Wednesday, September 22, 2010

2 Recipe #175: Wheatberry & Chía Pilaf with Seasonal Vegetables & Fresh Basil

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Sometimes, the best way to get inspiration for new recipes is to be creative with what you already have in the fridge, versus going out to get more ingredients. Making the most of what you already have in your kitchen can lead to some pretty innovative creations, because, when push comes to shove, the mind usually tends to work better with limitations that provide a framework, versus nebulous & nonspecific ponderings of the eternal question, "Gee, what can I make for dinner?" :-D

"Gee, what do I make for dinner tonight?" ;)
At least this is how it often works for me. Other possible strategies include: brainstorming, tossing a coin (LOL!), or letting your stomach dictate your dinner plans, which, if you're REALLY hungry can have mixed results, or, should I say, "consequences." ;)  Regardless, the objective is to narrow down the bounty of ideas, & settle upon something that pleases the taste buds & doesn't expand the waistline. ;) Again, the first strategy is probably both the safest & the most practical. :) So, that's the one I chose for tonight's dinner. I looked in my fridge & cupboards and saw a big bag of wheatberry kernels that I had yet to use, some chía, lots of dried spices, a few fresh herbs (including the basil growing in my kitchen), a bottle of (chilled) dry white wine, a lemon, baby carrots, a lone potato, & half a red bell pepper left over from the other night's recipe. So why not try to create something out of that? Sure, why not. That'd do. :)

Plus, I'd been wanting to create some new recipes using wheatberries & chía for a while now, but just needed the proper inspiration. I know there are lots of people who have never cooked or baked with either before, and so, whenever I mention them to people, I get a lot of quizzical looks, as well as some rather interesting questions and comments. ;) One of the most popular questions is "What the heck are these things anyhow?" Haha.

So let's talk about wheatberries first: Wheatberries are those little things that sprout into wheat crops. :) They come in many different varieties: The array of different species cultivated in the US are durum, hard red spring, hard red winter, soft red winter, hard white, soft white, all of which have slightly different sizes, texture, flavors, & uses.

Did you know that all wheat products are actually made from wheatberries, including both white & whole wheat flour? More importantly, these crunchy little seeds are exceptionally healthy for you. First of all, they are unprocessed whole grain kernels, so their nutrients (vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals, etc.) remain intact, unlike flour or other processed wheat products, which lose much of their nutritional content after processing. Wheatberries contain all 3 parts of the grain - the bran, germ, & starchy endosperm. Only the hull, i.e., the inedible outer layer of the grain, has been removed. They are classed as a "superfood."

As for nutritional content, they are rich in vitamins A, B (i.e., B-complex vitamins), C, & E, manganese, selenium, phosphorus, and magnesium. They are also low in sodium & fat (3 mg. & 0.5 g. respectively, per 1/2 cup serving), and have zero cholesterol. (Of course, not surprisingly, wheatberries do contain gluten, so they're not suitable for people with wheat allergies or celiac disease.) Like chía, they are an excellent source of protein, carbs, & dietary fiber. Both grains are also low in calories: Wheatberries have 111 calories per 1/2 c. serving, while chía has 145 calories per 2 Tbsp. (These are typical serving amounts, & are also used in the below recipe, if you'd like to keep tabs on the amount of calories you'll be consuming in the below dish.)

Both chía & wheatberries have been used for weight management (in combination with a healthy, balanced diet) & lowering the risk of cardiovascular problems (i.e., heart disease, heart attack, stroke, etc.). Wheatberries also lower the risk of Type 2 diabetes & certain types of cancer: They contain lignans, phytochemicals that are thought to guard against breast & prostate cancer.

So what about chía's unique properties? Of the two varieties grown natively in Guatemala and central and southern Mexico, chía is known as either Salvia hispanica (i.e., dark brown or "black" chía, as it's called) or Salvia columbariae (often called "golden" or "white heirloom" chía). It's a member of the mint family, and has been cultivated since ancient times: Chía is thought to have been first grown by the Aztecs in the pre-Columbian era. And, not surprisingly, it's also a dietary staple of the modern Latin American diet.

