Good Grains: What Is Spelt?

We are stocking up on our pantry basics and working on cooking without recipes this weekend. This reminds us that we have a whole new landscape of pantry basics that have been livening up our cooking and giving fresh inspiration for improvised meals. Our new love? Grains.

Yes, grains are already part of our recommended pantry list - rice and pasta are both staples of our cupboards. But we've been exploring other grains lately too. Let us introduce you to the first of our new loves: spelt berries.

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We used to be intimidated by many of these exotic whole grains and considered them too "crunchy-hippie-granola" for our tastes, but now we're so over that stereotype. Why do we not eat more whole grains? Spelt was one of the first that we really grabbed onto, inspired by a box of spelt at Trader Joe's.

What is spelt?
Spelt is a species of wheat that was a very important crop in ancient and medieval times, but now it is only commonly grown in Europe. It's been around in the United States since the 1890s, but it was replaced in the 20th century by bread wheat. According to Wikipedia, spelt actually requires fewer fertilizers, so the organic farming movement is making it more popular again, as is the health food industry.

As you can see from the photos it has a long pointed almond shape. The grains are fairly large and distinct, just about the same shape as large orzo pasta.

You can find spelt in whole grain berries like this, or also ground into flour. We bought ours from the bulk foods bins at Whole Foods Market.

Why should I consider eating spelt?
It's delicious!! Seriously. Spelt is not just a "good-for-you" grain. It has a sweet, nutty chewiness that tastes a little like barley but without barley's sliminess. The grains stay fluffy and distinct when cooked, nicely al dente.

It's not a gluten-free grain; it's moderately high in gluten since it is, after all, a type of wheat.

But it's high in protein and fiber and like other whole grains a great addition to your diet.

It's also quick and easy to cook. We like to cook it like risotto and throw in any seasonal things we have around - fresh greens, a little lemon juice, some goat cheese. We included spelt, in fact, in our delicious Meyer Lemon Grain Salad with Asparagus, Almonds and Goat Cheese.

Try substituting spelt for rice or pasta in a salad or with curry or greens.

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How do you cook spelt berries?
• If you want the spelt berries very soft, like steamed rice, add 3 cups of water or stock to 1 cup of spelt, cover and simmer for 1 1/2 hours.

• If you like it chewier and nuttier, like for salads, use 2 cups of water or stock for every cup of spelt berries. Cook the spelt like risotto, adding half a cup at a time and stirring after each addition until the liquid evaporates. They should be tender after about 30-40 minutes.

Where can I buy spelt berries?
You can find spelt berries in most bulk food sections of health stores and organic groceries.

Buy spelt berries online, $3.09 for 28 ounces at Bob's Red Mill

(Images: Faith Hopler)