It’s a good idea to throw some curveballs now and then with some creative applications on the menu.
“We offer grains every day in our dining room, and not just on the salad bar,” says Jonathan Cambra, assistant director of culinary operations for Bon Appétit at Roger Williams University, in Bristol, R.I. “They’re so versatile and they’re a vehicle for whatever you want to do.”
At Roger Williams, grains lend their chewy, nutty, hearty presence to anything from an amaranth-stuffed poblano pepper (recipe, at right) to an acorn squash quinoa cake or a bed of saffron pilaf for braised lamb.
Here’s some grain-y advice from Cambra.
Q: How do you approach using grains as an ingredient when you’re developing new recipes?
A: When we’re working on the menu, we try to work within the seasons. Since grains are dried and always available, they’re kind of timeless. They lend themselves to every season. In the winter months, grains pair really well with butternut squash and acorn squash.
Q: Grains really are versatile, but sometimes they’re too predictable. What are other ways to add excitement to grain dishes?
A: It’s what you pair grains with that will make them stand out. Chefs these days…we will pickle anything! So I’ll take pickled delicata squash with dried chilies and mustard seed and add that to quinoa and some local field greens and top that with a local honey vinaigrette.
Q: Have you done any new appetizers with grains?
A: The Quinoa-Vegetable Cake is a great vegetarian passed hors d’oeuvres. Quinoa is blended with butternut squash. We use chickpea flour to make it gluten- free. In a larger size, the same cake can be a vegetarian entrée.
Q: What are some common mistakes made when cooking grains?
A: People don’t cook them all the way. Dried grains take time to cook and they need a lot of liquid. Another mistake, in some instances, is using just water to cook them. You can build another layer of flavor into any grain dish by using a good housemade stock instead.
Q: What’s another way to add flavor during the cooking process?
A: Grains have their own flavor, but you want to enhance that. Use
aromatics: garlic, onion, celery…sauté those before adding the stock or water. Saffron or smoked paprika give grains a distinct flavor.