As consumers gravitate to healthful options, whole grains are stealing onto restaurant menus, adding flavor, texture and nutrition.
This article first appeared in the February 2007 issue of Restaurants & Institutions(R&I).
R&I is the USA's leading source of food and business-trend information and exclusive research on operators and restaurant patrons. Editorial coverage spans the entire foodservice industry, including chains, independent restaurants, hotels and institutions. To find out more about R&I, visit its website here >>
By Allison Perlik, Senior Editor
Rich in protein, fiber and vitamins, whole grains can enhance salads, sides, bakery products and even main dishes. They're cropping up at Richmond Heights, Mo.-based Panera Bread Co. as whole-grain bread with triticale, barley, millet and spelt flour; at Swedish Medical Center in Seattle in Vegetarian Quinoa Chili; and at upscale New York City-based chain Rosa Mexicano in puffed-amaranth pancakes.
"There is definitely a raised awareness and more demand for whole grains among consumers," says Executive Chef Michel Nischan, who currently menus scallops with risotto-style farro at Dressing Room, a Westport, Conn., restaurant emphasizing local, natural and organic ingredients. "Grains differ so much in size, texture and taste; they're a great way to add variety and at the same time, rise up a couple of plateaus in the minds of folks who are looking for healthier alternatives."
Advance the Cause
Not only are many whole grains simple to prepare, they also hold well when cooked in advance, adding to the favor they find in kitchens. A sturdy composition makes grains a natural fit for high-volume operations such as Avera Heart Hospital in Sioux Falls, S.D., where Food and Nutrition Services Leader Joanne Shearer menus Mediterranean Barley-Stuffed Red Peppers and quinoa salad with black beans, corn and balsamic vinaigrette.
Grains have garnered kudos in smaller kitchens as well. When they're in season, Nischan pairs sweet Nantucket bay scallops with Italian farro, first cooked in winter-squash stock until it's almost tender. At service, the grains are heated in pure squash juice, which adds more concentrated flavor and contains enough starch to thicken the mixture without adding cheese or cream.
Bruce Sherman, chef-partner at North Pond in Chicago, cooks farro risotto-style before shaping it into cakes to pair with a meatless mushroom-based entrée. He slowly stirs vegetable stock into the wheat-like grains, slightly overcooking them to achieve a stickiness that binds the cakes. They are crisped in oil to serve.
"I like the body of farro; it lends the texture and mouthfeel I'm looking for on the plate," he says of the grain that is a close kin to wheat and spelt.
Less well-known among Sherman's whole-grain options is the Middle Eastern frikeh, a green wheat that is scorched after harvesting. Cooked in chicken stock at North Pond, the smoky grain is garnished with braised pork belly and served in apple-vinegar broth alongside prosciutto-wrapped wild striped bass.
Risotto and pilaf-style recipes provide easy blueprints for working whole grains onto menus, but many chefs take choices a step further with stuffings, stir-fries and other less-common compositions. At Aix Brasserie in New York City, millet pancakes accompany Atlantic salmon.
"Whole grains can be so aromatic; they're a great way to play on the balance between the nose and the palate," says Aix Chef de Cuisine Daniel Levy.
To make the pancakes, cooked millet seeds are mixed into a batter of butter and eggs that is cooked in a hot cast-iron pan. The little, perfectly round nuggets remain crunchy, lending texture and a pleasantly nutty flavor. For another seasonal dish, buckwheat flour contributes earthy flavor and aroma to crÁªpes that are wrapped around asparagus; the bundles are served with roasted chicken. Levy cuts the buckwheat flour with all-purpose flour to quiet its assertive taste and lend a softer texture.
Chefs are on to the idea that grains are quite companionable, combining multiple types in their preparations. It's not always a simple proposition though as cooking times and liquid requirements can complicate recipes. Executive Chef Brian Lewis at Saint Luke's Hospital in Kansas City, Mo., solves the dilemma by purchasing a par-cooked, re-dried blend for 8-Grain Mushroom Stuffing that accompanies Cornish game hens on patient menus. Along with prepared stuffing mix and whole-wheat bread, the cooked grains (wheat and rye berries, spelt, barley, brown rice, bulgur and buckwheat groats) are combined with sautéed mushrooms and onions for baking.
At most Asian restaurants, "all you see is rice, rice, rice," says Mason Citarello, managing partner at Azura Asian Bistro and Sushi Bar in Seattle. "There are so many other opportunities to introduce different textures and flavor profiles."
