Food chat: Banish bland grains with a couple of tricks

THE WASHINGTON POST – The Washington Post Food staff recently answered questions about all things edible. Here are edited excerpts from that chat.

Q: I want to eat more grains, but they have tasted so bland to me in the past. How to make them really savory/tasty?

A: Couple of suggestions:

– Salt the cooking water

– Use broth instead of water

Any Tender Herb Rice Pilaf. PHOTO: THE WASHINGTON POST

– Toast your grains (i.e. heat a tablespoon or two of oil/butter/schmaltz/whatever, and let your grains dry cook until they smell nutty, then add water and cook until tender)

– Add spices/aromatics: cook down onion with spices (for example, cumin) and tomato paste, then add your grains and water to cook until tender. Throw in a bay leaf or something.

– Use a bunch of herbs

Q: I am planning on taking myself on a cooking class vacation in the to celebrate my 40th birthday. I’d love any recommendations you or chatters may have for a well-rounded experience of excellent cooking instruction in interesting destinations with other things to do, but moderately priced.

I’d be most interested in French, meat, knife skills, or farm-to-table classes, but am open to all cuisine.

A: King Arthur’s baking school is wonderful. I’ve taught there and I’ve been a student. If you are interested in baking, especially learning about bread baking, there’s no place better.

If you would consider programmes outside the US, there’s a wonderful school in the Midlands, UK near Nottingham, called the School of Artisan Food. Incredibly interesting programming, dedicated teachers, and a gorgeous setting on the grounds of the Duke of Portland’s estate.

Q: I’m transitioning to a more plant-based diet, and it’s causing some, let’s just say, gastrointestinal distress. And that’s even on the weeks when I’m not eating beans. I know you’re not doctors, and I know that every body processes food differently, but I was wondering if Joe experienced the same thing when he switched over to vegetarianism. Is there is anything I could do or methods of cooking or types of food that would relieve it, barring popping Beano all day – which doesn’t really work well for me anyway? Or do I just have to grin and bear it until it passes (ha)?

A: If you’re adding a lot more fiber to your diet than you had previously, this can absolutely be an issue, and it’s not just from the beans. I’d say stick with it, increase fiber slowly, and symptoms should get better after a couple weeks. (That’s what studies have found with people who added half cup beans a day to their diet – they reported a 75 per cent reduction in flatulence after two to three weeks.)

And yes, you can all chime in with the musical-fruit jokes now!

As for cooking methods, I’ll speak primarily to beans. Soaking helps, as does pressure cooking, as does adding such ingredients as kombu, epazote, ginger and hing when you cook the beans.

You should also experiment with different varieties – some folks have less problem with, say, lentils than other kinds of beans.

Some experts say that since the oligosaccharides in beans that cause gas also feed our gut biome, we should try to get used to this – unless it’s super uncomfortable, of course.

Q: The Mediterranean diet is in the news again for supposedly boosting memory as you age, so I might try it. First, is olive oil that much healthier than, for example, canola oil? It’s much more expensive. Second, are there easy-to-make recipes? My current go-to weeknight dinner is skinless chicken cutlets, which take less than five minutes of prep time and one additional ingredient. I need something just as easy and would prefer not reheating something made four days before.

A: Don’t bank on the Mediterranean diet being any more health-giving than other diets that include lots of nutritious foods in their more-or-less whole form. We just don’t have the tools to parse these things very finely. If you like to eat that way, it’s a great choice! And I wouldn’t worry about the difference between olive and canola oil – both are mostly monounsaturated fat, and perfectly good choices. I use both. Since olive oil is expensive, you might want to use it in applications where you really taste the difference, like salad dressing, and use canola for dishes where the oil’s flavour will get overshadowed by other ingredients.