One culinary upside to the economic downturn is the increased interest in grains. From amaranth to wild rice, they've always been an inexpensive way to eat healthy and hearty. Right now, when both money worries and winter feel particularly merciless, eating more grains can help keep you solvent and well fed.
But don't go merely for familiar rice and oats. Consider wheat berries, which I think of as the little whole grain that could. Unknown, unassuming, these tiny, hazel-toned ovals are actually the unrefined whole kernels of wheat, meaning they're super-nutritious and mighty tasty.
They're also one of the most forgiving of all grains to cook. Just cover them with plenty of cold water, place them over a flame and let 'er rip. No need to maintain a slow steady simmer, or feel bad if you peek. In fact, wheat berries can be literally boiled (cover on, off or ajar) with no harm done. Soaking 12 to 24 hours and then changing the water before cooking them is recommended, but not necessary. (Pre-soaking does make the cooking time shorter, about 45 minutes). When they're done - don't fret here, either, because it's actually hard to overcook them - drain off excess water and add salt to taste.
What's "done" for wheat berries? They will have swelled twofold, will give with a light pop when you bite into them and will have a curious chewiness - not the gnarly, jaw-tiring kind, but a lovely springiness against the teeth. You can enjoy them a thousand ways: as a plain side dish; dressed with a vinaigrette; oven-roasted to top a salad; cooked like fried rice; added to soups, casseroles, muffins and breads; etc.
On top of being cheap, versatile and yummy, wheat berries have a long shelf life; store them raw in an airtight glass jar or cook a big batch and freeze the leftovers.
Despite a low profile on American menus, wheat berries aren't that hard to find, either. The first four local stores I called - Woodman's West, Whole Foods, Jenifer Street Market and the Willy Street Co-op - all carry them.
One shop, though, the Washington Hotel Coffee Room, offers Wisconsin-grown, certified organic wheat berries. Its supply comes from Washington Island and is part of the same harvest that goes into Capital Brewery's Island Wheat Ale and Death's Door Spirits.
"It's a challenge to grow and process wheat on a smaller scale, and that's why there's not much of it around that's locally grown," says chef Leah Caplan of Washington Island Brands. "So a great way to support a local food [system] is to eat local wheat berries."
Wheat berries can also be ordered by phone or email from the Washington Hotel (www.thewashingtonhotel.com) on Washington Island.
Leah Caplan's Wheat Berries & Black Beans
- 4 cups cooked, drained wheat berries
- Use just-cooked, still-hot wheat berries or leftover ones that have been reheated in a microwave or with a little water in a pan on the stove.
- 1 can (14-15 ounces) black beans, rinsed & drained
- 1/3 cup dried cranberries, softened in warm water drained
- 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- 1 tablespoon lemon juice
- 1/2 teaspoon lemon zest
- 4 scallions, thinly sliced
- 1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley
- salt and pepper to taste
Combine all ingredients. Serve as a side dish or a warm (or chilled) salad, or use it as a base for roasted vegetables.
For the latter, Caplan suggests: Cut scrubbed sweet potatoes into 1-1/2-inch-thick rounds. Halve peeled parsnips lengthwise. Toss with olive oil, salt and pepper; roast at 500 degrees until caramelized and tender. For each serving, place 3 overlapping sweet potato rounds on a bed of wheat berry mixture.
Lean 2-3 crisscrossing parsnip rods up against the pile.
Originally published in Isthmus under the headline "Tender Mercies."