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Meatless Monday: The Whole (Grains) Truth

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Get ready to embrace the emmer, mingle with millet and canoodle with kamut. Wednesday is the third annual Whole Grains Sampling Day, sponsored by your friends at the Whole Grains Council.

In addition to being the folks who helped demystify whole grain products by creating the whole grain stamp, the Whole Grains Council is one of eight programs under the aegis of Oldways, a non-profit organization advocating wellness through cultural traditions and foodways. For Whole Grains Sampling Day, that means celebrating -- and sampling -- all the great whole grains that have been part of our culture and cultivation for centuries.

Oldways launched the Whole Grains Council in 2003 as a response to America's favorite nutritional trend -- isolating one food group and vilifying it. Director of Food and Nutrition Cynthia Harriman, who's been part of the program since the beginning remembers suffering through the early 2000s, "the Atkins diet and no carbs at all." Oldways sought to "set the pendulum where it needs to be and to educate people about whole grains." The best way, says Harriman, "is to have people eat and enjoy them."

The Whole Grains Council is obviously doing something right. Whole grain consumption went up 23% from 2008 to 2010. But Harriman is still fighting the whole grains fight, with a slew of companies partnering to and participating in Whole Grains Sampling Day. Even venues not normally known for healthy options are partnering with the Whole Grains Council and participating in Whole Grains Sampling Day. We're talking McDonald's, offering oatmeal and sandwiches on whole grain buns, and deals from Dunkin' Donuts, offering multigrain bagels. Other partners include supermarkets, schools, Google, Compass USA, the American Institute for Cancer Research -- and you, whether you're a professional chef, a home cook or just willing to try something different at breakfast, lunch or dinner. All you have to do is give whole grains a chance.

Rather than being processed till they're nutritionally neutered, whole grains are grains with their kernel and bran intact. Once shunned because they weren't refined, it is their whole lack of refinement, or processing, which makes them valuable. They're a cheap source of hard-core nutrition.

The approach Harriman likes personally and for the Whole Grains Council and for all the Oldways programs is one of abundance. They're not coming for your simple carbs, but encouraging you to eat more of what Harriman calls the good stuff -- whole grains, beans, fruits, vegetables, nuts, olive oil, the very foods making up Oldways' Mediterranean diet pyramid.

Harriman doesn't just talk the talk, she eats the grains. After a stressful time "put me in the hole healthwise, I cut out all refined grains, ate less meat, ate only whole grains, more beans -- and I saw some real differences," she says. "There was plenty of good stuff to eat, I lost ten pounds, felt peppier and I wasn't depriving myself I thought, I like this, I want to help other people do it."

For Whole Grains Sampling Day, were I in charge, I'd urge you to try the good stuff in its whole grain and unadulterated state -- barley, oats, brown rice. Harriman is not so hard-ass. Whole grain bread, muffins, bagels and pasta are still whole grain, she says, and the newer generation of these products have it all over the early versions launched back in "the twigs and bark stage," as she puts it. "Now you can enjoy them."

Sage-Scented Dandelion Green and Mushroom Risotto

Sultry like risotto and greater than the sum of its parts, this dish, made with brown rice comes together quicker than risotto and without all the stirring. Rice may be cooked ahead.

1 cup brown rice (or brown and wild blend for fun)
2 cups vegetable broth or water
2 tablespoons olive oil
3 cloves garlic, chopped
1 onion, sliced thin
pinch red pepper flakes
1 pound mushrooms, sliced thin
1 bunch dandelion greens, chopped
1 handful sage leaves, coarsely chopped
sea salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
a drizzle of truffle oil to finish, if you've got it

Bring vegetable broth or water to boil in a medium-sized pot. Add the rice, cover and let simmer for 30 minutes,or until grains are plump and tender and has sucked up all the liquid. Set aside (or, if you like, prepare a day or two ahead and keep covered and refrigerated).

From here on in, everything goes quickly. Heat olive oil in a skillet over medium-high heat.

Add the garlic and onion and pepper flakes, which should sizzle in the oil. Reduce heat to medium and cook, stirring, until vegetables soften and turn translucent, about 7 minutes.

Add the sliced mushrooms, stirring for a few minutes, until they darken. Then cover and reduce heat to low. Let vegetables cook and mellow for 15 to 20 minutes. They can do it unassisted. Do some gentle stretches while you wait. Breathe.

Remove the lid. The mushrooms will have produced some self-created broth. Excellent. Bring heat back to medium-high. Add the dandelion greens by the handful. Stir until the greens wilt but are still a deep and lovely green, no more than 5 minutes.

Tip in the rice and chopped sage leaves. Fold to combine. Season generously with sea salt and pepper, and a gilding of truffle oil, should you have such a thing.

Serves 4.