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Going With the Grain

Ancient staples trend mainstream, adding intrigue to east bay menus.


Nico OvedTimeless grains are gaining favor with East Bay chefs, putting simple starches like white rice and pasta on the back shelf. Farro, fresh-milled polenta, and red quinoa are just a few of the healthy and flavorful grains livening up menus, from brunch to dinner. We got the scoop on how to make great grains from three top East Bay chefs: David Williams of Bull Valley Roadhouse in Port Costa; Matt Greco, formerly of the Restaurant at Wente Vineyards in Livermore; and Esin deCarion of Esin Restaurant and Bar, and Revel Kitchen and Bar in Danville.



Farro is more complicated to define than it is to cook. (Derivations and product labeling vary.) This sturdy and forgiving heirloom wheat can be boiled ahead like pasta for cold salads, simmered as you would beans in a stew, or steamed like a rice pilaf. It’s become the go-to grain for gourmet vegetarian entrées, especially as a substitute for sticky Arborio rice. In winter, Williams features a farro risotto of red mustard greens and honey nut squash, while deCarion showcases one with Swiss chard, kabocha squash, and cauliflower.

“It doesn’t get clumpy like risotto, even as it cools on the plate,” says deCarion. “And a tablespoon of mascarpone at the end gives farro the creaminess of risotto.” Williams will sometimes add a splash of cream and a sprinkle of parmesan.

Farro also makes a great side dish: Greco says the distinctive chew, pearly texture, and nutty flavor of farro make a cozy bed for the gamy undertones of lamb and fowl.

Cool cousin: Barley is a bit heartier than farro but has a similar texture, and cooks up just the same. Williams likes to make a buttery, loose-style risotto with barley as a bed for fish such as black cod.  



Polenta may seem old hat, but fresh-milled, whole-grain flint corn—so perishable it requires refrigeration—is gaining the same cachet as farm-fresh organic produce. Williams sources his favorite polenta, a variety called Bloody Butcher, from Full Belly Farm in Capay Valley.

“My stock is small and fresh,” says Williams. “You can really taste the corn.” Bloody Butcher’s color, which dries red and cooks to a bluish-purple, makes for stunning presentations. Williams serves it alongside a long-simmered pork stew made with chiles and tomatillos.

Greco is also a fan of Bloody Butcher. While a chef at Wente, where flint corn is one of the restaurant garden’s crops, he played with grinding his own polenta in a mini hopper. Although cooking polenta couldn’t be easier, Greco will sometimes add an extra step and bolster that great natural corn flavor by using a stock made from simmering stripped cobs in place of plain water.

Cool cousin: Grits are a coarse white cornmeal that can be interchanged with polenta. For Revel’s shrimp and grits, deCarion gets stone-ground whole-corn grits from South Carolina. “They have such a wholesome flavor,” she says.  



Quinoa hit the American health food scene in the ’80s but is only now gaining a sophisticated reputation. Most chefs use the eye-dazzling red variety (black is also popular) in vividly colored salads, with greens such as kale and escarole.

For a “big, cold, delicious” salad, deCarion tosses together quinoa, garbanzo beans, butternut squash, watermelon radishes, and baby arugula. Meanwhile, Greco says he’s always making red quinoa salads, “dressing the greens and sprinkling in some grains.

“Quinoa is a bit like the toasted bread crumbs you might find in Southern Italian salads,” he says. “I love that texture on the lettuce.”

Quinoa is good hot, too. In last summer’s Contra Costa County Mayors’ Healthy Cookoff, deCarion’s seared quinoa cake won best-tasting dish honors. And when we talked to Williams, he was experimenting with a gluten-free, vegan-friendly, complete protein quinoa cake for brunch.

“Lose the wheat, and keep the protein,” says Williams, about this quick-to-deploy culinary weapon.

Cool cousin: Medium-coarse bulgur has the same nuttiness and cooks just as fast as quinoa (15–20 minutes), and is an ideal grain for salads and pilafs. The finest-grain bulgur needs no cooking at all, just a soak in hot water, which is how chef deCarion makes her lemony tabbouleh.


Sourcing: Where to Find Your Grains

The lemon quinoa kale salad is the most popular grain salad at Whole Foods in Northern California (wholefoodsmarket.com), which sells some 5,000 pounds of grain salads each week. With grains, the producer and origin are often highlighted, just as with produce from local farms. The kale Caesar with farro is a favorite among customers at The Pasta Shop at Rockridge Market Hall (rockridgemarkethall.com/pasta-shop), where you can find a range of premium grains, including varieties from Italy and Oakland’s Edison Grain (edisongrain.com). Oliveto founded Community Grains (communitygrains.com), an organization devoted to locally produced whole grains. Chefs also recommend SooFoo (soofoo.com) and Chieftain Wild Rice (chieftainwildrice.com). And you can find grains from Full Belly Farm (fullbellyfarm.com) at Berkeley’s Tuesday afternoon farmers market or online.

For recipes from deCarion and Williams, scroll down.


Tabouleh Salad

Serves 6 as a side salad

This recipe comes from Esin deCarion, chef and co-owner of Esin Restaurant and Bar, and Revel Kitchen and Bar, both in Danville. In Turkey, little to no water is used to soften the bulgur, so the grains come out fairly chewy. Here, deCarion has added ¼ cup of water to the recipe, and you can use more if you prefer a softer tabouleh. Fine-grain bulgur wheat and spicy aleppo pepper can be found at most specialty and Middle Eastern markets.

1 cup fine-grain bulgur wheat (number 1 grade)
1¼ cups hot water
¾ cup chopped Italian parsley
¼ cup chopped mint
¼ cup chopped scallions
½ cup chopped Roma tomatoes
½ cup chopped English cucumber
¼ cup lemon juice
¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon aleppo pepper (or other medium-heat crushed red pepper)
1½ teaspoons sea salt

1. Place bulgur wheat in a mixing bowl, pour hot water over, and stir. Cover the bowl and let stand about 10 minutes.
2. Uncover the bowl and stir the bulgur to separate the grains so it is not clumpy.
3. Add chopped parsley, mint, scallions, tomatoes, cucumber, and lemon juice, olive oil, aleppo pepper, and salt. Stir until well blended. Adjust seasoning if needed.
4. Cover and refrigerate for about an hour before using, so flavors can soak into bulgur.


Arugula radish and wheat berry salad

Serves 8 as a side salad

This recipe comes from David Williams, chef at The Bull Valley Roadhouse in Port Costa. To make it a more substantial dish, you can add mandarins or other seasonal fruit, toasted almonds or hazelnuts, and/or cheeses such as feta or parmesan. You can even substitute cooked winter or summer squash or braised kale served warm for the salad ingredients. Options are endless.

1½ cups wheat berries
2 liters well-salted water for boiling (should taste like the ocean)
1 bay leaf
4 sprigs thyme
Juice from 2 oranges (about 1/3 cup)
¼ cup Champagne vinegar (or another high-quality white wine vinegar)
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1 cup olive oil
4 ounces arugula or other peppery greens (chicories work well)
1 bunch French breakfast radish, washed and cut in quarters
¼ bunch flat leaf parsley, leaves picked
Salt and pepper to taste

1. Boil wheat berries in salted water with the 2 whole sprigs of the thyme until mostly tender, about 40 minutes. Strain and cool on a sheet tray. Discard thyme sprigs.
2. In a bowl whisk together leaves from remaining 2 thyme sprigs, orange juice, vinegar, and mustard. Slowly add oil while whisking. Add salt and pepper to taste
3.  Toss berries with dressing, arugula, radish, and parsley. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

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