Barley, quinoa or millet a healthy choice for any meal

Through the carbs-good, carbs-bad madness of the last few years, whole grains have not lost their luster as a healthful choice. Not only that, but their low cost and low environmental impact compared with items higher up on the food chain make them a virtuous ecological choice.

Enough to drive you straight to the candy aisle for a Snickers bar?

Take another look. Forget about the good-for-you part. Think about the taste.

Jon Pell, executive chef and owner of Sunflower Restaurant in Boulder, Colo., describes a recent special: Fresh herb-seared New England sea scallops with barley salad, seared local organic greens and tarragon aioli.

Did you catch the barley salad part?

Yes, barley, the stuff Grandma put into a dread-inducing gloppy soup. When combined with roasted corn, red onion, extra virgin olive oil, chopped parsley and basil, barley is, as Pell describes it, "quite nice."

The beauty of a salad with a whole grain base - be it barley, quinoa, brown rice, amaranth or bulgur wheat - is that you can dress it up or keep it casual. Make a flavorful salad with a vinaigrette and the freshest herbs and eat it as is for a light lunch or supper. Or add a bit of protein, such as seafood or chicken, to make an impressive meal.

Delicious as that protein might be - remember those sea scallops - it's grain salad that lets these stars truly shine.

Getting started

Whole grains can be a little intimidating to the uninitiated. What kind should you get and how do you cook them?

First to the type. Never had quinoa or millet? Try different salads from a natural foods deli. Whole Foods Market chef Chris Clarke says the store generally has three or four types of whole grains-based salads. Figure out what you like best. As Clarke points out, most grains can be used interchangeably in recipes, although certain grains combine particularly well with particular flavors.

Fear of cooking an unfamiliar grain stops some people cold. Relax. The beauty of grains is that they are cheap enough to experiment with. If you have a failure, it's not like you ruined a $19-a-pound piece of fish. Then there's the time factor. Some require long cooking.

The remedy: Plan ahead. Cook the grain on a day you'll be home. It's not like throwing salt in a bit of water or broth is too taxing. You just have to be there for the cooking. Cook it, chill it and plan on preparing your salad the next day, if you're time pressed.

If the process still seems daunting, try using a rice cooker. A moisture sensor should let you know when the grain is done. And don't forget about bulgur wheat, the main ingredient in the perennial favorite taboulleh. Just pour boiling water over it. Let it sit for about a half hour and drain, pressing out as much water as possible.

Adding flavor

Now the fun part: Combining vegetables, herbs and dressing with the grain. Clarke says one approach is to pair the seasoning palate with the grain's origin. Quinoa and amaranth, for example, have New World roots. Try Latin/Southwest flavors such as a lime- or orange-based dressing, chiles, onions, corn, cumin, tomatoes, cilantro and possibly black beans. Clarke suggests cutting corn directly from the cob and adding it to the salad without cooking.

"It has such a great, fresh crunch. It's really good," she says.

And don't forget the fruit. Mangoes or even peaches could work well with Latin flavors.

Pell suggests pairing basmati rice with curry.

"Curry and rice seem to go together really well," he says.

He would add sweet peas, finely diced or shredded carrot, toasted cashews, scallions and raisins or currants. He cooks the rice with a little curry powder and then uses it in the dressing, as well. The vinaigrette would be made with canola oil, apple cider vinegar, salt and pepper, curry powder. He also would add a little sweetener such as agave to take the bitter edge off the curry powder.

For a Mediterranean-type salad, try barley, tomatoes, onions, garlic or shallots, red peppers and fresh basil with a balsamic vinaigrette dressing.

For a north African accent, use whole wheat couscous - technically a pasta rather than a grain - carrots, onions, red peppers and a dressing made with preserved lemon juice, cumin, coriander and a touch of cinnamon. Put a dollop of harissa on the top.

Want a taste of the American South? Try black-eyed peas, brown rice, red pepper, sweet onion, steamed and chopped collard greens, Tabasco and a bit of ham with a vinaigrette dressing.

The choices are limited only by your imagination. And once the salad is done, so is the meal.

"It's like a cold version of a casserole," Clarke says. "You can get everything in one bowl."

And by the way, it's good for you.

Tomato, Basil and Millet Salad

1 cup millet, rinsed and thoroughly drained

2 cups vegetable broth

1 can (15 ounces) black-eyed peas, rinsed and drained

1 cup green onions, chopped (1 bunch)

1⁄3 cup fresh basil, thinly sliced

1⁄2 cup olive oil

1⁄4 cup balsamic vinegar

1 teaspoon salt

1⁄2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1 pint basket of cherry tomatoes, halved

6 large leaves of green or red leaf lettuce, rinsed and patted dry

Set a large, heavy-bottomed skillet over high heat. Add the drained millet to the skillet, dry out the millet, and then begin toasting the millet, stirring often. The millet will be done when it turns light brown, emits a toasted aroma and begins dancing around in the bottom of the pan. This process of toasting the millet can take anywhere from 3 to 10 minutes.

