Grains: Fonio

Pierre Thiam told me about fonio in a TED Talks podcast, “A Forgotten Ancient Grain That Could Help Africa“. That grain was fonio. I was fascinated. I’ve been to Africa, and my son-in-law and first grandson were born there. My daughter worked on helping West Africans build sustainable businesses while in the Peace Corps. I am curious about grains, and interested in West Africa, so fonio is right up my alley.

Besides the podcast, I consulted these three resources, and then wrote my own brief synopsis below the references.

Fonio is an ancient grain that has been grown in West Africa for thousands of years. It is drought resistant, and the first crop to come in after the rainy season. It is more nutritious than rice, with more protein and a lower glycemic index. It is a very small grain, and requires a lot of labor to harvest. (Labor is cheap in the area, and farm equipment expensive.) A few people, such as the owners of the business Yolélé, believe that fonio could help locals remain in the area, produce fonio for sale on local and world markets, and help the development of the area. The blogger Oluwafemi brings up another issue: the preference of locals, especially when they move to the cities, is to default to what isn’t homegrown, thus giving up on ancient and traditional grains like fonio. Developing and encouraging homegrown products instead makes a lot of sense.

Since fonio is gluten-free, with proper development, it could rival quinoa for Westerners on gluten-free diets. Some worry that if that happens, all the fonio produced locally  would disappear from diets in West Africa and instead go to other countries, much as quinoa is disappearing from diets in South America.

Fonio is the grain from a grass, genus Digitaria, that is related to millet but much smaller. (Wikipedia.) There are white and black varieties of fonio (black fonio is found in Togo and Mali).

I was able to purchase Yolélé fonio online for about $7 for 10 ounces. I kind of wonder how this “boutique” grain will catch on in the US and actually provide a living for working folks in Africa, but I admire the founders of Yolélé for making the effort. To me, perhaps local production and local consumption in West Africa is a better answer. The crop is easy to grow, nutritious, and can be grown with sustainable agriculture.

fonio

Here is uncooked fonio:

fonioFonio compared to medium grain brown rice:

fonion compared to brown riceIt is really tiny! The Yolélé package states that the fonio they sell is pre-cooked. I am not sure if this process is similar to the production of bulgur, where the grains are first parboiled and then milled into smaller pieces. My guess is that the pieces of fonio we see in the above photographs is unmilled grain, but I am not sure.

Nutrition

1/4 cup of dry fonio has 170 calories, 1 gram fiber, 2 grams protein, sand ome iron. I note that the values for protein and fiber are less than most of the other grains I have covered.

Yolélé foods states that the glycemic index of fonio is 57. (Anything under 55 is pretty good for a grain.)

Fonio is gluten-free, an important consideration for those on gluten free diets.

Fonio is a whole grain.

The Yolélé package and a couple web sites (The Guardian and Health Benefits Times) tell us that fonio is particularly nutritious because of two amino acids, cystine and methionine. Amino acids, recall, make up proteins. Some proteins have more or less of certain amino acids in them, and thus used to be called “incomplete proteins”, although this theory has been pretty much debunked. (See Diet for a Small Planet, one of my 250 Cookbooks posts.) Still, particular amino acids are shown to have certain health benefits, as I learned from a quick net search. Methionine is good for skin, hair, and nails; cystine is also good for skin and hair, assists in detoxification, and helps in healing wounds or burns.

Cooking

water time simmering time standing
1 cup fonio 2 cups boiling water none 5 minutes

At the end of the cooking time, the Yolélé says to fluff the fonio with a fork and add salt and butter or oil.

1 cup cooks to about 2 1/2 cups.

Okay, time to taste this fonio. I grab a spoon and tentatively dig in. Oh, yum! I like this! It is kind of like cream of wheat (farina), but less wheaty and more . . . delicious! I would definitely like this as a breakfast cereal, maybe with a little fruit and rich milk. A few spices? Yes, especially cinnamon. And a little sugar.

cooked fonio

Indeed, I tried fonio for breakfast with sultans, sugar, and milk. It was quite good. I think it would also be good with a fried egg on top and some sort of sauce.

Recipes

Fonio can be used as the whole grain (at least I think the package I bought is), or it can be made into flour. I have not yet found fonio flour for sale online or in stores.

