What do Rice-A-Roni, Tostitos, and Cocoa Puffs have in common? Aside from the fact that we never thought we'd ever mention them on this blog, the answer is that they now have packages touting them as a whole grain food. Which leads to the next question: have whole grains gotten such a bad reputation (see: gruel) that in order to entice people to eat them, they have to be loaded with salt, deep-fried or dusted in cocoa? Actually that's hardly the case. There are several restaurants like Lemonade and M Café that are making salads using a variety of grains that are delicious, even inspiring.

Italian-American cooking matriarch Lidia Matticchio Bastianich explains in her latest book, Lidia Cooks from the Heart of Italy, that farro is one of the earliest domesticated crops. However, it's temperamental and produces a low yield, so it fell out of favor with farmers, except for in regions of Italy where it was used in a polenta-type preparation before the introduction of corn to Europe. Today farro is most often used in soups and salads like Lemonade's spaghetti squash and farro with pomegranate vinaigrette.

Farro has more than twice as much fiber as wheat and is high in vitamin B because it retains its husk after cooking. Seeing the sturdy grain studding Lemonade's salad, it's surprising to discover that the texture is pillowy. This soft, starchy texture serves as a sharp contrast to the strands of squash, which are firm and almost crunchy. What brings the salad together is the garnish: tart dried cranberries that play between the brightness of the dressing and the earthiness of the farro. Everyday, Lemonade prepares more than 20 different salads and for the last few visits, we've made only two choices, farro salad or farro salad with seared tuna.

The Incas who cultivated quinoa are said to have called it the “mother grain.” However, what we know as quinoa, is not a grain, but a seed from the quinoa plant which accounts for its rich nutritional content. After all, it was meant to give life in one of the most extraordinary environments on earth. M Café uses quinoa in a variety of its salads, but currently their scarlet quinoa salad makes the most of quinoa's texture and flavor.

Scarlet quinoa salad at M Cafe; Credit: D. Gonzalez

Scarlet quinoa salad at M Cafe; Credit: D. Gonzalez

This salad's name comes not from the quinoa, although there is a red variety, the scarlet color comes from beets that are cooked with the quinoa. The salad is accented by crisp Persian cucumber and measured uses of fresh dill, chives and lemon zest, but it's the combination of crunchy quinoa and meaty beets that makes this salad more like an entrée.

When it comes to grain dishes, perhaps the most well known is tabbouleh made with bulgur. Bulgur is one of the easiest grains to cook, because it is already pre-cooked. Kernels of wheat are steamed, dried and then crushed. So we turned to the cooking blog the taste space as they recently have been posting many bulgur recipes beyond tabbouleh, including the Turkish bulgur, pomegranate and almond salad.

The Turkish bulgur salad was particularly appealing because it calls for coarse bulgur. The larger yet still tender pieces of bulgur highlight the nuttiness from the grain, without making you feel like you're also eating the shell. The elements of pomegranate seeds and mint keep the salad from being too heavy, but the inclusion of roasted cherry tomatoes adds depth. This salad came together nearly as quick as a box of Whole Grain Blends Rice-A-Roni — and as it's quite a bit more healthy and balanced, we could enjoy a bowl of Cocoa Puffs later and honestly say it wasn't for the whole grain.

Turkish bulgur, pomegranate and almond salad by the taste space; Credit: D. Gonzalez

Turkish bulgur, pomegranate and almond salad by the taste space; Credit: D. Gonzalez

Lemonade: Locations in Downtown, MOCA, Venice and West Hollywood; M Cafe: Locations on Melrose, in Culver City and Beverly Hills.

LA Weekly