Go with the Grain

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Quinoa, kamut, red rice, amaranth, millet – whole grains are the hot trend right now. You may not know how to pronounce some of them, let alone cook them. But a whole new world of interesting starches awaits you if you can be the tiniest bit adventurous.

It really is as simple as buying something that sounds interesting to you and following the cooking directions. With a little jazzing up, of course. If you are used to white rice and white bread, you may want to start with a mild grain like white quinoa. You could also buy a rice medley, which will have a variety of rices, and will usually include some white rice.

You don’t have to break the bank to buy whole grains. Check the bulk bins at your grocery store. You can also buy boxed grains and mixes, but skip the ones added flavorings. They are usually mostly salt. Just the grains, ma’am. You will add your own flavorings and tailor them to your tastes.

Generally, the easiest, and most common way to cook these lovely grains is to boil them in water, until they absorb the water and are soft – like you would cook white rice. Some bulk bins have nearby informational charts, complete with cooking instructions, or even free recipe cards. Or you can look up cooking instructions online. You want to know how much water you need. And how much of your particular grain constitutes a serving. Some of them swell up to fill the pot and if you cook too much you will be eating it for a week. Trust me.

Of course, plain water can be pretty boring. I like to use broth to cook the grains, usually chicken or vegetable. I use Better than Boullion or canned broth most of the time. And I usually chop a clove or two of garlic and throw it in too. Or a shallot or small onion. If you are in the mood to chop, you could add some minced celery and carrot too. You won’t need salt if you use broth, but a little black pepper or a few red pepper flakes will add a bit of zing.

Have you cooked any “exotic” or new-to-you grains? Which are your favorites?

Oatmeal Chocolate Chip Cookie Bars

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The other day I was looking for a recipe to make a slightly healthier snack for Calvin (and me, to be truthful). I remembered that my mom had made a recipe from Cooking Light Magazine for cookie bars baked in a pie plate and sliced into wedges. I found the recipe and then promptly made a bunch of changes.

I used sliced almonds instead of the chopped pecans called for, since I was feeling lazy and didn’t want to chop my pecan halves. I also used a whole egg instead of an egg white. I used white whole wheat flour instead of all-purpose flour to up the nutrition and fiber a bit. I also doubled the original amount of chocolate chips, because, why not?

To top it off, when I made a second batch, I reduced the sugar because I thought the first ones were too sweet. You can use either amount of sugar listed, with no other changes to the recipe. I also reduced the canola oil to one tablespoon in the second batch. It made the bars a little more cake-like and less cookie-like. The difference was slight, so I’ll let you decide how you want them. The wedge in the picture is more cookie-like and the square bars in the background are more cake-like.

You can bake these in a pie plate and cut them into wedges, as in the original recipe, or use a square pan and cut squares. The wedges are a little fragile and tend to lose their points. The square bars are better for packing into lunches, or eating with your fingers while you stand over the pan. Just in case you know anyone who would do that.

The original recipe was called Granola Cookie Wedges, which I thought was slightly misleading. They have no granola in them. I think they are supposed to resemble commercial chocolate chip granola bars, but I’m not sure. There was no explanation in the original recipe. I ditched “granola” in the name in favor of “oatmeal.”

These truly go together in just minutes, and they only require a bowl and a spoon to make – no mixer. I mixed them up before the oven had time to preheat, if that gives you any indication.

While not exactly health food, these are healthier than a chocolate chip granola bar from a box. And they taste a lot better too. Take a few minutes to whip up a batch and see what you think.

Download or print the recipe.

Oatmeal Chocolate Chip Cookie Bars
Adapted by The Cook’s Life from Cooking Light
Makes 12 wedges or bars

Use the smaller amount of brown sugar to make these slightly less sweet, if you prefer. Use the smaller amount of canola oil for more cake-like bars, the larger amount for more cookie-like bars.

¼-⅓ cup packed dark brown sugar
1-2 tablespoons canola oil
1 tablespoon melted butter
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 egg
¼ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon baking soda
½ cup white whole wheat flour or all-purpose flour
½ cup oats (I used old-fashioned)
¼ cup sliced almonds (or chopped nuts of your choice)
¼ cup chocolate chips

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Lightly grease a 9-inch pie plate or 8-inch square pan. Set aside.

