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Cookbook Giveaway: Simply Ancient Grains by Maria Speck

When I first heard of Maria Speck, I believe it was on The Splendid Table. I didn't catch the whole interview, but I did get a window into Maria's philosophy. She was talking about the healthfulness of whole grains and how she is reluctant to stand on the soapbox of what is good for you and would rather just talk about how delicious whole grains are. I loved her immediately.

This was right around the time that people were starting to talk about whole grains outside the context of health. Whole grains are, frankly, delicious. Where white wheat is bland and starchy, whole grains are nutty, grassy, smoky, bitter, sweet, and earthy. But the trouble with whole grains is that they have a bad reputation as health food.

I don't know why our culture can't appreciate that foods can be delicious and healthy. I think it must be the result of generations of exposure to junk food marketing. But when you eat a diet of mostly whole foods, you start to realize that healthy is not the death of delicious. On the contrary.

Maria's first book, Ancient Grains for Modern Meals, was a no holds barred celebration of ancient grains. As the title suggests, the recipes were fresh and modern, bursting with flavor. There was nothing stodgy or crunchy about it. It made you want to venture beyond the realm of white rice. Her latest book, Simply Ancient Grains, has the same bountiful approach as the first, but this time the focus is on fitting ancient grains into a busy schedule.

Why we picked this book

We like it when cookbook authors offer elegant solutions to common problems. In this case, the problem is that ancient grains are great, but they often take longer to cook than, say, white rice. Maria's solution is a two-step cooking method. By pre-cooking or soaking certain grains, you reduce the final cooking time dramatically. Another option is taking advantage of the weekend to cook up a big pot of grains so you have them all week long. And once your grain is cooked, you can go in about a million directions with it--breakfast dishes, lunch salads, hearty dinner mains, even desserts.

It also must be said that we tend to gravitate towards cookbooks that make us want to cook every single recipe. You get the sense, flipping through this book, that Maria was absolutely in love with every recipe she developed for it. There are no duds. Full disclosure: we love this book so much that we blurbed for it, and we know Maria personally. She's incredibly passionate and articulate about ancient grains and wants to teach others how to cook with them. She's also a completely delightful person.

Why we chose this recipe

This recipe is pretty representative of Maria's cooking style--generous, colorful, and full of great flavors and textures. Cooked kamut berries retain substantial chew; they almost pop in your mouth. But in the headnote, Maria also suggests wheat berries, farro, or sorghum as options. I could see going in all kinds of directions with this dish--using feta instead of blue cheese, blood oranges instead of navel oranges, caramelized onions instead of leeks. That's what I love about recipes like this one. They give you great ideas to start with, and then you can venture out and do your own thing.

Maria recommends soaking the kamut berries overnight before cooking, but to be honest I usually don't think this far ahead. If you simmer the grain slowly, it takes about an hour, during which time you can prepare the rest of the components for the dish and maybe squeeze in a little knitting or crossword puzzling or daydreaming. I like to think of slow-cooking foods as an opportunity to accomplish other things (or just goof off) rather than feeling chained to the stove.

Finally, kamut is fairly new to me. I had heard of it, but had never cooked it until pretty recently. It has become one of my favorite grains. There's just something really satisfying about the texture, and it holds up well. Meaning, if you cook a big batch on the weekend, it's excellent for salads, soups, what have you, throughout the week. I hope you love discovering kamut as much as I did.

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Kamut Salad with Oranges, Leeks, and Blue Cheese
Serves 4 to 6

Reprinted with permission from Simply Ancient Grains by Maria Speck (Ten Speed Press). Copyright (c) 2015.

Author's headnote: If there is one vegetable I would love to go sky-high on the trend barometer, it is the sturdy leek. To me, its elegant slender stalks are vegetable candy. My own appreciation for this humble vegetable started when I was growing up in Germany, where leeks, potatoes, and carrots were the trinity of cold long winter months when not much else was available. Even when just allowed to soften, leeks add an alluring sweetness to every dish that features them.

In this colorful winter salad, Kamut, an ancient wheat variety, provides superb chew--each bite interspersed with juicy oranges, crunchy walnuts, and pungent blue cheese. Use farro, wheat berries, or gluten-free sorghum to vary. This salad makes for a satisfying yet light lunch, or serve it next to grilled chicken or steak.

Ingredients:
           1 1/2 cups water
           3/4 cup kamut berries, soaked overnight and drained, or 2 cups cooked
           1 bay leaf (optional)
           1 small dried red chile (optional)

           1/4 cup golden raisins

           1 large orange, preferably organic

           2 leeks, cut in half lengthwise, rinsed well, and cut into 3/4-inch segments
           1/2 cup low-sodium chicken or vegetable broth
           1/2 cup dry white wine

           1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
           1 teaspoon honey
           1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt
           1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
            2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

           1/3 cup coarsely chopped toasted walnuts
           1/3 to 1/2 cup mild crumbled blue cheese such as Stilton
            3 tablespoons finely chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley, for garnish

Directions:

1. Add the water, Kamut, bay leaf, and chile to a small heavy saucepan and bring to a boil. Decrease the heat to maintain a simmer, cover, and cook until tender but slightly chewy, 50 to 60 minutes. Remove from the heat and set aside to steam for 10 to 15 minutes. Drain, if needed. Transfer to a large serving bowl, remove the spices, and spread to cool.

2. Add the raisins to a small bowl and cover with hot water. Cut off a 2 by 1-inch strip of zest from the orange, removing any white pith, and set aside. Finely grate the remaining skin until you have 1 teaspoon zest and set aside. Peel the fruit, removing any pith, and cut into 1/2-inch pieces to make about 3/4 cup (reserve the rest for another use).

3. Add the leeks, broth, wine, and the zest strip to a large skillet and bring to a boil. Decrease the heat to maintain a simmer, cover, and cook until the leeks are soft, 5 to 7 minutes. Drain, remove the zest strip, and add the leeks to the bowl with the Kamut. Drain the raisins and add them to the bowl along with the orange pieces.

4. In a small bowl, beat the lemon juice, grated orange zest, honey, salt, and pepper with a fork until smooth. Slowly beat in the olive oil in a thin stream until emulsified.

5. To finish, pour the dressing over the salad, gently toss, and season with salt and pepper to taste. Let sit at room temperature for 10 to 15 minutes, gently toss again, and sprinkle with the walnuts and blue cheese. Garnish with parsley and serve.

*Full disclosure--I took a couple steps to simplify this recipe when I made it. Rather than soaking the raisins on their own, I added them to the leeks as they cooked. You could probably just skip the soaking step for the raisins altogether, as most raisins are pretty moist when you buy them. I also made the dressing using the mason jar method--just combine all the dressing ingredients in a jar, shake, and you're done.

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*Note: You can use baking chocolate for this or just pick up a pound of your favorite chocolate. I used Trader Joe's (not an endorsement) dark chocolate.

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