Ancient Grains Are New Again

You’ve cooked your way through quinoa of every color, dabbled in amaranth and moved beyond millet. That farro and kale salad? It’s been in your dinner party rotation for at least two years.

But when was the last time you cooked up a pot of whole berry spelt? And have you ever tried einkorn, emmer or any of the other ancient, heirloom and obscure grains that are now becoming available at the greenmarket and specialty shops all over the country?

Even if you haven’t, chefs at New York’s high-end restaurants have — seduced by the same nutty, rich and earthy flavors and high nutritional content that lured our ancestors away from their millenniums-old diet of foraged berries and the occasional antelope. Home cooks would be wise to follow suit, because cooking with these grains, each with its own characteristics and nuance, can be a delectable endeavor.

For example, at Upland, there’s savory rye and emmer porridge beneath the osso buco. Chewy einkorn berries speckle a pleasingly textured pan sauce for chicken at Gramercy Tavern. Dan Barber stirs unpearled barley, buckwheat groats and spelt into a rice-free risotto at Blue Hill, while farther uptown at Eleven Madison Park, Daniel Humm crisps emmer in hot oil to use as a garnish for salads and vegetables. And at Semilla, Pamela Yung miraculously makes fermented whole grain oatmeal with brown butter and beets into a sublime dessert.

Chefs’ newfound love for ancient and heirloom grains is a natural progression from their obsession with all things local, sustainable and authentic. Why serve the heritage pork loin and heirloom radicchio next to pappardelle made from plain commodity flour, especially when local emmer flour grown and ground on a small farm creates a better narrative on the plate? Then there’s the fact that emmer — a hardy, nutritious and nutty-tasting berry that is the ancestor of durum wheat — happens to make incredibly flavorful, springy pasta.

“We wanted to be as close to 100 percent local as possible,” said Jenny Jones, the receiving manager at Gramercy Tavern, who is in charge of procuring everything from hand-harvested Amagansett sea salt to that local emmer flour for the pappardelle.

“We source plenty of fruits, vegetables, meat and fish but were having trouble with the rest of the plate. Potatoes were no problem, but we couldn’t put heirloom potatoes on every dish.”

Ancient Grains Are New Again

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