In general, fonio can be cooked as a porridge (one recipe says to cook it in a mixture of milk and water and serve with fruit). It can be cooked much like rice, with various seasonings. It can be used much like couscous or polenta, under spiced meat or vegetable mixtures. It can be used like bulgur or quinoa in taboulleh-style salads. It can be added to soups and stews. It can be made into cakes and baked or fried. The flour or the cooked grain can be added to a variety of breads.

Below are examples of recipes that show the wide variety of uses for fonio.

Yolélé Foods recipe page:

  • Kimchi Fried Fonio is fonio cooked with kimchi, onion, garlic, ginger, herbs, soy sauce, herbs, and topped with fried eggs.
  • Fonio, Butternut Squash, Spinach & Tomato Frittata – uncooked fonio is added to butternut squash, tomatoes and garlic, spinach is added, it is cooked in the oven with eggs, milk, and cheese to make a frittata.

Fonio Balls in African Peanut Sauce on the Full of Plants Tasty Vegan Recipes site.

Zesty Southwestern Fonio Salad on the Earth’s Goodness site.

Fonio Sushi from the TED blog.

Favorites: Chile Verde Pot Pies

Imagine pork simmered in rich broth with lots of green chiles and cumin and cilantro and oregano and tomatoes and onions, covered with cornmeal oozing with jack cheese. And imagine that in a bowl all your own, and you are tucked back in a chair on a cold night, savoring each spicy bite, taking it slow because it is so very hot but it tastes so good you just can’t stop.

Chile Verde Pot Pies

Gosh I love these green chile pot pies.

The inspiration for my Chile Verde Pot Pies came from a recipe clipped from a magazine or newspaper in the 80s or so. I first tried it in 2006, and improved the recipe over the years, added the topping from another old clipped recipe in 2012, and today pretty much stick with the version below.

The pièce de résistance is the topping. It’s a cornmeal based batter with big chunks of jack cheese in it. The jack cheese does not bake entirely into the batter – it oozes out and is just delicious.

A few pointers:

  • I make it in 2-3 bowls, but it could be baked in one medium pot pie.
  • We usually have a little left over for the next day!
  • I use random individual-portion ovenproof baking dishes or bowls.
  • You could make a double batch of the chile (without the cornmeal topping) and freeze half for a later meal.
  • Do not use grated cheese, especially pre-grated cheese. It simply will not melt properly.
  • The chile itself can vary a lot, but stay to the recipe with the topping. The chile part is free-form (more like the way I cook!).
  • Taste the chile after it simmers and adjust the seasonings to your own taste.

Chile Verde Pot Pies
serves 2 (usually with leftovers, we have no problem with that)

Green-chile stew

  • 9 ounces boneless pork, cut in 1/2″ cubes (I use boneless pork loin)
  • a little oil for the pan
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 small onion, chopped
  • 1/2 to 3/4 cup freshly roasted green chiles, chopped OR about a cup of bottled green chile salsa OR a small can of chopped green chiles OR about a cup of fresh or canned salsa
  • 3 small tomatoes, chopped OR part of a can of tomatoes OR use less of the salsa/green chile ingredients instead and use a can of Rotel®
  • 1/2 teaspoon oregano (use Mexican oregano if you have it)
  • 1/2 teaspon cumin
  • 1 teaspoon red chile powder
  • salt to taste
  • half a small can of pinto beans (about 1/2 to 3/4 cup)
  • half a small can of pinto beans (about 1/2 to 3/4 cup)
  • 1-2 cups chicken stock
  • 1/2 C chopped olives
  • 2 T chopped cilantro

Cornmeal Topping

  • 3/4 cup milk
  • 1 tablespoon butter
  • 1/4 teaspoon red chile powder (or paprika if you want to tame the heat)
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/3 cup cornmeal
  • 1 egg, beaten
  • 1 cup diced Jack cheese
  • 1/4 cup shredded or grated Parmesan cheese

In a medium saucepan, brown the pork in hot oil, then add garlic and onion and cook about 5 minutes. Stir in chiles, salsa, tomatoes, spices, and pinto beans (sometimes I add the pinto beans near the end of the cooking so they don’t get too mushy). Add enough chicken stock to cover the mixture and then simmer an hour or two. Stir and check occasionally, and add more chicken stock as necessary. It is done when the pork is tender, but longer cooking only makes it better.

Near the end of the chile’s cooking time, prepare the Cornmeal Topping. Combine milk, butter, red chile powder (or paprika), and salt in a saucepan and heat to a gentle boil. On heat, gradually stir in the cornmeal. Heat gently until it thickens, stirring frequently (it cooks fast!). Off heat, fold in the egg and the jack cheese.