Like wheatberries, chía is a whole (i.e., unprocessed), raw food, but unlike wheatberries, it's gluten-free, which, of course, is good news for those with wheat allergies or celiac disease. Another benefit of chía is that it can be eaten whole & uncooked with very little preparation, and due to its high level of antioxidants, can be stored for a very long time without spoiling. It's a hydrophilic colloid that's easily digestible, and thus, is good for the digestive system. It's also insoluble (i.e., it won't dissolve in water), and yet, can absorb up to 12 times its weight in water! So, it definitely needs to be soaked before it's consumed; otherwise it can actually dehydrate the body, leaching water from the stomach & intestinal tract. However, when added to water, it can aid in hydration, which is why it's often used by athletes to naturally enhance their performance. Runners often add chía to their drinks during long distance training runs & events, not only for hydration benefits, but also to provide extra energy (1 Tbsp. is said to provide 24 hours worth of energy!), bolster endurance, and prevent cramping.

What chía looks like in its gelled form.
After water is added to chía, it forms a gel-like consistency. Researchers believe that this same gel-forming phenomenon also takes place in the stomach, creating a physical barrier between carbohydrates & the digestive enzymes that break them down. This slows the conversion of carbohydrates into sugar as well as their absorption rate into the bloodstream. This process is what levels blood sugar, enhances endurance, creates satiety, & aids in intestinal regularity. Since chía metabolizes very slowly, it also helps to curb appetite. Due to its very low glycemic load (it has an index of 1!), it's especially good for diabetics & hypoglycemics. It also helps to improve thyroid functioning & fight fatigue, a common condition for those with thyroid problems. It helps lower cholesterol levels & chronic inflammation, & may also have cancer-fighting properties as well.

Chía is rich in amylose, (a slow-burning starch especially useful for hypoglycemics), low in saturated fat, & packed with a vast of array of vitamins & minerals -- especially calcium, phosphorus, & potassium. It's a complete protein, containing all 9 omino acids (with an unusually good ratio of Omega-3 to Omega-6 fatty acids), and has one of the highest ratios of Omega-3's of any plant source on the planet, even more than soy. It's got 15 times more magnesium than broccoli, 6 times more calcium than milk, 9 times the amount of calcium found in salmon, nearly 3 times more iron than spinach, & 2 times more fiber than bran flakes & yes, even more fiber than flax seeds. Plus, it's got one of the highest level of antioxidants ever measured, even greater than that of blueberries!

For all of these reasons, it has often been called the perfect food. Indeed, it is truly a "superfood," even though for some unbeknowst reason it seems to barely get a mention in the mainstream press as such, although it seems to have become more fashionable as of late in health-conscious circles.  I'm not quite sure why it's fallen below the radar amongst the general public: A lot of people I've talked with about it have never even heard of chía or weren't aware that you could actually eat it, aside from its obvious pop-culture associations in the American collective consciousness, i.e., the "Chía Pets" one might see advertised on late night TV. ;) (Yes, the grass that sprouts out of those "pets," does in fact, come from chía seeds!) As a member of the running community, I can tell you that chía is, in fact well-known as a superfood amongst nutritionists & people in the athletic community. In those spheres, chía's benefits have been widely touted to the skies. It's not unusual for chía to be a common topic of conversation, and several of my runner pals supplement their diet with this wonder seed.

To reap chía's full benefits, it's recommended that a person consume 2-4 Tbsp. per day.

So, enough about benefits & nutrition. Let's get to the important question you've all been wanting to know: What do chía & wheatberries taste like? ;) Well, wheatberries have a nutty flavor & are slightly chewy. When cooked, they soften & absorb the liquid of whatever they are cooked in. Chía is flavorless, and so, can be added to almost anything. When roasted, it takes on a pleasant, slightly nutty flavor.

Both require a little advance preparation: Wheatberries can either be soaked overnight in water or boiled in water for about an hour (!), in order to soften the kernels enough for cooking. Chía should be soaked for 4-5 minutes in 9 times the amount of chía used. So, for example, use 9 Tbsp. water for every 1 Tbsp. chía. Also, make sure you stir it while it's gelling, so that it doesn't clump.

