Going With Whole Grains Resolutions are so last decade. This year, share a New Year's revelation: Whole grains aren't just good for you — they taste great, too. And less familiar varieties like quinoa, bulgur and farro can help keep a wholesome new diet from becoming humdrum.

Going With Whole Grains

In the early days of a new year, I am full of virtuous resolve: I will write more real-mail letters, I will read some new-to-me authors, I will go for meandering walks, I will make more beet salads, I will up my whole grains consumption.

I must admit, I already do keep to a fairly steady diet of grains and vegetable protein (not to mention beet salads). I'm certainly quinoa's No. 1 fan and have learned to like — even love — whole-wheat pasta. In fact, I think I actually prefer chewier, heartier whole grains to their refined cousins and most likely will always reach past the white bread in favor of a seven-grain loaf.

Still, I mostly adhere to my tried-and-trues: the aforementioned quinoa, brown rice, whole-wheat penne, a handful of bulgur here and there, maybe a barley soup in the middle of winter. I'm in danger of being humdrum. While I've long experimented with wheat flour in place of white in chocolate cakes to great success, I haven't explored much further — say, for example, slipping whole-wheat pastry flour into a sticky, ginger-infused tea bread or a platter of pancakes. And why haven't I swapped farro for Arborio rice to make a healthier, cunningly named farrotto? Or stopped buying white rice altogether in favor of brown or wild varieties?

Perhaps I should amend that resolution to read: I will up my whole grains consumption and try some unfamiliar varieties — teff, for example, or amaranth. All that quinoa keeps me happily protein-filled and sated but it doesn't do to fall into a rut. After all, as a new decade dawns, it would behoove me to try out new recipes and ways of mixing up the old favorites — and all in the interest of good health.

About The Author

Nicole Spiridakis lives in San Francisco and writes about food, travel and her native state on her blog, cucinanicolina.com. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, chow.com and other publications.

Enter whole grains, which haven't had their bran and germ removed by milling and thus are considered a better source of fiber and other nutrients such as B vitamins, vitamin E, selenium, potassium, magnesium, iron and fiber, as well as other valuable antioxidants, than refined grains. Whole grains contain the entire grain kernel (the bran, germ and endosperm) and include brown rice, buckwheat, farro, millet, oatmeal, whole-wheat flour and whole cornmeal, among others. Whole grains have been shown to decrease cholesterol levels, blood pressure and risk of heart disease, and some studies have found whole grains help reduce the risks of many types of cancer. The FDA recommends eating at least three one-ounce equivalents of whole grains per day.

When trying to determine whether a packaged food product contains whole grain, look for the word "whole" in the ingredient list. Also, the first item on the list should be a whole grain.

For novices, incorporating more whole grains into the diet may seem daunting, but it needn't be. Try using half whole-wheat pastry flour in cake or pie recipes. This works particularly well in chocolate cake or a pie crust. The pastry flour is a finer grind than regular whole-wheat flour, and though the texture is a bit different, it still works, particularly if you give your palate some time to adjust. Make brown rice with vegetable or chicken broth rather than water (try two cups broth to one cup of rice, adding a teaspoon of olive oil and a pinch of salt to boost flavor and consistency).

Or switch out the rice for quinoa, the high-protein seed (generally considered a whole grain) that cooks quickly and has a light, nutty texture. Make it even simpler on yourself by choosing whole-wheat pasta — in recent years it has become much more palatable — or go for whole-grain bread (and English muffins, tortillas, etc.) rather than the white-flour option.

Some cooking tips: Rinse grains thoroughly in cold water just before cooking until the water runs clear, then strain to remove any dirt or debris. As a general rule, boil two parts water to one part grain, then add the grain, return water to a boil and simmer, covered, until tender. Test for doneness before removing from heat. Grains should be slightly chewy when cooked.

I like to throw a few varieties of whole grains together and cook them down into a thick, chewy porridge to be seasoned, either sweet or savory. For example, combine one cup long-grain brown rice, one cup millet, 1/2 cup barley, 1/2 cup oats, 1/2 cup wild rice and a teaspoon of salt, then cover with water about 2 inches above the grains. Bring to a boil, then cook, uncovered, at a simmer until all of the water is absorbed. I'll eat this for breakfast with a sliced banana, honey and walnuts, or as an accompaniment for a chickpea-chard stir-fry at dinner with a little soy sauce.

The real revelation is not just that whole grains are good for you, but that they taste good.

As the new year begins, anything is possible. I swear the sun shines brighter, and waves crash and beat against the rocks with more force — on New Year's Eve, the sun sank down under the horizon into the sea in a flaming brilliance I have never quite seen before. The crescent moon swung over the cypress trees opposite, like a still and shining ship, and the air seemed charged with possibility and hope.

In these first days of the new year, I like to treat myself to a nourishing and simple vegetable-grain soup: quinoa and spinach, perhaps, or roasted vegetable barley. It's good to eat during what are invariably rather quiet and introspective days. Next year, I might have to follow my traditional steaming bowl with a slice of whole-wheat gingerbread, or a piece of almond-teff tart. Whole grains and I are going to be together for decades to come.

A Whole Grains Primer

Bulgur (from left), barley, cornmeal and quinoa. Nicole Spiridakis for NPR hide caption

toggle caption
Nicole Spiridakis for NPR

Bulgur (from left), barley, cornmeal and quinoa.

Nicole Spiridakis for NPR

Amaranth. Seeds are crunchy and flavorful. Amaranth flour (ground from the seeds) can be used in cookies or pastas. Toast the seeds in a dry, covered skillet over medium heat until browned and beginning to pop, or simmer 1 cup of the seeds in 2 1/2 cups of water and eat for breakfast as you would oatmeal.

Buckwheat. Also labeled as groats or toasted groats (which are labeled kasha). Add 1 cup of groats or kasha to 2 cups of salted boiling water and simmer until the liquid has been absorbed, about 10 minutes. Let stand covered briefly, then fluff and serve in place of rice in pilafs or in a vegetable salad.

Bulgur. Wheat berries that have been steamed, dried and cracked. Look mostly for the fine grind. Add 1 cup of bulgur to 2 cups of salted boiling water and simmer until the liquid has been absorbed, about 10 minutes. Let stand covered briefly, then fluff and serve. Use in tabbouleh or salads.

Cornmeal. Look for whole-ground cornmeal to use in pancakes, corn tortillas and cornbread, or as polenta.

Farro. An ancient strain of wheat with a chewy texture and nutty flavor. Soak farro for at least 20 minutes and for up to 12 hours, then simmer in a large pot of heavily salted water until tender, 20 to 40 minutes depending on the type of farro being used. Drain and serve.

Millet. Takes about 15 minutes to steam, and can be mixed with vegetables and stuffed in roasted red peppers, tomatoes or zucchini.

Oats. High in fiber and an aid in lowering cholesterol, oats are most often eaten as a breakfast porridge but can be used in cookies, bread and cereal, and for brewing beer.

Quinoa. High in protein and amino acids. Wash quinoa thoroughly before cooking to remove its soapy saponin coating. Cook for about 15 minutes and use in place of rice, or in soups, stews or stir-fries, or as a breakfast cereal.

Teff. The staple grain of Ethiopia. Gluten-free, and can be used to make flatbread or to lighten baked goods.

Most supermarkets carry at least a few options for whole grains, and natural or health food stores tend to carry a wider variety. Otherwise , Bob's Red Mill carries many varieties online.