When ready to prepare the pot pies, add the olives and cilantro. And, taste and adjust the seasonings. Add a little chicken stock if necessary: make it a little on the “wet” side, as it will bake in the oven and dry out a little. It does not require any thickening (with cornstarch or the like) as it is usually a pretty thick chile on its own.

Divide into 2-3 small individual casseroles. I use any oven-proof baking dish I have that holds about 2 cups of liquid.

Divide the Cornmeal Topping among casseroles, spreading evenly to nearly cover tops. Bake at 375˚ about 25-30 minutes or until the cornmeal is baked through.

Let cool long enough so that you do not burn your tongue, if you can stand the wait!

Grains: Kamut

I bought a bag of Bob’s Red Mill “Kamut” at Safeway yesterday. The cashier, an interesting woman from Eastern Europe who has worked at that store for years, held the bag in her hands and peered at the label. “What is this? What are you going to do with it?” I said, “I have no idea, really. I am studying unusual grains because I am curious about them!”

“The history of this ancient wheat grain is a bit mysterious” reads the package. Ooh, a mystery! It’s known as “Prophet’s Wheat” because some believe that Noah brought kamut along on the ark. It is also known as “King Tut’s Wheat”, because some say that it was found in the tomb of that Egyptian pharaoh. On the Bob’s Red Mill package, it is also called the “traditional grain of Egypt”.

Wikipedia tells me that kamut is also known as “Khorasan wheat” or “Oriental wheat”. It is a tetraploid wheat species, scientifically Triticum turanicum. It is one of the ancient grains. Khorasan is a kingdom that existed in what is now parts of Iran, Iraq, Central Asia, Afghanistan, and Egypt.

The story of how Kamut came to the United States begins in 1949, according to the Kamut® Brand Khorasan wheat website. A US airman stationed in Portugal came upon an unusual grain in the markets. He sent “thirty-six kernels of the wheat” to his father, a farmer in the US. His father grew those seeds into many bushels, and passed those seeds out at a county fair. A teen, Bob Quinn, was at the fair and saw the seeds. He went on to get a PhD in Plant Biochemistry, and when he returned to the family farm years later, he and his father found and grew some of those large grains, now known as kamut. In 1990, “the ‘KAMUT®’ trademark was registered to be used as a guarantee that the original grain would remain unmodified and always grown organically”.

Whole berries of kamut are larger than the common wheat berries that I covered in another post. They have a “chewy, toothsome texture and nutty, rich flavor makes a delicious spring and summer salad” according to Food Republic. That same site also reports that kamut has more protein than most wheat, and some people who are allergic to wheat can tolerate kamut. King Arthur Flour says kamut flour has a “rich and buttery” flavor, and in quick and yeast breads, lends a light and tender effect to baked products.

Uncooked kamut berries:

kamut

Below is kamut compared to common wheat berries and farro. This is the order: wheat – kamut – farro. The kamut is notably larger.

wheat kamut farro

Kamut compared to medium grain brown rice:

kamut and brown rice

Kamut flour and flakes are currently added to a wide variety of food products. I searched the cereal section of Whole Foods and found a cereal that contains kamut, as well as oats, spelt, barley, millet, and quinoa. This cereal has a delicious crunch!

Heritage FlakesNutrition

1/4 cup of dry kamut has 160 calories, 4 grams fiber, 7 grams protein, some calcium and vitamin B6, 15% of recommended daily magnesium, and 10% each of iron and zinc.

The glycemic index (GI) of kamut is reported on several sites as between 40 and 45. (Anything under 55 is pretty good for a grain.) Whole berry and coarsely ground kamut have lower GI values than flakes and flour kamut products. (Sources: Kamut®, Four Winds Nutrition, and Traditionally Me websites.) The variety of GI values is probably because GI varies, in general, depending on the processing of the grain.

An article in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition discusses the beneficial effect of kamut on cardiovascular risk factors. A quote: “consumption of Kamut products showed a significant reduction of metabolic risk factors such as total cholesterol, low-density lipoprotein cholesterol and blood glucose compared to control semi-whole-grain wheat. (Source: Characterization of Khorasan wheat (Kamut) and impact of a replacement diet on cardiovascular risk factors: cross-over dietary intervention study, by F. Sofi et al, European Journal of Clinical Nutrition volume 67, pages 190–195, 2013.)

