Grain Canon

Some people collect stamps, others coins; I collect grains – delicious, wondrous grains. I’m not sure when the collection began, but when I realized I was regularly cooking with no less than six different varieties of rice, I knew I had become a collector. This grain canon profiles grains (and a couple of pseudo-grains) from my pantry, with a little how-to for each, in the hope that it will encourage other budding collectors.

The 16 grains pictured above are the usual suspects in my kitchen, but some appear more frequently than others. The top left compartment contains bulgur wheat and two kinds of couscous. Couscous is not a grain, but it is included here because it gets treated in a similar manner as a grain. In the top right compartment is a mix of odd-balls including lentils, amaranth, quinoa and pearl barley. The lower compartment contains rice.

Couscous is a kind of pasta. It’s so quick and easy to cook that it could be referred to as instant pasta. Just add boiling water or stock, cover with a tight lid, rest for a few minutes then fluff with a fork. The ratio of couscous to liquid is approximately 1:1.25. As with most pasta, couscous is a little bland alone, so don’t forget the salt and pepper. I often add a little butter before adding the hot liquid so it melts and coats the grains. Couscous makes a terrific base for salads, but is also good just topped with a sauce or on the side as an instant carbohydrate. I have seen both fine and course varieties of couscous, but prefer the fine because of its quick cook character.

Israeli Couscous is pasta formed into little flattish pearls.  I commonly prepare this grain by sweating onion in a pan with some oil, adding the Israeli Couscous and frying for a minute before adding hot water or stock that is bought to the boil and simmered for 5-6 minutes, replacing the lid and removing from the heat to stand for 10 minutes. I use an approximate 1:1.5 ratio of couscous to liquid. This kind of couscous will not stick together and is a little firmer in texture than the standard couscous above. Again, lovely salads are to be had with this grain, but for some reason I feel that that Israeli Couscous handles meat well. I like it with fresh herbs and smoked fish shredded through it or with panfried chorizo and kale with roasted tomato.

Bulgur wheat is the only true grain in this compartment. It has a lower GI than the couscous’ and can therefore be considered a little healthier. Cook bulgur wheat by covering it with stock or water, bringing to the boil and simmering for ten minutes, before taking off the heat and resting with the lid on for a further ten minutes. This is a key ingredient in Tabbouleh, a tasty simple salad that so commonly graces our late night kebabs but is so much nicer made fresh at home. I often add uncooked bulgur wheat to soups or stews, but if you do this remember that the grains swell.

Pearl Barley is a winter basic that goes in most vegetable soups and many careless I make. It’s a great filler and adds a slightly nutty flavor. As an experiment, I once cooked perl barley in the style of a risotto (with a vegetable stock and finished with grated carrot and walnuts). It took quite a while, but tasted good. It doesn’t have the starch content of rice and doesn’t seem to go well with dairy, so the final product was not a creamy as a risotto.

Quinoa is an ancient grain that is high in protein and lysine. I prefer red quinoa to white both because of flavor and because it looks awesome on the plate. It cooks in aprox. 20 min in boiling salted water. I most often serve this grain with roast vegetables tossed through it. I also like it as a room temperature salad; perhaps dressed with citrus and herbs and topped with seared tuna. I have seen recipes for quinoa baked into muffins and quinoa as breakfast, so I am sure there is more I could do with this grain.

Split Red Lentils is the lentil I use most because it cooks so quickly (20 min max at boiling temp). Like pearl barley it gets added to soups and vegetable casseroles as bulk. However, if added at the start to a long cook dish they will disintegrate. This does add a nice creaminess to vegetable soup without having to add dairy (similar to the effect a few cubes of potato has). My favorite lentil soup is carrot, cumin, orange and red lentil soup served piping hot with a dollop of greek yogurt and some crusty bread. These lentils will pick up almost any flavor, so at my house they often end up as spicy Indian curry.

French Lentils take a little longer to cook than split lentils and should be rinsed before cooking. They should not be cooked to mushy. When not over cooked these lentils hold their shape and color and look amazing on the plate. Again these bed down well in soups or casseroles, but they most often get added to kushari along with rice and vermicelli noodles.

Amaranth is also an ancient grain. Although it can be cooked in boiling water water and served similar to quinoa, I have had little successes with this and often end up with a gelatinous mess of burst grains. To recover from this situation, place in a sieve and rinse with plenty of running water. Instead of boiling, I now pop amaranth like popcorn by putting it in a hot dry heavy bottomed pan with a glass lid and swishing it around until it has popped. It is best to do small quantities at a time. I love putting this on cereal (adds a great flavor). It can also be ground with salt in a pestle and mortar and sprinkled on food (particularly potatoes).

All of the rice varieties listed here, except arborio and glutinous, can be cooked in boling salted water or by absorption either on a stove-top or in a rice cooker. The white rices will take less time to cook than the others. Unless I am making risotto or rice puddings, I always wash my rice before cooking by immersing it in water, swishing around and draining at least 3 times or until the water runs clear. This rinses the starch out and ensures you don’t end up with a sticky mess. Despite being a Scottish decent Kiwi, rice is my comfort food and I can eat it 3 meals a day.

Basmati Rice we use to accompany all Thai, Chinese and Indian we cook. It has a lower glycemic index than jasmine rice and therefore a little healthier and suitable for diabetic friends. I use this variety of rice for pilaf and other absorption rice dishes such as kosheri. If you want to add a little color to your meal, add a half teaspoon of turmeric to the rice and water at the start of cooking. A pinch of saffron may also be used in this way to add a delicate color flavor.

Black Rice has a firmer texture when cooked than basmati and takes a little longer to cook (I just let it sit on the ‘warm’ setting for a little while when cooking it in my rice cooker). Although it looses a little of its color a little during cooking this rice looks spectacular on the plate.

Short-grain Rice (Sushi Rice) in New Zealand the most common variety of short grain is the Australian ‘SunRice’. This rice is the perfect accompaniment to Japanese food and holds it shape well enough to make good sushi rice.


Red Rice is firmer to the bite than white rice when cooked and and has a pleasant texture that contrasts with a vegetables that are a little soft (e.g., a roast zucchini and tomato sauce).



Glutinous Rice is a rice with a chalky appearance that I keep in my pantry exclusively for Thai sticky rice pudding. Made with coconut milk and palm sugar, and served with mango this has to be the queen of rice puddings. I have had savory Thai stickey rice in restaurants, but am yet to try this (although thinking about it now I don’t know why).

Brown Rice was the first non-white rice I ever tried. It commonly featured on the dinner menu at a friends place when I was growing up. They were a vegetarian family who ate many things I never saw at home, so mealtime visits were a wonderland of new foods.


Wild Rice is the most expensive of the rices listed here. It usually comes in small packets that seem to be excessively expensive. However, a tablespoon of this rice added to basmati will add an earthy nutty flavor and visual interest.


Arborio Rice is the rice used to make risotto. This classic Italian dish is easier to cook than imagined and well worth the time spent standing near the stove. When cold, flavorsome risotto can be rolled into little balls, crumbed and fried and served as an Hors d’oeurve.





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