Against the Grain: Wheatberries

I didn’t realize what I was signing up for when I picked up some wheatberries. But something about the smugness of the grain vendor at the Temescal Farmer’s Market should have tipped me off. Maybe he was bitter because his stand wasn’t as popular as Prather Ranch or Happy Boy farms, or maybe he was bitter because he had to explain his pricing over and over to each potential customer, or maybe, just maybe he was bitter because he subsists on a diet of whole grains, wheatberries being one of them.

Nevertheless, I took a 2 lb bag to add to my fun purchases (goat feta! Donut peaches! Pluots!) and brought them back home. I put them in the pantry, half-convinced that’s where they were going to stay until I move someday.

But once Sunday dinner decision-time came along and I found myself considering pasta, I knew I’d have to face my own challenge. One new grain a week. So I got to prepping.

Sources conflicted one another on simple prep. Some said they needed a 24 hour soak, some said boil for an hour, my mom said even that was too long. So I decided to follow Alice Water’s advice, and put them in to simmer, then check on them every 20.
About 50 minutes later, the hard berries had softened into something toothy yet palatable. Nutty, earthy and brown. And bland as fuck.

So I turned to my instincts. Started sautéing some onion and garlic in olive oil. Salted, but then saw it would end up not looking too interesting. Threw in some zucchini for color and summery flavor, and then tossed it all together. Not bad looking. But still looking discouragingly like health food.

The goat feta! Genius. Something to brighten it up a bit and adding another element. And it worked. The supple give of the zucchini balanced the starchy berries, the tang of the cheese matched their earthiness. It all worked well. I even brought some the next day for work.

But still, even after using up a full 2-3 cups of cooked wheatberries, I still had a cup or two to deal with. There they were, cold and unfeeling in my fridge. Guilt fuel. They were cooked and waiting and destined to be Tuesday lunch. But what to do with them cold? My CSA had saddled me with a whole lot of green beans, so I got to steaming some of those, put together a simple dressing of lemon juice and olive oil, and crumbled some more goat cheese for flavor. Because god knows, these little guys would need flavor.

Come lunchtime, with tempting offers of walks to the deli for Tuna Melts or Chicken Sandwiches, I stood firm and mixed up my lunch. Berries and beans met dressing and cheese.

I’m no stranger to failure, and while I wouldn’t call what I threw together an out-and-out disaster, it wouldn’t be something I would make again. It tasted just like what I feared whole grains would taste like- healthy. Good-for-you. And not in a fun way. Like, I’m on a low-sodium diet, I need to eat this food or they’re going to start amputating limbs kind of way. Gary would love it.

I’m not totally giving up on wheatberries. I think the next batch might find their way into baked goods, once I’m ready to venture there. But for right now, I’m glad to move on to another grain. Next up? Quinoa.


Against the Grain

I’ll admit it. I have a prejudice against whole grains. They smack of self-righteousness, of nutritional snobbery. I feel like they belong in the pantries of the worst kind of vegans, of yogis. Those who are militant about their lifestyle to the point that anything less than a raw diet and a strict regimen of daily sun salutations are meant to be scorned or scoffed. Even pitied.

Anyone who knows my family can easily see where these issues came from, because all of us, at some point or another have had our dinner orders or food choices openly criticized by my step-father, Gary. He has his reasons, and I know he means well, but growing up, if you weren’t eating right (i.e. his diet only) you were actively killing yourself. Time and time again, my mom and I would bring in the groceries, and anything that wasn’t whole-wheat pasta, bananas or raw nuts, (aka GaryFood), he would judge. He had this habit of pulling his glasses down to the edge of his nose, so he was literally looking down his nose at your food. Once assessing the nutrition information, the good/bad fat ratio and the overall health benefit/detriments he would either shake his head in disgust and put it back on the counter or shrug in approval, open up said box/bag and take a handful of whatever was inside, then probably finish it all before you get a chance to try it.

It was easy to guess what he would approve and disapprove of. If it was cooked at A Votre Sante(the aggressively bland health food restaurant), sourced from Mrs. Gooch’s (the aggressively brown health food store) or recently written up in Nutrition Action as a ‘super food,’ it was good. If it was anything palatable by your average child/teenager, it was probably bad.

And whole grains were the best. And the worst. They were the marker of a good diet vs. a suicidal one. And I wanted nothing to do with them. Brown bits with names that sounded more like a German burg than a foodstuff. Bulger. Kasha. Millet. Mix them with steamed vegetables and a squirt of lemon juice and you’ve got yourself a bowl of nutritional triumph. And sadness.

I live a pretty damn healthy lifestyle now. The CSA keeps me stocked with lots of produce, my meat intake is moderate and I don’t eat processed food. Still, every time I sit down to a bowl of pasta or opt for white rice over brown, I can see Gary shaking his head at me, mumbling “empty calories,” under his breath

So in an effort to shift my diet a little bit, I’m taking on the brown beasts. I’ve stocked up on wheatberries, added quinoa to the larder and am considering taking the bulger plunge. It’s going to be one new grain a week, and I’ll update best I can. First up: wheatberries.