Turn off the heat and slowly add the vegetable broth to minimize splattering. Bring the millet to a boil. Cover, decrease the heat to low, and simmer until the liquid is absorbed and the millet is tender, about 20 to 25 minutes. Remove from the heat and let stand, covered for 5 minutes. Transfer the millet to a large bowl and fluff with a fork, set aside to cool.

To assemble the salad, add the black-eyed peas, onions and basil to the cooled millet. In a small bowl, whisk together the olive oil, vinegar, salt and pepper. Pour the dressing over the millet mixture and toss to coat. Add the tomatoes; toss to incorporate. Taste and correct the seasonings. Spoon over lettuce leaves and serve. Serves 6.

Source: Whole Foods Market

Tabbouleh with Avocado

and Feta Cheese

11⁄2 cups hot water

1⁄2 cup bulgur

12 ounces plum tomatoes, seeded, chopped

1 cup chopped fresh Italian parsley

4 green onions, chopped

1⁄2 cucumber, peeled, seeded, finely chopped

4 radishes, chopped

1⁄2 cup crumbled feta cheese

1⁄4 cup chopped fresh mint

1 tablespoon grated lemon peel

6 tablespoons olive oil

3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

2 avocados, pitted, peeled, sliced

Combine 11⁄2 cups hot water and bulgur in large bowl. Cover tightly and let stand until bulgur is tender, about 45 minutes. Strain bulgur. Place bulgur in clean dry towel and squeeze out any excess liquid. Return bulgur to bowl.

Add tomatoes, parsley, onions, cucumber, radishes, cheese, mint and lemon peel to bulgur. Stir to combine. Whisk oil and lemon juice in medium bowl to blend. Season dressing to taste with salt and pepper. Add all but 2 tablespoons dressing to bulgur mixture. Toss to combine. Season tabbouleh to taste with salt and pepper.

Add avocado slices to remaining dressing; toss to coat. Mound tabbouleh on platter. Garnish with avocado slices.

Makes 4 to 6 servings.

Source: Bon Appetit, September 1999, via www.epicurious.com

Quinoa and Black Bean Salad

For the salad:

1 cup organic quinoa (rinsed, toasted and cooked with 11⁄2 cups of water)

1 cup cooked black beans

1⁄4 cup red onion, diced small

1⁄4 cup kernels of grilled corn

1⁄4 cup sweet peas

1⁄4 cup grated carrots

2 tablespoons chopped cilantro

2 tablespoons chopped fresh basil

For the dressing:

3 fluid ounces extra virgin olive oil

1 ounce freshly squeezed lemon juice

1 teaspoon sea salt

1⁄2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Mix the first eight ingredients in a bowl. Blend the dressing ingredients and add to salad. Makes 4 to 6 servings.

Tip: You may substitute any kind of cooked bean for the black beans or substitute cooked pearl barley for the quinoa.

Source: Jon Pell, Sunflower Restaurant

All About Grains

Here's a primer on the types of grains you'll find in the supermarket, and how to cook them.

•Amaranth: This sticky-textured grain does not contain gluten, making it appropriate for the gluten intolerant. Use 1 cup grain to 3 cups water. Add a pinch of salt, bring to a boil, cover and simmer 25 to 30 minutes.

•Barley: This chewy, flavorful grain is great in salads. Use 1 cup barley to 3 cups water. Add a pinch of salt, bring to a boil, cover and simmer 60 to 75 minutes.

•Bulgur wheat: This partially cooked, cracked wheat is the traditional ingredient in taboulleh. Use 1 cup bulgur to 21⁄2 cups boiling water. Combine, cover and let sit for 30 minutes to 1 hour.

•Millet: Great in salads and with sauteed vegetables. No gluten. Use 1 cup millet to 21⁄2 cups water. Add a pinch of salt, bring to a boil, cover and simmer 20 to 25 minutes. Fluff, cover and let it sit 10 more minutes.

•Quinoa: Great in salads and as a stuffing. No gluten. Use 1 cup quinoa to 2 cups water. Rinse several times to remove bitter coating. Toast in pan without oil. Combine grain and water. Add a pinch of salt, bring to a boil, cover, and simmer 20 minutes.

•Wheat: Chewy texture good for salads. Use 1 cup wheat to 3 cups water. Add a pinch of salt, bring to a boil, cover, and simmer 45 to 60 minutes.

Source: Adapted from www.wholefoodsmarket.com