Most of us depend on rice, pasta and potatoes as side-dish standbys.
However, there’s a world of other interesting grains out there to explore: couscous, quinoa, barley and bulghur, for example. They provide that carbohydrate kick with a twist, and a different texture or flavor is always worth a try. This guide will explain the differences between various grains, and try to inspire you to try something new.
Bulghur, a form of wheat, is the base of taboule salad.
A Middle-Eastern staple and the base of taboule salad, Bulghur refers to wheat kernels that have been boiled, dried and crushed. It is available in fine, medium and coarse grinds.
How to cook it: Put one cup of bulghur in a small pot with one and a half cups of water. Bring to a boil and then cover and turn heat down to a low setting. Cook for 15 minutes.
How to use it: Bulghur is good in salads, pilafs and meat and vegetable dishes.
The spongy texture of couscous goes well with stews and saucy dishes.
Native to North African countries, couscous is a grain that’s often served with meat and vegetable stews. Its soft, spongy texture really absorbs sauce or liquid. Couscous granules come from semolina, which is the form of wheat that goes into making pasta. The great thing about couscous is that it takes six minutes to cook. Here’s startcooking.com’s tutorial on How to Make Couscous.
Quinoa is great in savory dishes and as an alternative to oatmeal.
Photo courtesy of Susan at Feasts and Fotos.
A grain native to the Andes, quinoa grains are actually the seeds of a leafy plant. Quinoa has a distinctive crunchy texture, and a slightly nutty flavor. In terms of nutrition, quinoa is rich in protein and it’s gluten-free. Look for quinoa in health food stores.
How to cook it: Bring one part of quinoa and two parts of liquid to a boil. Cover and simmer for 15 minutes, until the grains are transparent.
How to use it: Quinoa is great as a warm side dish, mixed with seasonings and beans. It’s also good in salads, like this Quinoa and Black Bean Salad. For those looking for a change from oatmeal, here’s a recipe for Quinoa Porridge.
Barley (also known as groats)
Barley can be used as a base for many side dishes, including Pea Barley Risotto.
Photo courtesy of Kevin Lynch at Closet Cooking.
This grain, which comes from the grass family, is well known for its high fiber and health benefits. It’s important to remember to buy whole barley (or hulled barley), as opposed to pearl barley, which has been processed and is not considered to be whole grain. Barley is well-known as an addition to soups and stews, but its chewy texture also makes it a great side dish.
How to Cook it: Use 2.5 to 3 cups of water per cup of hulled barley. Bring the water to a boil, then add the barley, cover the pot, reduce heat to low and cook for about 1.5 hours.
This Beef, Leek and Barley Soup from Smitten Kitchen, delicious!
Grandma’s Grain Recipe, makes a big batch of mixed, cooked grains that you can use to make hot cereal, or as a savory side dish.
Brown rice is chewier, nuttier and healthier than white rice.
Startcooking has tutorials on making white rice, brown rice and fried rice on the stove. It’s also possible to bake rice in the oven, as this recipe for Oven-baked Brown and wild Rice demonstrates. Keep in mind that brown rice is the healthiest choice.
This is actually a kind of seed, rather than a grain. It’s got a hearty, chewy texture and is even healthier than brown rice, containing lots of protein, calcium, iron and potassium.
How to cook it: Cook one cup of wild rice with three cups of water. Bring the water to a boil, cover and simmer over low heat for 35 to 55 minutes (or until the water is absorbed).
How to Use it: Wild rice makes an excellent warm side dish, and is also delicious in cold salads. Pioneer Woman serves up an excellent tutorial for Fresh Corn With Wild Rice – a side dish she recommends for Thanksgiving.
What are Whole Grains?
Eating grains in their whole grain form (as opposed to their processed form) has been shown to have a host of health benefits. Studies report that regular consumption of whole grains reduces risk of heart disease, stroke, cancer and obesity. Refining processes typically remove 25 per cent of the typical grain’s protein and many other nutrients are lost.
Tips on Cooking Grains
- Although most grains will have cooking instructions on the package, here’s a handy guide to grain cooking times.
- Toasting grains before cooking will make them more flavorful. To toast the grains, spread them out in an even layer in a frying pan and heat for a few minutes. Stir them so that they don’t burn.
- Grains can be cooked in water or broth, or a combination of the two.
- Cooked grains keep for 3 to 4 days in the fridge.
- You can freeze any leftovers to use later.
Before you choose the shape and size of pasta you want to cook, you will need to decide if you are going to buy either dry, fresh or frozen pasta.
