Peasant Food: Whole grains (they're not just for hippies!)

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As I pointed out in a few earlier posts, grains and starches can not only provide fiber and nutrients, but help stretch out more expensive ingredients like meats and cheese. One downside, of course, is that refined grains and peeled potatoes tend to be low in fiber and nutrients. They can cause a spike in your glycemic index and are easily converted to fat. This does not mean, however, that you should abandon grains and starches. If you are looking for a healthier carbohydrate that will provide a delicious and nutritious filler at your table, why not consider whole grains?

Basically, whole grains are cereals, such as wheat, oats, and rice, that still have their bran, or outer covering, and germ, or nutrient-rich core. Most grains in the United States are stripped of the bran and germ, which makes them smoother and enables quicker absorbtion of their carbohydrates, but also lessens their flavor, fiber, and nutritional value. Whole grains and whole-grain products are harder to find and sometimes cost a little more than refined grains, but they are also delicious and much better for you. Here are a few examples of whole-grains that you can easily work into your diet:

Brown Rice

In popular culture, brown rice is often associated with waif-like, starving models, who traditionally consume it with steamed vegetables as a sort of borderline-anorexic taste treat. The reality is much more appealing: brown rice is a robust, somewhat chewy grain with a slightly nutty flavor. Like white rice, it is a great accompaniment to Asian food and a fantastic base for dishes like fried rice or even paella. However, unlike white rice, it retains all of its original nutrients, including B vitamins, iron, magnesium, fatty acids, and fiber. It improves digestion and, according to some studies, may actually help lower cholesterol.

Traditionally, Asian cultures associate brown rice with poverty, as it was largely consumed by the lower classes and was used as a staple during times of famine. This is ironic; these days, it actually costs a little more than traditional white rice, owing to the fact that it's harder to transport and has a shorter shelf-life.

Brown rice is prepared in much the same way as white rice, although it requires a little more water and takes longer to cook. To make it, you should bring 2.5 cups of water to a rolling boil in a saucepan, drop in one cup of rice, stir, drop the heat to low and cover. It will take about 45 minutes to cook.

Whole-Grain Breads and Flours

The most obvious whole-grain product is whole-wheat bread. Generally associated with hippies and nutrition fanatics, whole-wheat bread is actually a misnomer. In point of fact, bread made solely from whole-wheat flour tends to be unappetizingly dense. Most "whole-wheat" bread, then, is made of a mixture of whole-wheat flour and white flour. The same is also true of pumpernickel and rye breads, both of which are often whole-grain.

Whole-grain breads have traditionally been associated with poverty and the lower classes. Again, this is particularly ironic, given the fact that whole-grain breads and flours currently cost a little more than refined and bleached ones. Moreover, as producers try to make whole-grain breads more palatable to the general public, they sometimes undermine their healthy qualities; one major recent trend is to sweeten whole-grain breads with high fructose corn syrup. While this gives the bread a mealier texture, not unlike spongy white bread, it can also cause a glycemic spike and carries a lot of undigestible sugars. To avoid this problem, read the ingredients carefully; some of Pepperidge Farms and Arnold's breads are hfcs free. Alternately, you might try shopping at a privately-owned bakery, as they rarely use hfcs.

Oatmeal

When most people think of oats, they imagine the beatifically-smiling face that beams from the box of Quaker Instant Oats. While the delicious little packets of Quaker oats are a relatively nutritious breakfast staple, they also tend to be somewhat pricey. To cut down on the costs of oatmeal, you might try buying the big, round boxes of instant oats and cooking them in the microwave.

Another downside of rolled oats is that they often have the bran removed, which supposedly reduces their nutritional value. Another, less-adulterated option is steel-cut oats. Unlike rolled oats, which are steamed and then smushed by rollers, steel-cut oats are coarsely chopped and then packaged. The most common brand is McCann's Irish Oats. To prepare steel-cut oats, bring four cups of water to a boil, throw in one cup of oats, and stir until the oats have absorbed the water. If you want to save time, you can prepare steel-cut oats in the evening, then let them sit overnight.

One huge benefit of using steel-cut or unflavored instant oats is that you can add your favorite ingredients, rather than relying on Quaker to provide you with a flavor that you like. If you haven't ever gone beyond the well-travelled flavors of maple and brown sugar, you might want to try cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, honey, freshly-chopped fruit, and raisins.

On another note, according to McCann's website, you can use steel-cut oats to prepare a wide variety of savory dishes, including tabbouleh, risotto, pilaf, and fish cakes. I haven't tried these recipes, but they seem interesting, particularly the tabbouleh. Regardless, oatmeal is a nutritious and tasty, and can help lower your cholesterol. Try finding a refined grain that can say the same!

"Peasant food: Whole grains" is part of a series on nutritious, inexpensive foods. If you enjoyed it, you might want to check out "Peasant food: How potatoes saved the world," "Peasant food: Behold the lowly bean," "Peasant cuisine: Using traditional tricks to cut your food budget," and "Cook in bulk and give the chef the night off!" Alternately, if you have any suggestions for future "Peasant food" topics, please contact the author at bruce.watson@weblogsinc.com.

Bruce Watson is a freelance writer, blogger, and co-author of Military Lessons of the Gulf War and A Chronology of the Cold War at Sea.


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