Moms

The cowgirl chef: Push flavor, nutrition to the next level with grains

PARIS -- Whole grains, forever the darling of the granola crowd, have suddenly become chic.

Paris' superstar chef Alain Ducasse's forthcoming cookbook, Nature (Hardie Grant Books, April 1), features a chapter on grains, from millet-stuffed tomatoes to barley with salsify and raisins. At London's trendy eatery Ottolenghi, grains plus grilled veggies are stealing the show; and in the U.S., chefs -- and home cooks -- are looking beyond rice and pasta as ways to jazz up meals.

Grains are super-easy to cook -- there's none of the performance anxiety that comes with making rice -- and they are a great way to stretch a food budget. Even better, they are good for us.

Because whole grains don't have the bran and hull removed, they are loaded with fiber, which our bodies love. Plus, studies show that grains can help reduce the risk of all sorts of nasty illnesses, including stroke, type II diabetes and heart disease. Asthma, blood pressure and even our teeth and gums benefit from a diet of whole grains, too.

I eat grains -- lots of them -- because I love how they taste, and I like the texture that they bring to the party. I am always slipping in grains wherever I can, such as:

in salads, with grilled vegetables and/or meats, fresh herbs and toasted nuts.

in soups, for added fiber.

and in meatloaf, burgers and meatballs, mixed into the ground meat for extra bulk.

Know your grains

Which grains go best with what? It's really up to you. Grains are pretty mix-and-matchable, and they are versatile, too. Just look at our old friend rice. It is good on its own, but even better when fried, Thai-style, in a wok, or made into rice pudding for dessert.

If you have had tabbouleh, the parsley/tomato/mint salad, then you have eaten bulgur wheat, sometimes called "Middle Eastern pasta." Basically boiled, dried and cracked wheat kernels, bulgur wheat comes precooked and dried, so you can make it in 10 minutes. I love bulgur wheat's nutty flavor, which complements roasted cauliflower and broccoli, and makes this side dish substantial enough for a light dinner (something that I could use a bit more of).

Barley is one of the oldest cultivated grains -- the Egyptians buried mummies with barley necklaces -- and it may be more effective than oats in lowering cholesterol. I like barley because it has a unique shape, and it's as fun as popcorn (another great grain -- I'll take the XL bucket, please) to eat. My mom always adds barley to her vegetable soup, but it is also interesting in a starring role, as I have done here, pairing roasted green beans and red bell pepper with it and crumbling feta on top. The Greek-inspired red wine vinaigrette pulls it all together.

Couscous, a North African pasta made from semolina wheat, is another quick-cooker, and although it is lovely in Moroccan dishes, it also works nicely all spiced up and as a bed for a piece of grilled fish. Ottolenghi's recipe with butternut squash and apricots is wonderful on its own, but you could add shredded rotisserie chicken, too, to please carnivores at the table.

The Peruvian supergrain quinoa is actually a protein-packed seed that is related to beets and Swiss chard. Quinoa is round, has a slight crunch when you bite into it and is one of the most easy-to-use grains, because you can do so many things with it -- I have eaten quinoa mixed into pancakes while hiking in Peru, with black beans instead of rice for a quick lunch or dinner, and as the base for a number of airplane-friendly salads that I like to put together to take with me for the 11-hour flight from Paris to D/FW.

If I had to pick a favorite, it would be quinoa. It is another 10-minute grain, and when I am making quinoa, I know that I am going to be getting on the big plane soon and heading back to Texas -- where my grains will come in the form of corn tortillas, as many of them as I can eat.

Ellise Pierce is the Cowgirl Chef. Read her blog and watch her cooking videos on www.cowgirlchef.com. You can also follow her on Twitter: twitter.com/cowgirlchef.

Roasted broccoli, cauliflower and cherry tomatoes with bulgur wheat

When a friend of mine served roasted cauliflower with dill and arugula at a dinner party in Paris last fall, I asked her for the recipe, and she told me that it was from "Ottolenghi: The Cookbook." I immediately bought the book and have been making one version or another of this recipe since then.

1 head broccoli, cut into florets

1 head cauliflower, cut into florets

4 tablespoons olive oil, divided use

Sea salt

Freshly ground pepper

1 cup bulgur wheat

1 pint cherry tomatoes, halved

Fresh dill, several sprigs

Ottolenghi vinaigrette, recipe at right

1. Turn oven to broil. Put the broccoli florets and the cauliflower florets on two different parchment-lined cookie sheets and drizzle each sheet of veggies with 2 tablespoons of the olive oil and lightly sprinkle with sea salt and freshly ground pepper. Slide the veggies one cookie sheet at a time into the oven until the florets begin to brown, about 15 minutes. Once the florets brown, pull them out of the oven and turn them over, so the other side browns, too. This will take about 10 more minutes. When browned on both sides, remove from the oven and let cool.