Dry pasta is the most readily available type and can be found in boxes or bags on the grocery store shelf. It can be stored for up to a year. Some folks think dry pasta is a supermarket invention, but it has actually been preserved and sold this way in Italy for centuries. It takes longer to cook dry pasta (usually 10-12 minutes) than it does to cook fresh pasta. There are many different brands of dry pasta on supermarket shelves, as well as plenty of gourmet dry pastas, in all kinds of shapes and colors.
Fresh pasta is found in the refrigerator section of the grocery store. It can also be found in many specialty shops, nestled in a protective layer of semolina flour. Fresh pasta is in a semi-dry state, but still considered fresh. In many supermarkets, it is common to see fresh pasta in a clear plastic container. Fresh pasta cooks quickly — it usually takes 4-6 minutes to get it al dente. If unopened, a package of fresh pasta can typically be stored in the refrigerator for a few weeks, or in the freezer for a month. (Be sure to check the “sell by” date before buying fresh pasta.) Keep in mind that if frozen, it will require a few extra minutes of cooking.
Frozen pasta has been flash-frozen to lock in the flavor. Gourmet shops usually sell it in small cartons offering exotic flavors like lobster ravioli. But these days you can also find frozen pasta at the supermarket. Bagged frozen pasta meals require about 10 minutes of cooking. Some include chicken or meat, veggies and a sauce, which can make a full-fledged meal in minutes.
No matter which pasta you end up going with, the golden rule is not to overcook it. Fresh pasta turns into a mushy mess when overdone; dry pasta gets gummy if it is undercooked — so be sure to watch your pasta as it boils and follow the directions on the package. Before draining the boiling water, taste your pasta to make sure it is tender and properly cooked.
Be sure to check out startcooking.com’s pasta roundup for some great tips and recipes!
Who can resist the lure of a bowl of salted mixed nuts?
Or the fun of cracking open peanuts in the shell?
The buttery crunch of nuts can take dishes from ordinary to extraordinary. Cooked green beans, for example, become much more appetizing when sprinkled with a handful of toasted, slivered almonds.
Although they can be addictive, nuts have a number of health benefits (see calorie, fat and protein chart at the bottom of this post), and have been shown to help keep cholesterol in check. There’s no problem with eating them regularly, if you limit your intake to one to two ounces per day and stick to the unsalted kind. As an alternative to eating them straight-up as a snack, nuts add flavor and texture to all kinds of other foods: salad, yogurt, cereal, stir-fries, rice or pasta. It’s a good idea to keep walnuts or pecans on hand for baking; they’re great in chocolate chip cookies and brownies.
From Brazil nuts to pistachios, there are a lot of nuts to choose from. This post will help identify when to use what kind of nuts, as well as how to store, toast and chop them.
How to Store Nuts
Although they may look like a non-perishable food item, nuts can go rancid quickly because of their fat content. Shelled nuts go off faster than those still in their shells, and the packages do have best before dates stamped on them. It’s a good idea to store nuts in the fridge or the freezer. Sources vary on how long nuts keep, but one rule of thumb is:
- A month at room temperature
- Up to six months in the fridge
- Up to one year in the freezer
Nuts should be kept in a non-metal, airtight container. Even a resealable freezer bag will do the trick.
How to Toast Nuts
Just like bread, nuts taste better toasted. The heat brings out their sweetness and makes them crunchier. Startcooking.com covers how to toast nuts in the post on pine nuts. If you like sprinkling toasted nuts on various dishes, it’s a good idea to roast a few cups so that you have them on hand to use later.
When toasting nuts, don’t take your eyes off the pan! They burn quickly.
How to Chop Nuts
Although it’s possible to buy nuts already chopped, there are several ways to chop them yourself.
- One way to do it is to get out a chopping board, a sharp serrated edge knife and start chopping. Hold the handle of the knife in one hand, and the hold the tip of the knife to the chopping board with the other hand. As you chop, move the handle-end of the knife back and forth over the nuts so that you get them all. Keep gathering the nuts back into a mound and going over them with the knife until they’re the right size.
- An easier way to chop nuts is not to chop them at all! Put the nuts in a resealable bag and roll over the bag with a rolling pin, or crush the nuts with a kitchen mallet or hammer. This is a fast, mess-free way to get the job done! Plus, it’s a fast way to chop large quantities.
