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The "New" Ancient Grains and Sustainable Agriculture

By Anne L. Desjardins

In the food world, writers and journalists tend to spend an awful lot of time looking for up-and-coming trends: molecular gastronomy, sushi, brunches, and the like. But the most recent and probably the most solid, influential of all new trends remains the motto "buy local, organic whole foods for your own sake and for the sake of the planet".

Local agriculture for the best
For anyone who follows the news, with all the agro-industrial related scandals we’ve endured in recent years, this so-called trend is now a no-brainer: who would want foods that have travelled the planet, are not fresh anymore and deprived of their nutrients when you can help your neighbour (and yourself!) by buying his fresh-from-the-garden crop of lettuce, raspberries, root vegetables, corn, tomatoes and apples that can be delivered to your door week after week? Who would want to eat beef, pork or chicken loaded with antibiotics and fed with animal by-products when it is so simple to encourage small producers who live in a 50 mille radius from your house and whom you can easily get to know by name if you want to?

It's been a long time coming…
But in the seventies, things were different and the big hype was still the industrialization of the entire food chain: think about Cheez Whiz and Hamburger Helper and you get the picture… At the time, we were a bunch of young tree huggers advocating for Frances Moore Lappe's fabulous book, "Diet for a Small Planet" and its philosophy based upon community-oriented agriculture, less meat or no meat at all, more fruits and vegetables, whole grains and legumes. It was an ambitious program and we hoped it could also stop hunger by a better distribution of foods throughout the world. But let's face it: not many people would listen and that noble effort towards more sustainable agricultural practices remained marginal at the time.

When gourmet means healthy!
30 years later things have changed for the better, thanks to the inspiration of creative and dedicated chefs like Alice Waters, among others, who were able to reconcile health with flavor, respect of nature with culinary creativity and support of the local economy with quality food. Nowadays, as a result of all that hard work, health food stores and whole food departments in mainstream grocery stores are all the rage, not only among foodies, but also with the regular crowd of gourmands, gourmets and people who want to cook delicious meals loaded with taste and that are good for their health and their family's.

When ancient is new again…
In this generic trend toward better locally grown foods I've witnessed an interesting phenomenon: the comeback of ancient grains: kamut, spelt, quinoa, buckwheat, are now the rising stars on the cereal and flour shelves in specialty stores, stealing the limelight over regular whole wheat. This is a direct consequence of the new interest among hobby gardeners and agronomists for heirloom edible plants that are rustic, not genetically modified and loaded with interesting health properties. And, again, with the help of great chefs, these cereals now make delicious side dishes or the base for many interesting recipes.

For paddlers, they are an indispensable addition to their kitchen pantry because they are loaded with fibers, good quality proteins, vitamins and phytonutrients; all the good stuff that is crucial for long-standing performances and satiety. They are inexpensive, easy to cook quickly, they keep well for a long time, either cooked or in their dry form and they don't take up much room in your kayak bulkheads, which make them fabulous companions for long trips…

Ancient grains and their nutritional-gourmand profile

  1. Kamut
    Probably the most ancient of all cereals, this is a form of durum wheat, with a protein content that is 25-40% higher than regular wheat and that contains more amino-acids. It was originally grown in ancient Egypt. It is also higher in vitamins, good quality lipids and minerals. Its taste is on the sweeter side and its flour is good for baking because it does contain gluten. It can also be found in flakes, just like oats, and can be added to your favorite granola recipe. Some people with wheat allergy can consume kamut safely.

  2. Buckwheat
    Scientists have recently discovered that its protein content is even higher than soy or oats, which is excellent to feed the brain and the muscles during intense physical or intellectual effort. But more importantly, buckwheat is loaded with rutin, a component that helps to keep in check bad cholesterol levels and is also excellent to reinforce blood vessels. People with hemorroids and circulatory problems find their best ally in buckwheat… Buckwheat flour makes delicious pancakes that will stick to your ribs for hours. Buckwheat roasted grain, also called kasha, has a strong nutty flavor and can be cooked like rice and used as a replacement for rice, pasta or couscous. It is delicious with pan-fried fish and vegetables for a quick meal, and is also good as a breakfast cereal.

  3. Quinoa (pronounce "keenwa")
    In the cereal kingdom, quinoa is the most loaded with complete high quality proteins, and it is gluten free. This very ancient cereal was a favorite among the Mayan culture. It is rich in fibers, calcium, iron, copper and potassium. It has a very interesting nutty flavor but needs to be rinsed thoroughly to remove the bitter taste that comes from its resin envelope. Quinoa makes excellent salads, mixed with black beans, corn, cucumber or diced tomatoes. It is the perfect breakfast cereal too. One dry cup will make at least three cups in volume once cooked, which makes it an economical cereal… Cook one cup in 3 cups of liquid after you’ve rinsed it. Serve it in the morning with a mix of dry fruits, soy or almond milk or yogurt.

  4. Millet
    This is the first ancient grain that I tasted when I was a teenager. I will never forget its delicious crunchy texture and sweet taste combined with grapefruit and crčme anglaise, a custard used as a sauce for fruit preparations… Yummy!!! It also makes excellent casseroles and vegetable patties. Millet is gluten free, rich in phosphorus, zinc and B-complex vitamins. It also contains phytic acid that is believed to lower bad cholesterol. This perfectly round grain is also very good cooked as rice in vegetable broth and served as a pilaf, mixed with cooked veggies. To add some nutty flavor, dry-roast it first in a pan over medium-low heat for 3-5 minutes before adding 3 cups of stock for each cup of cereal. I also like to make millet soup, with carrots, celery, onions and leek. In that case, I would add 5 cups of broth for one half cup of millet. Millet is also highly digestible.

  5. Amaranth
    This was the cereal that the Aztecs used the most, with a delicate nutty flavor and a somewhat gelatinous consistency; they made it into a flour, crepes and patties, along with pureed legumes. Also very rich in excellent quality proteins it is a source of bone-building calcium and magnesium and a very good source of iron. It is also gluten free. The best way to use it on a paddling trip is to make highly nutritious pancakes (or cakes, muffins, breads) by blending one part of amaranth with 3 parts of other flour such as wheat or buckwheat (for pancakes only). You can also cook it in the same volume of water (1 cup grain-1 cup liquid) or broth for 20 minutes to make a nice side dish that would replace mashed potatoes or rice. Cooked amaranth usually doubles in volume. Finally, amaranth does well in lentil salads and can be used as polenta as well, with tomato sauce, for a more nutritious vegetarian meal…
Conclusion
All these ancient grains will do well as breakfast cereals (either in the form of granola or cooked, like oatmeal). Some of them do well as pancakes, while all of them are an excellent replacement for rice or potatoes. They can serve as a foundation for a quick chili, be turned into patties with cooked legumes and a bit of vegetables, they make a nutritious alternative for pastas and can be served with tomato sauce and a bit of grated cheese. And don’t forget to add them to your salads to make it a complete meal. Most of these grains will also travel well once cooked, for up to five days; just add a bit of vegetable oil and store them in a cool part of your kayak or canoe in an airtight container and they will be ready to go!


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