The kamut I bought is a whole grain, as specified by this definition from wikipedia: “A whole grain is a grain of any cereal and pseudocereal that contains the endosperm, germ, and bran, in contrast to refined grains, which retain only the endosperm”.

Cooking

The Bob’s Red Mill package says to soak one cup of kamut in water overnight, then boil in 3 cups of water for 30-40 minutes. Or, skip the pre-soak and boil for 45-60 minutes. To me, that screams “try a pressure cooker!” Why? Because in Colorado at 5400 feet, things take longer to cook anyway, and it’s summer and I don’t want to be boiling anything on the stove for a long period of time. And also, I have an electric pressure cooker. So I google, and find how to cook kamut in a pressure cooker on the Food Storage Moms website.

water cooking time
1 cup kamut 3 cups 40-60 minutes
1 cup kamut, presoaked in water overnight 3 cups 30-40 minutes
1 cup kamut 2 cups 30 minutes in pressure cooker, high, fast release

Below is my photo of pressure-cooked kamut. I found it delicious! Big kernels of nutty, chewy, and even “buttery” tastiness. But hubby called them “rubbery”. Nevertheless, my son and his wife really enjoyed the tabouleh-style salad I made from them.

cooked kamut

Recipes

Much as I serve wheat berries, cracked wheat, and bulgur, I like kamut in tabouleh-style salads with fresh herbs like mint and cilantro, sharp cheeses like feta, nuts, any chopped vegetables, and a light dressing of olive oil and vinegar or lemon. Cooked kamut might be good added to My Daily Bread. Kamut would be good in breakfast cereals, but I would mix it with other grains.

King Arthur Flour sells kamut flour and recommends substituting some of the all purpose flour in recipes with kamut flour, with these general guidelines. As examples, they offer recipes for banana bread, scones, muffins, pancakes, and cinnamon bread (a yeast bread).

Oldways Whole Grain Council suggests this recipe:

The Kamut Brand Khorasan site has a wide variety of recipes including:

  • Khorasan Wheat, Sweet Potato, Kale, and Avocado Bowl

  • Khorasan Wheat Bread – Bread Machine
  • Wheat Tortillas
  • Khorasan Wheat Sicilian-Style Pizza
  • Khorasan Wheat Pilaf
  • Khorasan Wheat Cashew and Apricot Pilaf
  • Kamut, Quinoa, and Black Barley

Food network’s Healthy Eats:

Food Storage Moms

  • a list of 24 items you can add to kamut and other grains along with oil and vinegar of course

Glue and Glitter offers a recipe for Kamut Pilaf with pumpkin seeds, onions, and carrots. That site also links to more kamut recipes.

Below is the package of kamut I bought. On the back is a recipe for “Kushari”, with kamut, lentils, elbow macaroni, onions, oil, garlic, cumin, red pepper flakes, and tomato sauce.

Bob's Red Mill Kamut package

Grains: Amaranth

Amaranth, a new name to learn! I have to look carefully at the spelling to get it right. Why did I choose to do this grain this week? Well, I was walking the aisles of the Longmont Whole Foods and happened across the Bob’s Red Mill section of grains. Hmm, I needed a new grain for my next post. Amaranth was my choice because of its unusual name.

Amaranth is one of the Ancient Grains. These are grains and pseudocereals that are considered to have been little changed by selective breeding over thousands of years. I think it is fun to try these grains just because they have a long history, and haven’t been selectively bread for ease of growth, processing, and flavor.

Amaranth in general refers to a species of plants, the amaranthus. Amaranth is not a wheat, making it a choice for those who cannot tolerate gluten. Many species of amaranth are cultivated, some for the grain called a pseudocereal, some for the leaves to be used as vegetables, and some for ornamental reasons. A lot of amaranth species are not cultivated – they are pesky weeds, called pigweed. And yes, pigweed is common in Colorado.

A pseudocereal is the seed of any non-grass grain (amaranth is a leafy plant). The nutrient profile of pseudocerals is similar to that of grass-grain cereals. Just like our familiar wheat products like wheat berries and bulgur, pseudocereals can be cooked in water to make porridge or added to soups, main dishes, sides, and salads, and the dry seeds can be ground into flour.