- Another way to chop or grind nuts is to put them in the blender or food processor in small batches. Pulse (turn the machine on and off quickly) several times until the nuts are the desired size. This is a fast way to get the job done, but may result in uneven chopping.
Now, let’s go meet all those nuts!
This shot shows (from left) almonds in the shell, whole, sliced, slivered and ground.
Almonds are packed with all kinds of nutrients, including protein, calcium, fiber, riboflavin and magnesium. Almonds are among the drier, crunchier nuts. Enjoy them whole as a healthy snack, or try them blanched or slivered and sprinkled on salads or cooked vegetables. Cooking For Engineers offers a nice photo-tutorial on Asparagus with Almonds. Ground almonds or almond paste (marzipan) may be called for in dessert recipes.
Here are some of the different forms of almonds and what they’re best suited for:
- Whole natural: Great for snacking
- Dry roasted: These are also meant for snacking, but their rich flavor works well in some recipes, like in this Green Pea and Smoked Almond Salad.
- Blanched: These almonds are typically whole, but have the skins removed. They’re often used as garnish.
- Slivered: These almonds have been sliced into thin slivers, but still have lots of crunch. They’re great to use as toppings on dishes like salads, pasta or cooked vegetables.
- Sliced: These are also used as toppings in savory dishes, but are also often used to top cakes, muffins and pastries. They’re sliced thinly, so they don’t offer much crunch.
- Ground: Ground almonds can be added to a breading mixture that goes on meat or fish, or added to a smoothie. You can make your own ground almonds by putting almonds in the blender or food processor.
You can buy peanuts in the shell, unshelled, whole, salted, unsalted, roasted, chopped or chocolate covered! We probably consume peanuts most often in the form of peanut butter. Peanuts can be used in a wide range of sweet and savory recipes, including recipes like Chicken in Lettuce Cups. Like almonds, they make a great topping for all kinds of dishes; chopped peanuts are often used as a topping in Thai dishes and Asian stir fries.
These nuts are higher than any others in terms of their Omega-3 fatty acid content and have been shown to lower bad cholesterol. Chopped walnuts are often called for in cookie, bar and loaf recipes, and are often paired with maple flavor in desserts (such as maple walnut ice cream!). Walnuts can also be used in coatings for fish or meat. As turkey time approaches, keep in mind this recipe for Cranberry Relish with Walnuts and Mandarin Oranges. Walnut oil is an expensive, but elegant, base for a salad dressing.
Their taste is similar to walnuts, but sweeter and richer because of their high fat content. Pecans are great eaten on their own, or when used in salads, like this Pear and Blue Cheese Salad. They can substitute for walnuts in baking recipes and are, of course, the central ingredient in Pecan Pie.
These large, crescent-shaped nuts are mainly exported from Bolivia, rather than Brazil. The seeds of the Brazil nut tree are very high in the antioxidant selenium. They’re not called for in everyday recipes, but often show up in nut mixes or fruit cake.
Somehow, it’s so satisfying to pop a pistachio out of its shell and eat it. And then another. And another. These nuts have really been around the block: they originated in the Middle East, were mentioned in the Bible, and even have an ice cream flavor dedicated to them. Home cooks can use shelled pistachios to top rice or other dishes the same way they would with other nuts. They can also be used instead of pine nuts as the base of pesto and in sweets, like these Pistachio and White Chocolate Chip Cookies. Those that are sick and tired of being thwarted by pistachios whose shells are only open a crack will enjoy this tutorial that shows how to open them.
So buttery and soooooo addictive … we have all probably indulged in a handful (or two) of cashews over cocktails. Cashew lovers can also get their fix at Asian restaurants, where Chicken with Cashews may be on the menu. Try adding cashews to your own stir-fries.
Hazelnuts (aka filberts) are more likely to be used in a dessert than a main dish, although they add an elegant touch to all kinds of foods. The combination of hazelnut and chocolate is widely enjoyed in the form of Nutella. The skins of hazelnuts taste bitter, and many recipes require that the skins be removed.
(The Hazelnut Council has some really great looking recipes with photos on their site.) For a really great treat, try Nutella Crepes (video) or Nutella Dessert Dip – they are amazing!
These nuts have a sweet, creamy crunch, and they’re great to keep on hand to sprinkle on salads or pasta. They’re also a key ingredient in pesto.
Startcooking.com has covered the basics of pine nuts, including a photo tutorial on how to toast them which is a toasting method that can be applied to toasting all nuts.
Nutrients in nuts per 1.5 ounces (43 grams)
Source: Harvard Medical School 2010
Report of the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee