How to Cook Mediterranean-Style Whole Grains

Although people on the Mediterranean coast frequently use pasta, they also consume many other grains, such as bulgur wheat, barley, and cornmeal. When you aren’t used to eating these grains, you may not know how to cook them or add them creatively to your meals. Luckily, introducing them isn’t difficult or time consuming.

Incorporating whole grains into your daily meal plans provides a great source of complex carbohydrates, fiber, vitamins, and minerals; it also adds flavor and texture to your meals. The trick is to use grains as a smaller side dish to avoid eating too many calories and increasing your blood sugar with too many carbohydrates. Use one-half to one cup of grains with your meals to stay on the healthy side of the fence.

Getting a handle on cooking times

Cooking grains is as simple as adding water and simmering. All grains pretty much cook the same way, other than varying cooking times. In fact, you can cook all grains the same way you cook rice. The amounts listed in the table are for 1 cup of dry grain.

Whole Grain Cooking Chart
Type of Grain (1 Cup) Amount of Liquid Simmering Time after Boiling Amount of Grain after Cooking
Brown rice 2-1/2 cups 45–55 minutes 3 cups
Bulgur wheat — medium coarseness 2-1/2 cups None; remove from heat, cover, and let sit for 30 minutes and then drain any excess water 2-1/2 cups
Cornmeal (polenta) 4 cups 25–30 minutes 2-1/2 cups
Couscous 1 cup None; remove from heat, cover, and let sit for 5–10 minutes 2 cups
Pearl barley 3 cups 45–60 minutes 3-1/2 cups
Quinoa 2 cups 12–15 minutes About 3 cups
Wild rice 3 cups 45–55 minutes 3 cups

You can batch cook a few pots of whole grains for the week to save time.

Adding flavor to grains

Incorporating grain side dishes in your menu can provide extra flavor to your meals. In fact, your grain side dishes end up tasting just as good as your main dish. In the Mediterranean region, people include a wide variety of grains in their meals; you aren’t going to find a whole lot of plates with plain white rice.

Use the following tips to add some flavor and, in some cases, more nutrient value, to your grains (with the exception of cornmeal — its sweet flavor doesn’t need any doctoring up):

  • Add one to two teaspoons of heart-healthy olive oil or your favorite nut oil to your pot of grains for a light flavor. This idea works well if you have a very flavorful or saucy entree.

  • Instead of cooking your grains in water, cook them in low-sodium chicken or vegetable broth for more flavor.

  • Don’t forget your fresh herbs! Try fresh basil, cilantro, or parsley.

  • Throw in some dry spices such as cumin or cayenne pepper for a little kick.

  • Sauté garlic, onions, and mushrooms and stir them together in your cooked grains. Take it an extra step and add some fresh herbs.

  • Add chopped walnuts or slivered almonds to cooked grains for some crunch.

  • Mix in chopped tomatoes and sliced olives for a savory flavor.

  • Use 1 to 2 tablespoons of Parmesan, feta, or crumbled goat cheese in your pot of grains to add flavor and a creamy texture.

Don’t be afraid to experiment in your kitchen. You may stumble upon something superb! To make a great basic starter dish that you can serve as-is or mixed with veggies, fresh herbs, and/or cheese and nuts, try this:

Cook your grain. Sauté a shallot with 1 teaspoon of olive oil over medium-high heat. Add the shallot to your cooked grain with 1 teaspoon cumin, 1/2 teaspoon crushed coriander, 1/4 teaspoon garlic powder, and salt to taste. After you get the hang of switching up your grain dishes, you’ll never be faced with a boring side dish again!

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