Food

Flash in the Pan

Wheat berry risotto

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Wheat has had a tough go of it lately. The price is in a multi-year downtrend, perhaps in part because it's become vilified in many popular dietary paradigms. Wheat is the poster child for high-gluten foods, while foods made from its flour are feared by those on low-carbohydrate diets. These trends have conspired to fan the anti-wheat flames so hot that the question seems to have moved beyond whether or not wheat is evil, and is now a matter of just how evil it is.

If medical tests have confirmed that you have celiac disease or a wheat allergy, then you will indeed be better off waving bye-bye to the amber grain. But otherwise, there is reason to believe that eating whole grain or sprouted wheat, while avoiding wheat flour, might be a viable path forward.

Wheat grains, also called berries, have a chewy, almost meaty texture and a nutty taste. Of course, most of the love we have for wheat is for products that are made with its processed flour. The alchemy of baking can produce magical products, and pasta is great too. But from a carbohydrate perspective, there is a massive difference between eating wheat flour and whole wheat kernels.

Whole kernels have much more fiber, and in order to break it down the body must expend more energy then it would to digest a similar amount of wheat flour, in which much of the fiber has already been broken down by the milling. The extra energy spent digesting that extra fiber in whole grain wheat cuts into the total net energy gain that the body absorbs, while digesting the same amount of flour yields a greater amount of energy.

This concept is encapsulated in a scale called the glycemic index. A food that yields most of its calories to the eater is said to have a high glycemic index, while foods from which relatively few calories end up available are said to have low glycemic indices.

Gluten, meanwhile, has become the subject of much research and speculation of late, as evidence grows that gluten sensitivity is more of a continuum than a black and white issue of either having it or not. Some believe that we are all sensitive to gluten to an extent, and that gluten can cause inflammation in many parts of the body, including the brain, which can lead to all sorts of problems beyond the digestive issues associated with celiac disease.

ARI LEVAUX
  • Ari LeVaux

According to David Perlmutter, author of the bestselling Grain Brain, the effects of gluten are exacerbated by sugar in the blood stream. Perlmutter has one of the more extreme anti-gluten perspectives you can find. But even if he is correct, his theory still potentially leaves the door open to eating wheat berries, because they don't cause a spike in blood sugar like a piece of toast will.

If you're interested in dabbling in wheat berries, there are many interesting varieties. Hard wheat has more protein, including gluten. Soft wheat has more starch. Winter wheat is sown in fall in southern regions, spring wheat grows all summer.

One particularly interesting kind is the hard spring Khorasan wheat, supposedly an ancient form of wheat native to a region that includes Afghanistan and Iran. It had drifted into obscurity before a U.S. Air Force pilot purchased some grains at a Cairo market, and brought them home to Montana, where it is now grown and marketed as Kamut. The berries are about twice the size of normal wheat, and with a bunch of protein and a low glycemic index.

Wheat berries are cooked in water, like rice. Soaking them reduces the cooking time, and initiates the germination process.

Even if you cook the soaked grains before any visible signs of sprouting appear, extra nutrients will become available after an overnight soak. Soaking the wheat also cuts the cooking time. Different wheat varieties will have different cooking times, but it boils down to cooking the grains in lightly salted water, in a 1:3 proportion of berry to water, on medium heat with a tight lid, until they're soft. If the water runs out before that happens, add more. Some people recommend cooking the wheat berries with half an onion, in a single chunk, as well as herbs or spices compatible with what you plan to do next with the berries.

Although cooked wheat berries are a bit like rice, especially in appearance, they don't absorb sauce the same way. Further cooking of the boiled berries in buttery water, a la risotto, can help the flavorings gain entry into the chewy grains.

To make a simple wheat berry risotto, soak and cook the wheat berries until soft. Then sauté some goodies in butter or oil, like shrimp and garlic, or mushrooms. Add the cooked grains of wheat and mix it all up, and add sufficient water to barely submerge the contents of the pan. Cook slowly, with the lid on, until the water is gone.

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