2. Cook the bulgur wheat: Put 2 1/2 cups water and 1/4 teaspoon sea salt on to boil. When it boils, add the bulgur wheat, give it a stir and turn the heat down to a simmer. Let cook, uncovered, for 7 minutes. Turn off the heat, cover and let sit for 10 minutes. Fluff before using.

3. In a large bowl, gently toss together bulgur wheat, broccoli, cauliflower, cherry tomatoes and dill with as much of the vinaigrette as you would like (to taste).

Nutritional analysis per serving, based on 6, without Ottolenghi vinaigrette: 222 calories, 10 grams fat, 30 grams carbohydrates, 8 grams protein, no cholesterol, 65 milligrams sodium, 10 grams dietary fiber, 37 percent of calories from fat.

-- inspired by a recipe in "Ottolenghi: The Cookbook" (Edbury Press)

Couscous with dried apricots and butternut squash

1 large onion, thinly sliced

6 tablespoons olive oil, divided use

Sea salt

2 ounces dried apricots

1 small butternut squash, peeled, seeded and cut into 1-inch dice

Freshly ground pepper

14 ounces chicken or vegetable stock

Pinch saffron

9 ounces couscous

3 tablespoons tarragon, roughly chopped

3 tablespoons mint, roughly chopped

3 tablespoons flat-leaf parsley, roughly chopped

1 1/2 teaspoons cinnamon

Zest of 1 lemon

1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Put the sliced onion in a large pan with 2 tablespoons of the olive oil and a pinch of salt. Saute over high heat, stirring frequently, for about 10 minutes, or until golden brown. Set aside.

2. Pour just enough hot water over the apricots to cover them. Soak for about 5 minutes, then drain them and cut into 1/2-inch dice.

3. In a medium bowl, mix the squash with 1 tablespoon of the olive oil and sprinkle lightly with salt and pepper. Spread on a foil-lined cookie sheet and slide into the oven for about 25 minutes, or until the squash is soft.

4. While the squash is baking, cook the couscous: bring the stock to boil with the pinch of saffron. Put the couscous in a large heatproof bowl and when the stock boils, pour it over the couscous. Add the remaining 3 tablespoons of olive oil and cover with plastic wrap for 10 minutes or until all of the liquid is absorbed.

5. Fluff up the couscous with a fork and add the onion, squash, apricots, herbs, cinnamon and lemon zest. Gently mix, and taste for seasonings. Serve warm, cold or at room temperature.

Nutritional analysis per serving: 683 calories, 23 grams fat, 114 grams carbohydrates, 19 grams protein, no cholesterol, 47 milligrams sodium, 13 grams dietary fiber, 28 percent of calories from fat.

-- adapted from "Ottolenghi: The Cookbook" (Edbury Press, $34.95)

Ottolenghi vinaigrette

2 tablespoons capers, drained

1 clove garlic, minced

1 tablespoon whole-grain mustard

1/4 cup apple cider vinegar

1/2 cup olive oil

Sea salt and ground pepper

1. Roughly chop the capers and put them in a jam jar along with the garlic, mustard, and vinegar. Give it a shake and let rest for 15 minutes. Add olive oil and shake until combined; taste for seasonings.

Nutritional analysis per 2-tablespoon serving: 163 calories, 18 grams fat, 1 gram carbohydrates, trace protein, no cholesterol, 57 milligrams sodium, trace dietary fiber, 97 percent of calories from fat.

-- adapted from a recipe in "Ottolenghi The Cookbook" (Edbury Press)

Roasted green beans and red bell pepper with feta and barley

This Greek-inspired side would be wonderful with grilled lamb chops.

Handful green beans, ends trimmed and sliced into 3-inch pieces

1 red bell pepper, 1/4-inch dice

6 tablespoons olive oil, divided use

Sea salt

Freshly ground pepper

1 cup pearl barley

Red wine vinaigrette, recipe at right

2 ounces feta, crumbled

1. Preheat oven to broil. On two parchment-lined cookie sheets, spread out the green beans and the red bell pepper, skin-side up. Drizzle each veggie-filled cookie sheet with 2 tablespoons of olive oil and lightly sprinkle with sea salt and freshly ground pepper. Cook the veggies, one cookie sheet at a time, for about 15 minutes, or until they begin to brown around the edges. Let cool on the cookie sheets.