Mix brown sugar, oil, melted butter, vanilla and egg together. Add salt, baking soda, flour, oats, almonds and chocolate chips and mix well.

Spread batter in prepared pan, making sure top is level.

Bake for 12-15 minutes, or until the center is set. Cool in pan on rack for at least 5 minutes before slicing into 12 wedges or bars.

Make it Yourself: Tortillas

Rich and I call ourselves “food snobs.” Not in a truffles and expensive wine way. But in that we judge the bread restaurants serve and the hot fudge sauce at ice cream shops. In a way I have ruined our taste buds with homemade bread and chocolate sauce. Not that we are complaining, but we do really like our own creations an awful lot.

I can’t count the times we have tried a new product and decided that we could make it better. Our other favorite thing is to take something we buy and try to duplicate it, with adaptations to suit it to our tastes.

I don’t know what made me decide to try making tortillas. I guess just to see if I could do it. And to make something that we like, and use only 5 ingredients instead of all the unpronounceable stuff on the ingredient label of some tortillas from the store. Try them yourself and add a whole new dimension to taco night.

Whole Wheat Tortillas
8-12 tortillas

I started with the Wheat Tortilla recipe out of “Flatbreads and Flavors” by Naomi Duguid and Jeffrey Alford. Over several years I have changed the recipe and ended up with our favorite recipe. If whole wheat isn’t your thing, you can make these with all-purpose flour. But if you are feeling adventurous, buy a bag of white whole wheat flour and try ½ cup white whole wheat flour and 1 ½ cups all-purpose flour. If you like the flavor, you can try more whole wheat the next time. But trust me, you will like these as written, even if you don’t normally like whole wheat.

2 cups white whole wheat flour *
¼  tsp. salt (or slightly less)
2 tablespoons vegetable oil (I like canola)
¾ cup water, approximately
All-purpose flour for kneading and rolling out

Combine flour and salt in a medium bowl. Sprinkle on the oil and blend it in thoroughly. Gradually add ¾ cup water. If dough is too dry to gather into a ball, add about a tablespoon of water. Form the dough into a ball and knead briefly, just until dough is smooth, adding flour as necessary. The dough should be easily kneaded, but don’t add much flour, if possible.

Let dough rest 30 minutes, covered with plastic wrap. Then divide dough into 12 pieces for small tortillas, or 8 pieces for large tortillas. Roll the pieces into smooth balls.

Heat a cast iron skillet over medium high heat until very hot. Or use a griddle. No greasing necessary. A regular pan will work too, if you don’t have cast iron, but the cast iron makes a great tortilla, if you have it.

On a lightly floured surface, using a floured rolling pin and generous sprinkles of flour, roll out a ball of dough until it is as thin as you can make it. You are aiming for between 7 and 10 inches across, approximately. Rolling from the middle to the outside instead of all the way across the dough will help you keep the tortillas closer to round. Mine are often weird shapes, but they are tasty anyway. Keep a light dusting of flour on top and under the dough and turn it over frequently so it doesn’t stick. Don’t be afraid to use lots of flour. You can always brush it off later, before or after you cook the tortillas.

Place the tortilla in the hot pan and cook for 45 seconds. The bottom surface should be speckled with brown spots. Turn the tortilla over with tongs and cook the second side for 45 seconds. Adjust the heat if it takes longer or the tortillas start to burn.

Once you get the hang of it, you should be able to roll out a tortilla while another one is cooking.

Stack the warm tortillas on a plate and cover with a cloth towel as you cook them. Serve warm. Or cool in a single layer on racks and place in a zip-top bag as soon as they are cool. These freeze beautifully.

*White whole wheat flour is available in most major grocery stores. King Arthur Flour and Hodgson Mill are two name brands.

Download the recipe here.

A Word on Whole Grains

I know, I know, whole grains. Some of you are going to stop reading right now. But if you bear with me I will tell you the secret of getting all the fiber and nutrients of whole grains without the “graininess.”

Several companies make a white whole wheat flour that is easy to find at major grocery stores. Trader Joe’s has their own brand, though I haven’t personally tried it. King Arthur Flour has a good one. And here in St. Louis we can get Hodgson Mill, which is also good. In most grocery stores the white whole wheat flours are right next to the other flours in the baking aisle. You don’t even have to venture into the health food aisles.

