Okay, I have a confession. I am a vegetarian. And I am proud not to be a junkfoodatarian, which is very easy to do (vegetarian or not). Cheetos are not an acceptable replacement for meat products, this I know - nor are they acceptable very often. I understand that sometimes a person just needs a Cheeto, or a Pringle, or whatever. But what do you eat if you don't eat meat? The answer is supposed to be: lots of veggies (check), lots of fruits (erm - I have a texture issue with fruits that don't start with "a" and end in "pple" or "w" and "atermelon"), whole grains, beans and legumes (yay!), tofu/nuts/other protein-rich foods, dairy for some, etc etc.
Um, notice what snuck in there? Whole grains.
I'm not as good as I should be. I'm not saying I don't eat them, I'm just saying ... I could do better. It is way too easy to toss a cup of couscous and 1 1/4 cup liquid into a pot for five minutes. Or eat a hunk of store-bought bread that claims to include whole grain, but is it really anymore virtuous than my lovely sourdough? I love whole grains. I do. But there is a huge list of grains that I have never prepared on my own, from scratch: kasha, farro, amaranth, kamut, wheatberries. I have made millet exactly once - yes, the bird seed millet - in homemade veggie burgers. It was good, certainly worth doing again. But there is just some mental block on my part. It even extends to different flours (don't even ask - whole wheat pastry flour is almost too much, let alone the more exotic versions). Rice is easy. BREAD is easy, for goodness sake. There, I said it, and I feel better.
Lucky for me I've conquered quinoa. And I only just recently, I mean within the past two months, started making oatmeal. That's right. I had never made oatmeal without depending on a pre-portioned, pre-seasoned packet. It took the darned blogosphere to kick my butt in gear on oatmeal. And now I love it. We have five single-servings of steel-cut oatmeal sitting our refrigerator right now, just waiting to be consumed for breakfast next week. That was a new project this weekend, the bulk oatmeal production, but I know we will be enjoying that oatmeal come Wednesday.
But, wait. Back up. I can cross one of those suckers off my list of "never-dones." That's right - I cooked wheatberries this weekend! Thank you, Ina Garten, in all your Barefoot Contessa glory!! Thank you, Adam, in all your Amateur Gourmet discernment. My recipe inspiration came from Ina, via Adam, and I am so happy that I finally took the plunge on a new grain.
I've been thinking about wheatberries for a while now. They are plump little suckers, chewy and hearty and just perfect for a grain salad. And you better believe I love a grain salad. So I bought some wheatberries a few weeks ago, and they languished in my pantry, untouched, next to the unopened bag of barley. Until last Friday, when something came over me and I just knew I had to bring the wheatberries out for a whirl. I also had a bit of anxiety about the whole experiment, as I had read that they can take quite a while to cook. On top of cooking time (anywhere from 45 minutes to 2 hours - whoa! - if unsoaked), Ina's recipe calls for adding the hot wheatberries to the dressing, so that they can soak up the flavor. But then they have to marinate together for about 30 minutes, so that could put me at a 2 1/2 hour dinner production time on a Friday night after work. I was nervous. But I forged ahead.
I got the wheatberries on the stove as soon as I got home, cooking in half water, half stock for a boost of flavor. I was pleased that they only took about one hour - you simmer them until they are just getting tender, still a bit al dente, with a few berries split open. Success! And I love a good, unique method to a recipe. Ina has you saute the onion in olive oil, then add additional olive oil and balsamic to the pan to create a vinaigrette, in which you douse the berries while everything is still warm. Cooking the onion had a wonderful effect on the whole dish. The aromatic flavor of onion suffused the dish, but it didn't hit you over the head the way raw onion can overpower a dish. Just fabulous, and a technique I will surely employ in grain salads to come.
Ina's original recipe is here; I tweaked it, reducing the oil and adding a bunch of additional ingredients to make this main dish fare. The original inspiration was to use up the asparagus from my box in a spring-infused salad; the asparagus made it in, plus additional radishes, chickpeas, goat cheese ...
Wheatberry & Asparagus Salad
Adapted from Ina Garten via Food Network
1 cup soft wheatberries
1 1/2 cups veggie stock
1 1/2 cups filtered water
1 red onion, finely chopped
5 tablespoons olive oil, divided
3 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
1 bunch asparagus, well cleaned, trimmed, chopped into 1-inch pieces (slice thick pieces in half)
3 scallions, white and light green parts, chopped
1/2 red bell pepper, small diced
2 carrots, chopped
6 radishes (I used French breakfast), sliced thinly
1 15-oz can chickpeas, drained and rinsed
squeeze of lemon juice, to taste
crumbled goat cheese (about 2 ounces)
Cook the wheatberries: Place the wheatberries in a medium saucepan, add the stock and water, and salt to taste. Bring to a boil, then cover partially (leave the lid ajar), reduce the heat, and simmer for about 1 hour, or until the the berries are plump and tender but still al dente. Drain. [Time this so that you drain your berries once your dressing is just finished, as described below.]
Make the dressing & asparagus: Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil over medium heat in a medium pan. Add the onion and saute until onion has softened and is beginning to brown, about 7 minutes. Add the asparagus, plus S&P to taste, and saute just until the asparagus is tender, about 4 or 5 minutes. Turn off the heat and stir in 2 to 3 additional tablespoons of olive oil and the balsamic vinegar.
Bring the components together: Place the wheatberries, still warm, in a large bowl. Add the onion-asparagus mixture and mix together. Add the scallions, red bell pepper, carrots, radishes, and chickpeas, stirring to incorporate. Add S&P to taste. Let the salad sit for at least 30 minutes at room temperature for the vinaigrette to infuse the wheatberries. When you are ready to serve, add a squeeze of fresh lemon juice to brighten the flavors. Serve with crumbled goat cheese on top.