OK, enough exposition. Onto the recipe!

 Wheatberry & Chía Pilaf with Seasonal Vegetables & Fresh Basil

1 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
1/2 Tbsp. unsalted butter
1 c. yellow onion, peeled & sliced into 1/4" thick crescent slivers (about 1/2 medium-sized onion)
1 Tbsp. garlic, peeled & finely minced (about 2 large cloves)
1 c. red-skinned potato, unpeeled, washed, scrubbed, & diced (about 1 small potato)
1 large fresh bay leaf
1/4 tsp. salt
1/2 c. dried wheatberries, rinsed & soaked in boiling hot water overnight & then drained (makes about 1 c. cooked)
1/2 c. baby carrots, sliced crosswise into small rounds (about 8 medium-sized baby carrots)
1/2 (heaping) c. red bell pepper, diced
1/8 tsp. red chili pepper flakes
1/4 tsp. ground sage
1/2 tsp. dried, crushed rosemary leaves
1 tsp. dried thyme leaves
1/2 Tbsp. dried oregano leaves
1 Tbsp. ground sumac
1 c. dry white wine
1/2 c. water (optional, only add if necessary)
2 Tbsp. chía seeds (either black or white), soaked in 1 1/8 c. water for 4-5 minutes & then drained
1 tsp. freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 Tbsp. fresh Italian flat leaf parsley, roughly chopped (stir in at the end)
1 Tbsp. fresh basil, julienned

Directions:  In a large (12-13") sauté pan, sauté onions, garlic, potatoes, & bay leaf in olive oil & butter for 5-7 minutes on medium low heat. Season with salt to reduce faster. (Tip: When adding salt, sprinkle from high above to ensure a more even distribution.) Next, turn up heat to medium-low & add the wheatberries, stirring continually for about 1-2 minutes. Watch pan carefully so wheatberries don't brown or burn. (This step is particularly important, as it cooks off the wheatberries's starchy coating & prevents the grains from getting sticky and mushy when the liquid ingredients are added. The wheatberries should be slightly crispy, but not browned.) Next add carrots, red peppers, & all of the remaining dried spices, and deglaze with white wine, stirring constantly, until liquid has been absorbed. (If the liquid cooks down too quickly, you can always add the optional 1/2 c. water, as specified above.) While reducing, add chía seeds in with about 1-2 minutes of cooking to go. When ready, remove from heat & discard bay leaf. Then stir in lemon juice, & garnish with parsley & basil. Serve hot.

Yield: Serves 3-4 as a main course, or 6-8 as a side dish.

Chef's Notes: The addition of ground sumac is very important to the flavor of this dish; it just won't taste the same without it, so it's best not to omit it. Sumac can be found at Mediterranean markets or online at my Amazon store. :) Also, you can pick up both chía and wheatberries there as well at a very reasonable price, due to the fact that many, if not most, of these online merchants have no storefront & thus no overhead costs, which allows them to offer products at much lower prices! -- You'll find these foods under the "Favorite Gourmet Groceries" category of my online store.

I prefer to use soft white wheatberries in the above recipe, which has a milder flavor & seems to soak up water more quickly.

Please note: The high fiber content of this dish makes it VERY filling. Trust me when I say that a little goes a long way. You won't believe how full you'll get on a portion that might seem a lot smaller than what you're normally accustomed to eating. Don't let your eyes trick you. Wait 20 minutes after eating a small bit, and you'll see what I mean. :)

Alternate Preparations: To make this recipe vegan, simply omit the butter.


Jane said...

I love making do with what I have in my cupboards...kind of a challenge! Appreciated all your good info about chia seeds.I say it is one the best kept secrets in the food world!

Andrea the Kitchen Witch said...

I've wanted to try wheatberries for a long time now. Never heard of chia outside of the pet :) I will be making this dish, it sounds delicious as well as chock full of healthful goodness!! Thanks for all the information, I loved it!

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