Friday, February 10, 2017

An Accidental Food Renaissance - Part 4

In later years I've noticed a very strong resistance from friends and acquaintances alike by the prospect of trying things like spelt. Yes, it's different. Yes, it sounds strange and foreign. Yes, it could be confused for a variant of "spelled". The fact that they might willingly try seemingly weirder-sounding things like quinoa and couscous, and yet scoff at the notion of trying out spelt, I feel can be chalked up to the wonders of marketing.

The irony, though, is that spelt IS wheat... specifically an older variant of wheat cross-bread with goat-grass. It's been around for a few millenia, and has been part of a rich, cultural heritage just like wheat-proper. It looks like wheat, walks like wheat, quacks like wheat. For those who swear by the Biblical significance of wheat, spelt was in there too (just look up the recipe for Ezekiel bread). However, it's far more nutrient dense, its gluten protein is fragile and more water-soluble, and I find it tastes better. Granted, most of this I didn't know [or appreciate] at the time; but what I did know made me rather excited to use it, and very forgiving of its shortcomings compared to wheat-proper. Because it's not as "stringy" as wheat, it was not easy to make the full range of baked products I was used to -- you can forget about flipping and spinning around a spelt pizza unless you want a messy kitchen. But it was possible to make Mexican conchas with spelt, since these were just big pudgy discs of bread topped with neat swirls of sugar... and I kid you not, these were the softest, tastiest conchas I have ever had in my life!

It's truly a missed opportunity to not give spelt a chance! And I still think so, even to to this day!

Understandably, spelt still contains gluten, and although it's not the same as that in modern wheat, it should still not be consumed by people who have Celiac Disease, a wheat allergy or a very severe gluten intolerance. But for those who enjoy their wheat, or are afraid of giving it up only to be accused of following a "gluten-free fad", I find spelt is a great compromise and deserves a resurgence.

But I'm getting ahead of myself....

Spelt made up a good bulk of my substitute "bready" products at the start of my experiment -- I wasn't overly demanding, so I mainly stuck with "artisanal" rolls and Mexican sweet breads baked with this stuff. The breads were a bit odd, almost-antiquated looking, but the taste was just like a nuttier, denser, richer version of regular whole wheat breads, so honestly I didn't feel like I was sacrificing a whole lot. As long as I could make sandwiches with the stuff, I was game!

But spelt was really more of a supporting character -- it was millet and sorghum that stole the show for me!

If you're a fan of couscous, then millet is essentially a more substantial version of it... and again, a lot better tasting and more nutrient-dense. I could cook it much like I did rice, and it pretty much was eaten like it too. I didn't believe in butter at the time, but millet and "low-fat" margarine tasted divine to me (and luckily it wasn't too long after I used a proper butter to compliment this grain). Do you like pork fried rice? Try pork fried millet and get blown away by a new dimension of flavor! Best of all, it felt like I could get fuller faster on the stuff than I ever did with rice, so without even realizing it I was instinctively eating slightly less. I enjoyed bringing a little bowl of millet for lunch at work, and having a nice heap of warm millet at dinner! Even to this day I still hold a good amount of reverence for millet, being among one of the most benign grains out there [blood sugar spike be damned].

Sorghum was more or less a bigger version of millet in appearance. But in taste I can definitely see why it's called "guinea corn" in some parts of Africa as it does have a slightly "corny" taste, albeit jam packed inside a ball almost a quarter of the size of your standard maize kernel. It is mealy and hearty, and it was quite easy to feel full off a cup or two of the stuff. By all accounts it seemed pretty redundant with millet... they were both tiny ball-shaped grains that cooked the same way, could be eaten the same way, and satisfied my hunger better than modern grains. However sorghum came with two amazing food properties unique too it (and not counting its benefits as a better biofuel, lol)....

First, although sorghum as a grain was only a modestly popular food crop (sadly, it's mostly used as animal feed in the US these days), the sap from the sweet sorghum plant was used as a replacement for honey and maple syrup, especially in regions where both were unavailable or too expensive. I ordered some sorghum syrup and gave it a try -- and I have to say it tasted like a hearty sugar syrup. It did have some bitter after-tones though, which is probably why it fell out of favor, but it's still enjoyed in some parts of the southern US!

Second, and probably the coolest... THE KERNELS COULD BE POPPED LIKE POPCORN!!!!

I couldn't believe it when I first read that, but I gave it a try and... yeah! You had miniature popcorn! Granted because it was so much smaller than corn, the sorghum seeds were harder to keep from burning, so a different technique such as an air popper might yield better results. Still, it was adorable, nutritious and tasty... VERY tasty! Like popcorn, but with an added sweet nuttiness to it that felt like I had added a hint of almond butter to some shrunken popcorn. It's a fun snack and highly recommended just for the sake of it! Try a popcorn/popsorghum combo for the best of both worlds! [And don't forget the butter and/or coconut oil!]

There's a lot more that I did with these grains, and I also took the opportunity to learn about other under-appreciated grains. I was interested in buckwheat which, despite the name, was not wheat at all (or even a true grain); and while I never ordered a pack of it, I did try some buckwheat noodles at a Japanese restaurant I used to go to in those days.

I discovered amaranth which is one of the most nutritious psuedo-grains in the world, and a proud traditional staple of Mexico similar to chia seed (but FAR less expensive)! It's flavor was stark and earthy, but gratifying in its own way -- it could also pop like sorghum, but as it was tinier the results of puffed amaranth were not nearly as dramatic.

I even tried small bags of mung bean and teff as exotic experiments... both of them had a bit of a learning curve, so they were pretty much left as experiments.

But all in all, I very quickly felt fully-vested in this approach, and event went so far as to order 25lb bags of spelt, millet and sorghum as I was committed to incorporating these into my diet even after my one month experiment was over!

And so the experiment continued, the enjoyment and experimentation ensued, the huge bags arrived and I had quite a bit of fun transferring them all into newly-purchased 5-gallon buckets! I had even forgotten why I started the experiment, as I wasn't as preoccupied with the cancer avoidance aspect anymore. Instead, I slowly became fascinated by the history and the reclamation of old, long-forgotten traditions, and that was what drove me to continue in full-force....

Until three weeks after the start of my experiment... when I discovered something terrifying....


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