Because his restaurant is more inspired than authentic, Citarello confidently goes beyond rice. Among choices at Azura are squid stuffed with quinoa and brown rice; stir-fry of corn, toasted barley and quinoa with chanterelles and bacon; and buttermilk-dipped chicken cutlets fried with a dusting of seasoned amaranth flour, which Citarello says imparts greater crispness-as well as more protein and less gluten-than standard breadings.
Most whole grains are cooked in water or stock, but Citarello experiments. "Whatever flavor you're putting in the dish, make a stock from it," he says, noting that quinoa for Azura's stir-fry is cooked in corn stock. "You can use everything from rice-wine vinegar to balsamic to add some acid. Depending on the application, throw in a little fruit juice to color the grains. For sweet recipes, add simple syrups."
Form and Function
Built into recipes rather than added as accessories, grains bring unexpected dimensions to straightforward fare.
Peruvian restaurant Andina in Portland, Ore., uses high-protein quinoa, a South American staple, for nontraditional applications such as Chicharrones de Langostinos. Prawns marinated in soy sauce, garlic and yellow chile paste are coated in flour, egg wash and cooked quinoa for deep frying. A similar coating also lends extra crispness to fried chicken and potato croquettes, says owner Doris Platt Rodriguez, who advises rinsing the grains repeatedly in cold water before cooking to ease natural bitterness.
For more-striking presentations, Andina also sources rarer red and black quinoa. All three types are featured in canutos, a cannoli-style dessert in which dough made from flour, sugar, butter, grape brandy and cooked quinoa is formed into cylindrical shapes that then are filled with passion-fruit mousse.
At Pera Mediterranean Brasserie in New York City, Co-Executive Chef Jason Avery prepares beef-and-bulgur tartare inspired by Á§ig kÁ¶fte, raw Turkish meatballs similar to Middle Eastern kibbeh.
Ground bulgur mixed with red-pepper paste, tomato paste, grated tomato, Turkish red chile powder, cumin, paprika and dried mint is worked by hand to a dough-like consistency. Ground sirloin is folded into the mixture with fresh parsley, mint and pomegranate molasses; formed into quenelles and served with lettuce leaves and lemon wedges.
"I love whole grains' versatility. They're a good replacement for rice or potatoes, and they can be worked into so many dishes for texture," Avery says. "You could also use them inside ravioli or dumplings, or even stuff them inside whole fish cooked on the grill."
Get ‘Em Grains
When Chappaqua Central School District in Westchester County, N.Y., mandated that schools offer whole-wheat alternatives, student interest was lukewarm at best.
To coax the students toward open-mindedness, Foodservice Director Cathy Ashe developed "twisted" products - white rice mixed with brown, whole-wheat spaghetti intertwined with standard noodles, and sandwiches made from one slice white bread, one slice whole-wheat - to greater success. "The purpose isn't just to have those options but to encourage the children to eat them," Ashe says.
Here's further inspiration on how to incorporate whole grains into menus.
- Fairfax County Public Schools in Virginia serve whole-wheat hamburger and hot-dog buns, pretzels, pizzas and tortilla chips.
- Ricenroll, a small Seattle-based chain, offers maki rolls with brown rice at select locations.
- Students can lunch on whole-grain corn dogs at Davidson County Schools and Alamance County Schools in North Carolina.
- Oakville, Ontario-based Tim Hortons introduced a 12-grain bagel with 7 grams of fiber, mre than twice that found in most of its bagel varieties.
- White rice has been exchanged for brown in all menu applications at Saint Luke's Hospital in Kansas City, Mo.
Make It Whole
Any menu can utilize whole grains using these easy ideas from chefs and the Whole Grain Council.
- Incorporate half whole-wheat flour into cookies, muffins, quick breads and pancakes; add up to 20% of other whole-grain flours such as sorghum;
- Add cooked bulgur, wild rice or barley to bread-based stuffings;
- Prepare millet as you would polenta or grits,a dding herbs and aromatics;
- Include quinoa and millet in house-made veggie burger recipes;
- Build whole grains into casseroles, gratins and other layered dishes;
- Add cooked wheat or rye berries, wild rice, brown rice, sorghum or barley to soup;
- Use whole corn meal for corn cakes, corn breads and corn muffins;
- Coat fried items in cooked grains such as quinoa or grain flours such as amaranth for extra-crispy finishes;
- Make risotto, pilaf and other rice-like dishes with farro, barley, brown rice, bulgur, millet, quinoa or sorghum;
- Use whole-grain flour to thicken sauces instead of standard roux;
- Build sandwiches and burritos from whole-grain bread, pita and tortillas.