2. Cook the pearl barley: rinse the barley well under cold water. Put the last 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a deep, medium pot, and turn the heat on medium. Add the rinsed barley and let cook a few minutes, just as you do with rice. Add 4 cups of water and 1/4 teaspoon of sea salt and give it a stir, and cover. Let it come to a boil, and when it does, reduce the heat and set the timer for 45 minutes. You'll know it's ready when holes appear. Let cool with the lid on and fluff before using.

3. In a large bowl, gently mix barley with green beans and bell pepper, and toss with as much of the red wine vinaigrette as you need, to taste. Top with feta and serve.

-- Ellise Pierce

Nutritional analysis per serving, based on 6, without red wine vinaigrette: 267 calories, 16 grams fat, 28 grams carbohydrates, 5 grams protein, 8 milligrams cholesterol, 109 milligrams sodium, 6 grams dietary fiber, 53 percent of calories from fat.

Red wine vinaigrette

1 shallot, minced

6 mint leaves, chopped

1 teaspoon Dijon mustard

1/4 cup red wine vinegar

1/2 cup olive oil

Sea salt and fresh ground pepper

1. Put the shallot, chopped mint leaves, mustard and red wine vinegar in a jam jar and give it a shake. Let sit for 15 minutes. Add the olive oil and give it another shake. Taste for seasonings.

-- Ellise Pierce

Nutritional analysis per 2-tablespoon serving: 163 calories, 18 grams fat, 1 gram carbohydrates, trace protein, no cholesterol, 31 milligrams sodium, trace dietary fiber, 97 percent of calories from fat.

Quinoa with sweet potatoes, spinach, tofu and chipotle vinaigrette

Packed with protein, this salad keeps me satisfied on long-haul flights -- until we touch down and I can get to my favorite Tex-Mex restaurant, that is.

1 large sweet potato, peeled and cut into 1-inch cubes

3 tablespoons olive oil, divided use

Sea salt and fresh ground pepper

8 ounces tofu, cut into 1-inch cubes

2 cups water

1 cup quinoa

1/2 cup pecans

Handful of baby spinach leaves

Chipotle vinaigrette, recipe follows

1/4 cup fresh cilantro, roughly chopped

Lime, for serving, optional

1. Preheat the oven to 450 degrees. In a medium bowl, toss the sweet potatoes with 2 tablespoons of the olive oil. Lay out on a foil-lined cookie sheet and lightly sprinkle with sea salt and freshly ground pepper. Slide into the oven and bake for 20-25 minutes, or until the edges of the potatoes begin to brown.

2. In a small bowl, toss the tofu cubes with 1 tablespoon of olive oil and lay on a foil-lined cookie sheet. When the sweet potatoes are done, slide the tofu in for about 10 minutes, or until it is slightly crispy.

3. While the sweet potatoes and tofu are roasting, make the quinoa. Remember, it is always a ration of 1:2, quinoa to water. Put 2 cups of water on to boil. When it boils, add the quinoa, give it a quick stir, cover and turn the heat down to a simmer. Let cook for 10 minutes, and let rest another 10 minutes before you uncover and fluff it.

4. Roast the pecans by putting them in a dry cast-iron skillet over medium-low heat, stirring every now and then, for about 15 minutes. Roughly chop and set aside.

5. Assemble the salad. Fluff the quinoa and put into a large bowl, add the sweet potatoes, tofu, spinach and chipotle vinaigrette, and gently toss. Top with chopped cilantro and pecans and serve with limes wedges on the side, if you'd like

Nutritional analysis per serving, based on 6, without chipotle vinaigrette: 282 calories, 16 grams fat, 28 grams carbohydrates, 8 grams protein, no cholesterol, 18 milligrams sodium, 4 grams dietary fiber, 51 percent of calories from fat.

Chipotle vinaigrette

The heat of the chipotle is a nice balance to the sweet potato in the quinoa salad. This vinaigrette would also work well with any Southwestern-style salad.

2 chipotle chiles (in adobo)

1 shallot, minced

1 teaspoon Dijon mustard

1/8 cup sherry vinegar

1/8 cup balsamic vinegar

1/2 cup grape-seed oil or another light oil

Sea salt and fresh ground pepper

Finely chop the chipotle chiles and put them in a jam jar along with the shallot, mustard and two vinegars. Shake to combine and let rest for 15 minutes. Add the grape-seed oil, shake again, and taste for seasonings.

Nutritional analysis per 2-tablespoon serving: 164 calories, 18 grams fat, 1 gram carbohydrates, trace protein, trace cholesterol, 41 milligrams sodium, trace dietary fiber, 97 percent of calories from fat.

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