I’ve been playing around with whole grains lately and, prompted by an impulse buy at the farmers market when I saw a new merchant shivering in the rainy cold, I became the dubious owner of a bag of organic groats.

Groats are the whole kernel grain of an oat that exists before the rolling process is done, resulting in what most people consider oatmeal — commonly called “rolled oats.” So I started playing around with groats and, the next thing I knew, I was messing with barley and brown rice, too.

Whole grains are healthier than their more refined cousins. They contain fiber, protein, B vitamins, antioxidants and minerals. They prevent absorption of the “bad” type of cholesterol, can lower triglycerides, blood pressure and insulin levels, and improve heart health. Beyond whole wheat bread, many of us do not have much exposure to whole grains, but we are missing out.

We had dinner guests one evening last week, and when my husband saw that I was cooking brown rice and barley as a side, he was horrified: “You don’t serve that to guests!” But after tasting the dish, he literally ate his words.

The following recipes dispel this misguided notion that whole grains are not for guests — that they are bland, chewy, bird seed-type substances; try these, and whole grains will go from a “must eat” as opposed to a “want to eat.”

Barley and Brown Rice ‘Risotto’

I discovered this dish kind of by accident. I planned to make brown rice and fold in some harissa — the mildly spicy Moroccan paste that is becoming increasingly popular in mainstream kitchens.

But when I measured the rice I discovered that I only had half enough for four people. So I rummaged my pantry and found a small amount of barley. I then saw that I had some toum left in a container in my fridge — and thought it would add a non-dairy bit of creaminess to the grains, while also giving a garlicky zing boost.

The toum, mixed with the harissa, created a wonderful flavor and texture that mimicked a spiced risotto — without 30-plus minutes of stirring over a hot stove. Oh, and this version was much healthier.

¾ cup brown rice

¾ cup pearled barley

4 cups broth (chicken/beef/vegetable, depending on what you plan to serve)

1 cup white wine (Note: If you don’t have white wine on hand, increase broth to 5 cups.)

¼ cup toum (you may substitute ¼ cup butter, margarine, olive oil or creamy Italian salad dressing)

3 tablespoons harissa

In a medium saucepan, bring the rice, barley, broth and wine to a boil. Lower the heat, cover and simmer for 40 minutes, or until all the liquid is absorbed and the grains are cooked through. If the grains are not cooked, add more liquid and cook longer until done. Mix in the toum and harissa. Taste for seasoning, and add more toum, harissa and salt and pepper as needed.

Serves 4

Spanish Brown Rice

This dish was a mainstay on tables in the ’70s. I recall it making frequent appearances with various meals served by my grandmother in my youth — it was often made with Minute Rice and canned tomato sauce. Nostalgia aside, it wasn’t very good, but it had potential. This update, using roasted tomatoes, broth and pimenton (smoked paprika) is the hip grandchild of 1970s Spanish rice.

1 tablespoon olive oil

1½ cups brown rice

2 teaspoons pimenton

1 teaspoon salt

3 cups broth (chicken/beef/vegetable; cook’s choice)

1 cup roasted tomatoes (see note)

In a medium saucepan, heat the oil, brown rice and pimenton. Stir until the rice is glossy and coated with spices. Add the broth and tomatoes and bring it to a boil. Lower the heat and simmer for 40 minutes until the rice is cooked and the liquid is absorbed. If the rice is not cooked through, add a bit more broth and cook until done. Note: To roast the tomatoes, toss a cup of cherry tomatoes in a bit of olive oil and salt on a cooking tray. Roast in the oven at 400 degrees, tossing occasionally, until they are charred and breaking apart, about 20 minutes. Alternatively, 1 cup of canned, fire-roasted tomatoes can be substituted.

Serves 4 JN

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