White wheat is an albino form of wheat and isn’t bitter like traditional whole wheat can be. The white whole wheat flours are usually ground more finely than traditional whole wheat flours for a smoother texture. If you are just starting out adding whole grains to your baking, start by substituting white whole wheat flour for about a quarter of the all-purpose flour in the recipe and see how you like it. You can substitute for more of the all-purpose flour each time you bake if you like the results.

Other Whole Grains

Check out the other whole grain flours in the health food and organic sections of the grocery store. You can get barley, oat, rye, spelt, quinoa, rice, buckwheat and many other flours. Start with small amounts until you see if you like the flavors.

You can add whole grain flours to pancakes, quick breads, cookie dough and breads. Really, the possibilities are endless. Buy a bag of white whole wheat flour and try a little in a recipe. My Buttermilk Pancakes are a great way to ease into whole grain cooking. I use almost all white whole wheat in them, and you would never know. Trust me! And let me know how whole grain baking works for you.

Skip the Mix: Pancakes

You really can make a cake, pancakes or biscuits without a mix. Try making just one thing from scratch and see how you like the results. Once you have a few skills and ingredients, it doesn’t take much more time than using a mix and the results are worth it. When you bake from scratch you control exactly what you put in your mixing bowl and on your family’s plates. You can tailor a recipe to suit your family’s tastes and dietary needs. Make the recipe once as written, but then you can adapt is as you like. You can change recipes to include whole grain flours, to reduce the fat, salt or sugar or substitute for ingredients that you don’t like or can’t eat for whatever reason.

Most things like pancakes and cakes are not as hard as you would think. And they are so much better when you make them from scratch. One trip to the grocery store will get you the ingredients you need for so many recipes. And the time you spend with your family trying something new is worth a little extra time.

I am including our favorite recipe for pancakes, which can be adapted as I have noted. Try them just once and I think you will be surprised at your results. Please post comments and let me know how the recipe worked for you.

Buttermilk Pancakes
12 four-inch pancakes
1 cup all-purpose flour (see notes)
1 tablespoon sugar
½ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon baking soda
1 egg
1 cup buttermilk (see notes)
2 tablespoons canola or vegetable oil (not olive oil)
1 teaspoon vanilla (optional, but really tasty)
Milk or water

Start heating a lightly greased griddle or skillet over medium heat. Stir together in a large bowl the flour, sugar, salt, baking powder and baking soda. In a separate bowl, beat together the egg, buttermilk, oil and vanilla, if using. Add the liquid ingredients to the dry ingredients all at once and stir gently, but thoroughly. Don’t try to get all the lumps out, but make sure there aren’t any dry pockets of flour. If batter is too thick to pour, add milk or water, a tablespoon at a time until batter is thinner. Drop batter onto the hot, greased pan or griddle with a spoon, ladle or measuring cup. Or use a mixing bowl with a spout and pour them onto the griddle. Aim for pancakes that are about 4 inches across. Leave the pancakes alone until the edges look dry and there are bubbles over the whole surface. Flip over and cook about the same length of time, or a little less, on the other side. Serve as they are cooked or keep hot in a 250 degree oven or toaster oven. If you have any left over, they can be cooled on racks and then kept in an airtight container at room temperature for a day or two, or frozen for several months. Warm in a toaster oven or toaster just until hot, not crunchy.

Note: I make these whole wheat pancakes by substituting ¾-1 cup white whole wheat flour for the same amount of all-purpose flour. If you are starting out with whole wheat, use ¼ cup to start and increase it next time if you like the flavor. You can branch out to other flours like barley and rye, if you feel like being adventurous.

Buttermilk comes in 1-cup cartons at the grocery store, and really makes a wonderful pancake. It also keeps for weeks in the fridge. But, if you don’t want to buy buttermilk, you can use about ½ cup plain yogurt and ½ cup regular milk in place of the buttermilk. Or you can measure 1 tablespoon lemon juice or vinegar into your measuring cup and fill it the rest of the way with milk. Stir and let sit for 10-15 minutes to let the milk sour.

Download the recipe here.