Eaters everywhere have noticeably upped their consumption of “superfoods” (ingredients that boast a number of beneficial vitamins and minerals) in the last couple of years, like omega 3-rich salmon, heart-healthy acai berries, and even chia seeds (yes, the stuff that sprouts on those terra cotta pets), which actually contain 500% more calcium than milk. And not just at home.
While you won’t necessarily find, say, goji berries being used outside of virtuous vegan cafes and juice bars, there’s a certain variety of “superfood” that’s experiencing real traction among chefs and restaurants. We’re talking about ancient grains, like quinoa, barley, freekeh, millet and teff, each of which were important food sources for early civilizations. Since many of them aren’t derived from wheat, they make an excellent alternative for today’s gluten-free diners, and they’re also perfectly suited to hearty but healthy winter dishes; just as filling as a hulking plate of pasta, minus those pesky, belly-padding carbs.
So here’s a not boring primer (we promise!) on the health benefits associated with just a few of these nutty, nutrient-packed little nuggets, as well as some New York hotspots you can find them!
What it is: Light, fluffy and filling Quinoa is a complete protein, containing all eight, essential amino acids. It’s also a good source of dietary fiber, high in magnesium and iron, gluten-free and particularly easy to digest.
Where to eat it: John Fraser uses Quinoa as a bed for a runny Poached Farm Egg, Forest Mushrooms and Chayote at his new East Village restaurant, Narcissa (he also scatters cracked, crunchy bulgur, another ancient grain, on top of a Rotisserie-Roasted Beet Salad), and chewy quinoa is sprinkled with tangy Goat Cheese and sweet Almond Dust at Shaun Hergatt’s Juni. We also love how the wholesome grain is integrated two different ways in one dish at Atrium in Brooklyn; quinoa flour is used in a Tagliatelle tossed with Cauliflower and Lemon-Cumin Cream before being topped with buttery crumbs of even more toasted quinoa.
What it is: One of the oldest grains on earth (first used by the Egyptians 10,000 years ago), Barley has a nut-like flavor and a chewy, pasta-like consistency. It can reduce blood pressure and is rich in phytochemicals, fiber and minerals, that potentially ward off a plethora of diseases.
Where to eat it: Enduro (owned by Junior’s Famous Cheesecakes’ Alan Rosen), might be the last place you’d expect to find this utterly healthful ingredient, and yet, the American grill offers an especially toothsome salad made with Barley, shaved King Oyster Mushrooms, and leaves of fresh Kale (another beloved superfood!) In addition to serving quinoa, Juni’s Shaun Hergatt doubles down on its ancient grain game with an excellent barley dish as well, paired with Berkshire Pork Tenderloin and juicy, Videcar Pears.
What it is: Popular in Levantine, Palestinian and Egyptian cuisine, Freekeh is wheat that’s harvested while still young and green, and then roasted. It’s similar to barley in texture, and the flavor is comparable to bulgur wheat, but with a grassier note. Freekeh has three times as much fiber as brown rice and twice as much as the aforementioned quinoa.
Where to eat it: It’s hardly surprising that this healthful grain is used frequently at New York’s best Middle Eastern restaurants, like Einat Admoney’s Nolita favorite, Balaboosta (in a Roasted Red Pepper Salad that accompanies Seared Black Sea Bass with an Almond Crust), and Rawia Bishara’s Tanoreen in Bay Ridge, paired with Roasted Vegetables or succulent, Coriander-crusted Lamb. But freekeh is beginning to pop up at inventive, New American eateries as well, such as The Pines in Gowanus, which serves the hearty green wheat with Pork Shoulder, Cashews and Pears.
What it is: Originally cultivated in Africa and China, Millet continues to be a staple for a third of the world’s population. And while it’s mostly been used as birdfeed in America, interest in the sweet and creamy grain has been growing, especially among gluten-free dieters. It’s a great source of fiber, iron, and vitamin B, and is easily digestible and soothing to the stomach.
Where to eat it: You’ll find Millet at all-natural fast food spot, the Little Beet, where it’s served “Southwest Style” with Tomatoes, Jalapenos and Avocado. And the endlessly creative Daniel Burns frequently experiments with the underappreciated grain at his Scandinavian tasting room, Luksus, incorporating millet into a Cranberry Bean Ragu paired with a savory sous vide Pork Neck.
What it is: A mainstay of Ethiopian cooking, Teff is the smallest grain in the world (it takes about 100 grains to equal the size of a kernel of wheat!). It has a mild, nutty flavor, lots of calcium, protein and fiber, and is naturally gluten-free.
Where to eat it: Teff forms the base of the spongy bread, Injera, used for sopping up the Misir Wot, Enguaday Tibs and Kedija Salata at Bunna Café, a popular vegan-Ethiopian restaurant in Brooklyn. But at Betony in Midtown, Bryce Shuman looks outside of Africa for inspiration, using teff and mustard seeds as a crust for Beef Tongue. And that’s just one option at the James Beard-nominated restaurant. If you’re looking for a dish that really showcases ancient grains to the fullest, be sure to try Shuman’s good for you (yet still entirely delicious) Grain Salad, made with creamy Labne, snappy Sprouts, and a rotating selection of five or more toasted grains — including many of the nutritious varieties mentioned above!