Good to the grain

Grains are boring, right? They are the workhorses of the world's cuisines, providing neutral backdrops for more interesting sauces, vegetables, or proteins, but rarely playing the starring role. Maybe so, but this afternoon, chef Chris Douglass returned to show our class the sexier side of rice, wheat, and corn.

 Farro salad

Farro salad

We took the pantry staples out of dullsville with recipes for lemon risotto, cheesy polenta, toasty almond bulgur, red quinoa with yogurt sauce, and herby farro salad. To practice two different techniques and understand rice varieties, we also cooked plain basmati and Carolina Gold rice. The aromatic basmati was steamed on the stove with a tight fitting lid fashioned out of a paper-towel-wrapped plate. Only salt and a bit of butter was added. For the Carolina Gold—an American heirloom variety—we used the "pasta technique" where grains are boiled in a large quantity of water, then drained. The tender rice is then spread on a sheet tray to dry in the oven.

Risotto, something I like to make at home, was prepared with the traditional technique of adding ladles full of hot stock to the rice a little at a time. The constant stirring is what releases the starches and makes it creamy, but butter and grated Parmesan helped enrich it. To add some zing, fresh lemon juice and zest were stirred in just before serving. The finished dish was a perfect example of how a humble grain can be elevated to entrée status.

Farro, another heirloom grain that is said to be an ancestor of wheat, was simmered in a mixture of apple juice, cider vinegar, and water. The sweet-tart flavor infused the meaty kernels with a subtle fruity flavor. Once cooled, it was tossed with olive oil, lemon juice, arugula, mint, parsley, grape tomatoes, sliced radishes, and shaved Parmesan. This beautifully composed salad that doubles as a meal had it all—nutty texture from the farro, freshness from the greens and herbs, crunch from the crisp radishes, and a salty punch from the shaved cheese. Definitely a keeper.

 Chef Chris took our cooled polenta, cut it into triangles, topped with butter and Parmesan and baked it until golden. Then he added a savory mushroom sauce.

Chef Chris took our cooled polenta, cut it into triangles, topped with butter and Parmesan and baked it until golden. Then he added a savory mushroom sauce.

As the students buzzed around preparing their "mise en place" or stirring their polenta, chef Chris would pipe in with helpful tips. "Think of a bed of nails," he'd say when instructing a student how to crush almonds with a heavy-bottomed pot. "If you try to do too many at once, the weight of the pot is evenly distributed and the nuts won't crack... Try fewer at a time." Now that's an analogy I'll never forget.

The buffet of dishes at the end of class ended up providing the most healthful and nutritious meal we've had this semester. I didn't even mention the red quinoa that was toasted, spiced, and blended with grated red beets. The warm pilaf was topped with garlicky yogurt and sumac, a Middle Eastern spice—yet another dish that shows off the versatility of grains. They don't just work behind the scenes, they can steal the show.