Add some creativity to your diet with millet, quinoa, amaranth, barley or oats. These ancient grains were what people ate in early times when grains were much less processed. Buckwheat is one such grain, and although very nutritious, it has a strong flavor that in today's world puts many people off. Buckwheat combined with other grains has a much milder flavor. Most of these alternative grains, except for barley, work well in gluten-free diets. All offer nutrition comparable to buckwheat flour. These grains also have compounds that may help promote health and ward off disease.
Millet is more than birdseed. It's an easy-to-digest, gluten-free grain that, like buckwheat, is full of copper, manganese, phosphorus and magnesium. It has healthy fiber and works well in many main dishes. It's slightly sweet and can be used in place of rice in recipes.
Millet has been around for over 10,000 years and was one of five sacred crops in China. Unlike stronger grains like buckwheat, millet's lighter flavor lends itself as much to savory dishes as sweet. Millet is a quick-cooking grain. Used in bread, it gives a crunchy texture. Served cooked with olive oil and salt and pepper, it's a nice alternative to mashed potatoes or rice.
Native to the Andes Mountains of South America, quinoa (pronounced keen-wha) is a plant similar to buckwheat and amaranth. Like buckwheat, it's high in protein and one of the few plant sources offering a complete protein. Quinoa was a staple food for the Incas and is still important to their descendants. Quinoa isn't widely grown, however.
It's a pseudocereal, like buckwheat, although both are cooked and eaten like grains. Quinoa helps you feel fuller than most grains and can be found in crackers, granola and bread. Its tiny grains can be cooked in 15 minutes. Rinse before cooking, however, because it has a bitter coating called saponin. Quinoa can be used in dishes ranging from corn chowder to chicken fingers, tabbouleh, salad, soup and slaw.
Amaranth is another ancient grain. A native of Peru, it's been around for 6,000 to 8,000 years. It grows well in dry climates and doesn't need a lot of water. It's high in protein and, like buckwheat and quinoa, good for your heart. It may have cholesterol-lowering properties. Like buckwheat, it has anti-inflammatory qualities that may help prevent diabetes, heart disease, stroke and cancer.
To cook amaranth, use a lot of water. Use about six cups of water for every cup of amaranth. Amaranth remains crunchy, so it's good in salads and soups, or even stirred into cookie batters. It's commonly made into porridge. In Mexico, it's often popped like corn and sweetened with sugar or honey. It can also be added to other grains in cereals, bread, muffins, crackers and pancakes.
If gluten isn't an issue, barley is low on the glycemic index and very high in fiber. It has three times the soluble fiber of oats. Barley is another ancient grain; Egyptians buried mummies with necklaces of barley. Barley is also the root of the English measurement system.
Its subtle-sweet, nutty flavor makes a nice way to add nutrition to baked goods. It's moist in small amounts, but crumbly in larger amounts. Pancakes can be made successfully with only barley flour; no wheat flour is needed. Use a smaller percentage of barley flour in scones and quick bread. Barley makes a great pilaf and is good in soups. You can also cook up a big pot of barley and freeze it to use later in sweet or savory dishes.
Oats are mostly known for oatmeal. In the United States, oats are usually steamed and flattened to produce what we make into oatmeal. The more the oats are steamed and flattened, the quicker they cook. They also have a softer taste. But for a nutty, chewy texture, try steel cut oats, also called Irish or Scottish oats.
Oats are almost always whole grain, because their bran and germ are rarely removed when processed. Oats are usually considered gluten-free, although oats sometimes are processed in places where wheat products are also made. King Arthur Flour has a gluten-free oat flour that can be used in cookies, breads, pancakes and more. Rolled oats, often combined with wheat flour, are popular in cookies, muffins and pancakes.
Oats have likely been around since the Stone Age. Oats, like these other old grains, have more protein than refined grains. They may help reduce blood pressure, type 2 diabetes and LDL (bad) cholesterol. Oats (often in the form of oatmeal) are sometimes used to combat the itch caused from poison ivy and other irritants.