One secret to eating well without spending a great deal of time is the creative use of leftovers. Whenever I make a grain to go with dinner, I invariably make two or three times as much as we need and shove the rest in the fridge. Today’s delicious salad features bulgar wheat. Possibly the most easily cooked grain, bulgar wheat cooks the same as couscous: pour 1 cup bulgar wheat and 2 cups boiling water into a bowl/pot; stir; cover; let sit 20 minutes. Boom. Dinner. I like to add my seasonings before I add water. This particular batch involved salt, pepper, rosemary, and onion powder. It smelled disconcertingly like ramen when I opened the pot, taking me back to fifth grade, when I discovered that least healthful of snacks. Ah, childhood.
I used the original as a rice replacement in a bastardized Mexican salad. Mixed with whatever I have in my refrigerator, it will provide lunch for the next 3 days. Win.
So what did I have in my refrigerator?
2 cups leftover bulgar wheat, already seasoned (if unseasoned, add garlic or onion powder)
1 green pepper, chopped
15 black olives, quartered
2 oz mature cheddar, grated
1 can chickpeas, drained
fresh-ground black pepper
1 tbsp white wine vinegar
1 tbsp olive oil
Instructions: Combine ingredients, season to taste. Microwave before serving, if desired. (I did.)
It looks like a lot of ingredients, but half of those are herbs and spices. Season to taste using any spices you please. The real point here is that you can make several days worth of salad by cooking extra grains whenever you make dinner and throwing them together with veggies and maybe cheese. Lunch prep tomorrow will consist of pulling a container out of the fridge.
What’s that? The only grain you cook is pasta? Actually, the same steps can be followed to make a tasty pasta salad, too. If you cook white pasta, it probably won’t be the healthiest lunch in the world, although the veggies redeem it some. (White pasta is digested faster than whole grain, which means you’ll want to eat again sooner.) I don’t want to get too nutrion-y or make a lot of claims that I can’t back up, which is a problem I’ve encountered on a lot of sites that offer recipes involving whole grains. I’ll just make this observation: whole grains that you cook yourself retain the nutrition value that whole grains are known for, while food labelled as “whole grain” has been taken apart and put back together again, which affects its fiber content and makes it digest faster (source).
Despite anything I’ve written above, pasta is tasty. But allow me to open your eyes to a new world. Different grains have different tastes and textures, which means you can serve them often without feeling like you’re eating the same thing all the time. Some of them have a longish cooking time (up to 45 minutes), but unless you deliberately set out to make a risotto, you don’t have to babysit them the whole time; being immersed in water, they’re unlikely to burn. (Just set a timer and keep an eye on them in the last five minutes.) Here are the ones I’ve personally used in the past two month:
barley Oblong grains, doesn’t cook down too soft. Delicious nutty taste and texture. Goes well with bullion, parmesan and mushrooms if you want a rich dish, or use unflavored for a salad.
bulgar wheat The most convenient of grains, bulgar wheat is quick and easy to cook. It has light, fluffy grains that make a very good substitute for couscous, and is a main ingredient in tabouleh.
couscous Regular couscous has the same nutrition value as pasta, being made of the same material. There is a “whole grain” alternative, which is better, but it probably doesn’t have quite the same health benefits as actual grains that are whole, since it’s been processed somewhat and mixed back together.
millet Corn-like flavor, smallish round grains with a tendency to stick together. I have seen warnings that millet tends to get dry when refrigerated overnight. To counteract this possible tendency, I made up the salad the same evening, adding feta, tomato and cucumber. As those ingredients tend to produce a very wet salad when left overnight, they did in fact cancel out any drying effects, and the salad tasted the same the next two days.
pinhead/steel cut/Scotch/Irish oatmeal Like regular oatmeal, but a much nicer texture. I can’t go back to instant oatmeal after eating this. This is the one food on this list that requires moderately attentive cooking, but only for 20 minutes, and it refrigerates well for the week. This is also the one grain I don’t use for salads, although mixing in fruit is tasty.
quinoa Round grains, like couscous, but slightly larger and a more substantial texture. Full of protein, so an even better meat substitute than whole grains already are. We’re not vegetarian in the least, but I don’t find it convenient or cost-effective to have meat every day. Quinoa is not the cheapest of grains in our local shop, though, which was part of the motivation behind branching out our grain selection. The three mentioned above are much cheaper.
rice Not that hard to cook on the hob, without a rice cooker. And the leftovers are really good for rice pudding. (If you cheat, you can make a very quick rice pudding, even with the wrong–e.g. brown–kind of rice. Recipe to follow.)
I get these grains from my local Real Foods store on the way home from my office. The prices are comparable to the local supermarkets, so this isn’t like WholeFoods, which charges a fortune. In the US, you can probably get these at your local large supermarket. Bob’s Red Mill produces a lot of different grains and is carried in many grocery stores. Or try your local health/whole foods shop. It’s not just for hippies. Sometimes it’s good for a little variety.
For a more complete list of whole grains, including some I haven’t tried yet (amaranth, anyone?), see this informative list.