The Oldways Grain Council has a wonderful article on the history and use of amaranth. I learn that amaranth is the traditional grain of Mexico. It probably originated in Peru, and became a major food crop of the Aztecs, domesticated about 8,000 years ago. It was used both for food and for religious ceremonies. When the Christian Spaniards came, they outlawed amaranth because it was used in “pagan ceremonies”. But amaranth is a hardy species, and it survived. Not only did amaranth survive in the New World, it also spread around the world and became an important food source in areas of Africa, India, Nepal, China, Russia, Thailand, and Nigeria. It came to the US markets in the 1970s.

The Bob’s Red Mill package agrees with the Oldways Grain Council article, but the description is brief and not as colorful. It states that amaranth is the “supergrain of the Aztecs”, and highly valued as a source of protein, magnesium, iron, and fiber. They have a recipe for Alegria, a sweet treat made from popped amaranth to celebrate the Day of the Dead. (It also has a recipe for amaranth fritters.)

In the online article Comeback of an Aztec Food on the Fine Dining Lovers, the authors state “It [amaranth] grows fast – more quickly than corn – in high temperatures and is able to withstand drought, with a very high yield: one plant can produce 200,000 seeds”. This same website has a great photo of amaranth growing in a field.

I open my package of amaranth. Oh, it is full of small rolly-polly seeds – they want to go everywhere! Here is a photo of amaranth:

aramanthCompared to medium grain brown rice:

aramanth and brown rice

The package gives directions for popping the seeds, which then can be used directly in sweet-type recipes. Well, I wasn’t successful! I put a tablespoon in a large pan over medium high heat and stirred. They did start popping, but I tried to get every single one popped, and they turned fairly dark brown, and tasted terrible and gritty. And the rolly pollies spread all over my cooktop. The next morning, I heard a strange hissing/popping sound after my husband finished cooking his eggs. I went into the kitchen and found amaranth seeds trying to pop under the hot pan. These little seeds are really hard to clean up!

Nutrition

1/4 cup of dry amaranth has 190 calories, 7 grams fiber, 8 grams protein, some calcium and vitamin C, 20% of suggested daily iron, 15% vitamin B6, 30% magnesium, 10% folate, and 10% zinc. Wow! None of the grains I studied so far did have as much (or any) of these mineral and vitamin RDAs. (Source: Bob’s Red Mill package.)

Food Facts states “A study on amaranth reported that its seeds contain not only important nutritional properties, but also phytochemical compounds like rutin and nicotiflorin, and peptides with the ability to help lower hypertension and incidences of cancer.” Food Facts also states “One reason amaranth is emerging into the forefront among grains is because of its remarkable nutrition. It’s higher in minerals, such as calcium, iron, phosphorus, and carotenoids, than most vegetables. It has truly remarkable protein content: cup for cup, 28.1 grams of protein compared to the 26.3 grams in oats and 13.1 grams in rice.”

Cooked amaranth has a glycemic index value of 97. (Source: Glycemic Index (GI) Guidelines for a Plant-based Diet.) The author of an article on the Very Well Fit website states: “I have not been able to find a study of the glycemic index of cooked whole-grain amaranth. Ground into flour, it seems to be somewhat more glycemic than wheat flour, possibly similar to rice flour. It can also be popped like popcorn, in which case the glycemic index is near the top of the chart, at almost 100.” (Anything under 55 is pretty good for a grain. So the high value of 97 for amaranth is unfavorable for those people looking for low glycemic index foods.)

Cooking

The package said to cook 1 cup amaranth in 3 cups water for 20 minutes, but I found it took at least 30 minutes before it was soft and all of the water was taken up.

The photo below is cooked amaranth. The cooked grains/seeds are semi-reflective.

cooked aramanthI note from one site that you should rinse the cooked amaranth with water before serving or adding to recipes. That might make it have a more pleasing texture. But, you’d have to use a pretty fine sieve to rinse it.

Amaranth can also be toasted in a dry pan and then used in sweets. But, I was not successful (discussed above), so I suggest researching other online sites for directions. The bit that I did get toasted tasted yucky to me, so I am not going to pursue this.

Recipes

I did not really like the taste of amaranth cooked as a porridge. We all have our own tastes! To me, it was almost bitter. I stirred some sugar into my porridge and it was a lot better! But that defeats my slow-carb goals. Plus the texture was a little sticky and mushy. If I was gluten-intolerant, I would pursue recipes that use amaranth flour instead.

I have not totally given up on amaranth, since I have most of a bag of it left. I might try some of the recipes in the links below. They suggest using amaranth in puddings, as a substitute for polenta, in tabbouleh-style salads (after cooking and rinsing), or mixed with yogurt and granola (after toasting).