The desire for more sustainable menu options. The quest for cleaner eating. And, as always, the search for the best-tasting, most satisfying foods possible. All of these factors play a part in the current whole grain renaissance happening in many culinary settings. With September being National Whole Grain month, we dove into what chef and author, Robin Asbell has to say about whole grains. “Whole grains aren’t stripped of their bran or germ, so they have a lot of flavor and texture, and they stand on their own against other hearty flavors,” says Asbell, “chefs and bakers are really getting on board with how delicious they are.”
Versatile and profitable
Asbell says many operators appreciate versatility of an ingredient that can be a workhorse in dishes during all dayparts. “Another great feature is their sturdiness,” she says. “If you make ahead and reheat a whole grain risotto or soup made with whole grains, the grains will maintain their flavor and won’t turn to mush, the way white grains do.” Grains like farro, whole rye and wheat berries are especially good for big-batch make-aheads and freezer storage. “Thaw them in the refrigerator and they’ll hold their texture beautifully,” she says.
Cheaper whole grains can be the perfect base for more expensive protein dishes. Use a plate of quinoa or black rice as the background for a more expensive cut of protein while still allowing diners to feel satisfied and nourished by the meal.
Asbell is seeing sprouted grain flour turn up in many baked items: “Sprouted version of grains are higher in vitamins and minerals, and are more digestible.” Also on her up-and-comer list: sorghum (“a whole grain without bitterness”), freekeh (“slightly smoky, interesting flavor”) and even a resurgence in old-fashioned porridge. She points to the popularity of Brooklyn Porridge Co., a pop-up cafe in Park Slope, Brooklyn, now seeking a permanent home. It has porridge choices including “The Kimcheelicious” with Napa cabbage kimchee and sunflower, “The Piggy Pumpkin” with maple-bourbon ham and spiced pumpkin and “The Sticky Toffee Crunch” with raw toffee, cinnamon-browned plantains, stewed apples and crushed hazelnuts.
Tips from the whole grain pro
“You may not realize how much your customers actually want a whole grain option, but when they see it on your menu, it will build loyalty,” Asbell says. “Just be sure never to use the word ‘healthy’ to describe your new dishes. Describe them as ‘gourmet,’ ‘heritage’ or ‘ancient,’ instead.”