Spelt Three Ways
I am not a vegetarian but do try to eat a plant-based diet. This can present a challenge, because vegetables and simple starches are rarely enough to provide a satisfying meal. Foods that are trying to be something they’re not (fake dairy and many meat alternatives) are also unappealing - they usually taste over-processed and rubbery.
So, my first visit to a macrobiotic restaurant was eye-opening. The restaurant, Souen, has been serving delicious macrobiotic food to patrons in the Village and Soho for decades. The location on 13th street recently closed for renovations, but there is such high demand for the cuisine that a competitor, Purume, has popped up just across the street and is doing very good business. Both have very tasty food, and it’s worth noting that Purume is committed to serving locally grown ingredients, purchased just around the corner at the Greenmarket.
Eating at these restaurants showed just how creative one can be when cooking or baking with grains and beans. These ingredients are healthier and less expensive than meat or poultry, and there are just as many options to keep things interesting.
Grown in the United States for just over a century, spelt was a staple in Mesopotamia as early as 5000 BC. It is a hybrid of domesticated wheat and wild goat grass. With its nutty flavor, high protein content and B complex vitamins, spelt has become very popular in the US health food market over the past two decades.
Spelt flour, made from ground spelt kernels, is a delicious flour alternative for baking bread, muffins and cookies.
Freekeh is a cousin of spelt. Made through a special roasting process that gives it a smoky flavor, freekeh has been traced back to 13th century Baghdad.
Where to Find
Given its current popularity, spelt can be found in many health food stores and even some regular grocery stores. My favorite local vendor is Cayuga Pure Organics at the Union Square Greenmarket. They have an amazing selection of organic grains, beans and flours that are reasonably priced and grown in New York State, not to mention friendly staffers who are always happy to answer your questions about preparation and storage. This is a regular stop on my Greenmarket route.
Spelt Three Ways
SIMPLE SPELT: As usual, Mark Bittman has an easy, delicious method for preparing grains in his How to Cook Everything Vegetarian (p. 536). I recommend doubling or tripling the recipe since these make fantastic leftovers. We ate our spelt with pinto beans and collard greens (I’ll address the many virtues of bean/green combinations in a later post).
- 1 cup spelt
- extra virgin olive oil or butter (I used oil)
- Combine the grain with a large pinch of salt and water to cover by at least an inch in a 4 to 6 cup saucepan. Bring to a boil, then adjust heat so mixture bubbles gently.
- Cook, stirring occasionally, until the grain is tender (about 30-40 minutes for spelt) - add boiling water as necessary to keep the spelt from drying out.
- The grain is done when it tastes tender but not mushy - drain any excess water.
- Toss the grain with olive oil or butter to taste.
The flavors and presentation of this dish give the impression of a lot of effort, but the preparation is actually quite straightforward. Our chicken came from Quattro’s Game Farm and the spinach I steamed and served as a side was from D&J. The kitchen smelled fantastic, building our anticipation - and the result was a sweet, smoky and delicious Sunday dinner (photo at left - it looked nice, though, being quasi-vegetarian, I confess that my butchering skills need work).
We skipped the yogurt garnish but sprinkled fresh lemon juice over the spinach and chicken. Best of all, since I doubled the amount of freekeh, we have leftovers for tonight!
SPELT FLOUR BREAD: There are excellent ready-made breads available at the Greenmarket, but making bread from scratch gives me a sense of satisfaction that can’t be replicated by a bakery - kneading and shaping a loaf, the smells wafting throughout our apartment, the first slice still warm from the oven. The wide selection of grain flours at Cayuga have been calling out to me lately, and I was excited to try spelt flour bread for the first time.
There are many delicious bread recipes out there, and you do not need a bread maker for most of them - just a loaf pan and your stand mixer with bread hook (some, such as pizza dough, are even better if you knead by hand). I chose a simple recipe for Honey Spelt Bread on FoodandWine.com.
I did depart from the instructions in two respects. First, I added sliced almonds to the top of the loaf before baking - this was purely decorative, though I’d imagine you could add nuts, seeds or fruit to the dough itself to modify the recipe. Next, I used the convection setting on our oven, still at 450, and found that the loaf was ready at the 27 minute mark. Every oven is different, so I suggest keeping an eye on things as you bake.
The result was a warm, nutty flavored bread - tasty when eaten alone, with any nut butter or fruit spread, or as sandwich bread. After it cooled, we cut the loaf into two halves - one was eaten immediately and the other sliced and put into the freezer for later in the week. The bread will also keep wrapped in the breadbox for about 2-3 days.