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Mix It Up: The gluten-free grain train



By Carie Birkmeier EBS STAFF

The first time I saw the word “quinoa,” I remember having no idea how to pronounce it. This was probably 10-plus years ago. Today, this gluten-free grain substitute is much more common, and has made its way into the pantries of many home cooks. The same goes for the rest of this list—as their nutritional benefits are discovered, they are becoming a welcome substitute for less nutritious starches. Most of these gluten-free “grains” are actually seeds, or referred to as pseudo-grains. Because we typically prepare them similarly to true grain varieties, we refer to them as such.

Amaranth is a seed native to Peru that was a staple food of the ancient Incas, and has been harvested for between 6,000 and 8,000 years. This seed has a slightly peppery and malty taste, and lends itself well to being toasted or roasted before cooking. A popular preparation in South America is popping the seeds, similar to cooking popcorn. It can also be boiled and served in place of rice, but contains much more protein. The leaves of the amaranth plant can also be eaten as a micro-green, and its vibrant red flowers produce a natural dye. Its texture varies considerably depending on how it is cooked, so be sure to follow a recipe if you want a particular end result.

Millet, commonly associated with bird seed, is not just for the birds. This tiny grain packs a big punch in nutritional value. It’s loaded with folate and vital minerals, and contains high levels of fiber and protein with a low glycemic index. The seeds are small and yellow, and have a very mild flavor when cooked, making it a very versatile grain. Add it to soups, use it in a pilaf, or bake it into bread for added texture. Like amaranth, it can also be popped like popcorn.

Quinoa is one of few plant-based foods that is considered a complete protein, containing all nine essential amino acids. It comes in a variety of forms and colors, from whole seeds, to a flour-grind to dried pasta. It has a slightly nutty taste that can be intensified by toasting the grains before cooking. This is the “Bubba Gump” of the grain world—use it to up the heartiness of a salad, as a breakfast grain, as a substitute for rice, as a ground beef substitute … you get the idea.

Buckwheat, despite its name, is not a true grain. It’s a seed that is more closely related to rhubarb than it is to varieties of wheat. Its seeds are oddly shaped, almost resembling a pyramid, and are often ground into a flour and used to prepare starchy foods like bread, pancakes and noodles. Asian style soba noodles are made from buckwheat. Like quinoa, it is also a complete protein, making this a great dietary supplement for vegetarians and vegans.

Teff accounts for nearly 15 percent of the calories consumed in Ethiopia, and is quickly making its way into American kitchens. An Ethiopian staple, injera bread is made from teff flour, which is allowed to ferment before cooking it into flatbreads. Its fine grains can also be cooked whole and used in place of dishes made with cornmeal, like polenta or cornbread. It contains high levels of calcium and fiber, but not as much protein.

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