Will we ever see the day when a whole grain baking book completely omits the word “healthy” in one of its many thinly veiled forms (health-conscious, nutritious, guilt-free)? Ancient Grains for Modern Meals gets pretty close. Most of the health-touting is on the publisher's sales pitch side in those book jacket flaps and press releases.
Author Maria Speck is refreshingly honest about her aversion to the association. Her Acknowledgements begin with an ode to butter-rich (whole wheat) brioche; the Introduction speaks of the flavor “spell” that those wheat berries and corn polenta first cast upon her, the “chewiness of brown rice,” the “slight sourness of rye.”
Speck is more the type who considers herself “lucky” for never having been introduced to whole grains as a health food via food pyramids, celebrities and newspaper Health sections. She learned to love them simply as part of a really good home cooked meal growing up in Greece and Germany. Lucky indeed.
Speck, who now lives in Massachusetts, goes on to explain how she stopped eating whole grains for years when she became a journalist (and was on a frantic frozen pizza and take-out diet). And how she was not reintroduced to their comforting flavors until she took up cooking again. And why she still eats a crusty French baguette in all of its refined flour glory, and a dark chocolate brownie that don't have a whole grain in sight.
The book is organized loosely into the standard breakfast/lunch/dinner categories. Breakfast and brunch items open up the first chapter, there is one on salads and sides and another on soups and stews. The burger-like grain patties, pasta, “modern mains” and “sweet endings” are here, too. As for the recipes, they have that “modern global” feel (we mean that in a good way).
In the first chapter, you'll find an Italian-inspired orange “polentina” (quick-cooking polenta) with honey-mascarpone topping, a fig-pistachio-anise riff on German muesli, Belgian-style whole wheat-saffron waffles with an orange-honey cream topping, and pancakes that sound like the perfect Mason-Dixon line peace offering (stone ground cornmeal pancakes with warm cherry sauce). But they all have a similar simple-yet-interesting thread between them, with a few recurring themes. Speck is on to something in folding whole milk Greek yogurt and freshly whipped cream together to create a pillowy “sauce” that winds up in multiple recipe variations throughout the book.
For lunch, there is a leek salad with grilled Haloumi (a Cyprus goat and sheep's milk cheese) and rye berry salad, or as summer produce looms, a tabouli and faro salad with red onions, parsley and tomatoes. That “grain burger” section of the book offers so many intriguing combos and tips on making mains like a buckwheat-feat burger with a lemon-parsley sauce, we are actually may revisit the vegetarian “burger” category, something we long ago removed from our dinner wish-list.
That Speck includes the occasional recipe that doesn't feature any grains, like a simple roast chicken dressed up with orange zest, lavender and thyme, is part of why we really love this book. That she manages to offer up good, honest cooking in a genre that almost by nature turns into a sales pitch with hardly any effort is reason enough to add it to any library.
Who knows? Maybe books like this will chip away at the way we look at whole grains — and at whole grain-touting authors like Speck. “Almost every conversation about my passion for whole grains evokes this well-meaning remark: 'You must be very healthy,'” she says in the Introduction. “This comment always leaves me speechless, because health is the last thing on my mind when I eat.” Here's to hoping that in the wake of Ancient Grains for Modern Meals, Speck will finally be able to enjoy one of her favorite desserts (wheat berries suspended in honey-sweetened whole milk yogurt that has been generously fattened up with that freshly whipped cream and topped with Grand Marnier-soaked dried figs) in blissful high fat, whole grain peace.