profoundly educated sense of food spans the world, running from northern Europe to the Mediterranean and enhanced by strains of influence from Asia, Africa and the Middle East. These are areas with deep culinary traditions in which grains are extremely important, and their roles are more varied and versatile than in American cooking traditions.
Say “whole grain”and we think first of brown things: whole wheat bread, which is usually a misnomer, or oatmeal. Those wholesome foods have their place in Speck’s book, but with delicious elaborations. “I have saut?ed whole oats,” she writes, “as a pilaf with onions, currants, and toasted hazelnuts, topped with a curried cream sauce&”
In her book, grains appear in a startling variety of colors—toasty light brown, pearly white, warm yellow, rose, chocolate, burgundy—and of flavors; sweet, sharp or cinnamon-infused flavors as well as the warm, nutty taste of familiar breads and cereals.
And the recipes are only the beginning. As a genre, cookbooks tend to be written by people who are enthusiastic about what they are doing, but the love of the subject that illuminates every word of Ancient Grains for Modern Meals is exceptional. So is the companionship Speck offers the reader, whom she envisions as, like herself (or so she says), sometimes rushed, sometimes tired, sometimes without a key ingredient, sometimes unfamiliar with a certain cooking technique.
For all these situations she offers sympathy, tips and suggestions, including suggestions about substitutions, either because the reader is out of a certain ingredient or prefers a slightly modified version or the dish. Ways of preparing not only the grains, but the supporting ingredients in the dishes, are explained from the ground up: how to remove seeds from pomegranates, how to toast nuts, how to make citrus zest. Tips on buying and storing grains are also provided.
The user-friendliness of the book is enhanced by Speck’s down-to-earth, modest voice. Experience enriches her instructions, and we see her as a cook not immune to error. “When cooking steel-cut oats,” she informs us, “I never seem to be able to get the temperature right. The oats boil over and I’m left with a veritable mess on the stove.”(The lesson she offers: parboil the oats the night before.)
Speck’s writing about the tastes, textures and colors of grains, together with Sara Remington’s beautiful full-color photographs, makes the book a sensory delight. Aromas are not overlooked; in fact, Speck emphasizes that the senses of smell and touch (the hand is actually listed as one of her essential kitchen tools) are indispensable to create the perfect texture, and to be certain that all the ingredients in a dish are singing. This Kamut salad is typical of the simple but opulent dishes that make Ancient Grains for Modern Meals (available in Northampton at Cooks Shop Here) a refreshing contribution to the culinary library.
Kamut Salad with Carrots and Pomegranate
(Serves 4 to 6)
Across the Middle East, cinnamon is used not only to highlight the flavor of sweets but also in savory dishes—as in this Moroccan-inspired carrot salad. I toss it here with slender Kamut berries, which contribute their distinct buttery chew. Try it next to steak, grilled lamb, or a simple roast chicken.
1 cup water
1/2 cup Kamut berries, soaked overnight and drained
Salad, and to finish
2 1/2 cups shredded carrots (about 3 medium)
1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons golden raisins
3 tablespoons freshly squeezed orange juice
1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 teaspoon honey
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon fine sea salt
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1/4 cup toasted, chopped walnuts
1/4 cup pomegranate seeds, for garnish (optional)
1. To prepare the Kamut, bring the water and the Kamut berries to a boil in a small heavy-bottomed saucepan. Decrease the heat to maintain a simmer, cover, and cook until the Kamut berries are tender but still slightly chewy, 50 to 60 minutes. Remove from the heat and, if you have time, let it sit, covered, for 10 to 15 minutes. Drain any remaining liquid and transfer to a large serving bowl to cool.
2. Once the Kamut has cooled, make the salad. Add the carrots and golden raisins to the serving bowl. In a small bowl, whisk together the orange and lemon juices, honey, cinnamon, and salt until smooth. Gradually whisk in the olive oil in a thin stream.
3. To finish, pour the dressing over the salad and toss to combine. Taste and adjust for salt. Let sit at room temperature for 15 minutes to allow the flavors to come together. Toss again before serving; sprinkle with the walnuts and garnish with the pomegranate seeds.
To get a head start:
Make the Kamut berries, as in step 1, ahead [of time]. In a hurry on the day of a party? The salad (without the walnuts and pomegranate seeds) can be prepared 4 to 6 hours ahead. Chill, covered. Bring to room temperature before serving.
You can use about 1 1/2 cups cooked farro, spelt, or hard or soft wheat berries if Kamut is hard to find.