A culinary lens
When not used as a coating or flour, ancient grains are often soaked or boiled in liquid to make them palatable. Any liquid works and may add to the overall flavor of the grain. For example, soak buckwheat in fruit juice for use in a breakfast bowl.
“Cooked buckwheat makes a tasty side dish when earthy roots, aged dairy and herbs are added,” Ms. Asbell said. “One of my favorites is with caramelized onions and Parmesan.
“Cooked barley is great as a side. Being neutral in flavor, it absorbs lots of flavor. Cook it up in a flavorful stock and toss in carrots, celery and lots of parsley.
“Cooked kamut is snappy on the outside and creamy on the inside, buttery and chewy, and very high in protein,” she said. “It won’t fall apart in a long-simmered soup or stew, making it a good prep item that you can cook a day or two ahead of time.”
Mr. Dendauw added, “A kamut quick bread with pumpkin is great as the kamut brings a sweet, nutty, rich, buttery taste.”
Teff has a sweet, molasses-like flavor. When hydrated, it gives off a gelling, creamy starch, while being a bit crunchy, and may be used to thicken soups and stews. The bonus is it adds flavor and nutrition, as it’s a concentrated source of calcium.
“I’ve added it successfully to vegetarian chili and African spiced vegetable stews,” Ms. Asbell said. “It can be pureed into a creamy soup, as well, preferably one where the color won’t matter, such as pumpkin.”
When it comes to color, purple corn may liven up any food.
“Whole kernels can be cooked and used in a side dish,” said Jennifer Tesch, chief marketing officer at SK Food International Inc. “We’ve used flour and coarsely ground formats to encrust baked chicken breast.”
Purple corn, though more accurately identified as an ancient crop than a grain, has its origins in the Andean community — Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Venezuela—and thus is used in many traditional dishes.
“It pairs well with heat,” Ms. Tesch said. “We’ve made corn meal scones with freeze-dried purple corn and pepper jack cheese.”
A rule of thumb to follow when pairing ingredients is “what grows together, goes together,” according to Mr. Ahrens.
“Pork and jalapeno pepper-filled empanadas made with sprouted quinoa flour are one of my all-time favorite dishes. The sprouted quinoa flour adds an extra crispness to these savory pastries and pairs perfectly with fresh pico de gallo.”
Ms. Asbell added, “Most chefs don’t know that amaranth is part of the spinach family. That’s why it goes well with greens, such as spinach and chard, and you can also buy edible amaranth leaves sometimes in season. Amaranth makes a great savory porridge, piled high with greens and foods such as eggs and tofu.”
Grains don’t always need to be hydrated. “Uncooked buckwheat groats add nutrition and crunch when mixed into cookie batters,” Ms. Asbell said.
Toasting adds another layer of flavor. “Like in traditional pilaf preparations, toasting of ancient grains add flavor and improves final texture,” Mr. Emery said.
Farro is an heirloom Italian grain, which often goes by the name einkorn and spelt in other countries. Whatever the name, it’s gaining traction in the culinary world.
“The beauty of farro is its versatility and flavor,” Mr. Ziobrowski said. “It’s creamy and nutty, and just fantastic to work with.”
“Farro brings a better-for-you element to the Italian classic, risotto,” Mr. Holleman said. “The farro is cooked, then stirred into sautéed mushrooms and onion. Add garlic, chicken, white wine, and finish the dish with cream, seasoning and Asiago cheese.”
Zoës Kitchen, Plano, Texas, recently incorporated farro into its menu. A Mediterranean salad features ribbons of raw zucchini and squash, spinach leaves, roasted tomato pesto farro, lupini beans, cherry tomato bruschetta, Parmesan all dressed with Calabrian pepper vinaigrette.
“Once you go whole grain, and learn to appreciate the tastes, textures and colors of grains, you can detect the nuances of difference between particular varieties,” Ms. Asbell said.
“Learning to pair grains with other foods is an essential skill for today’s chef, just as vegetable cookery is now a growing trend. Who knows, tasting ancient grains may become as trendy as tasting wine or cheese.”