These days, we’ve moved far beyond the basics of rice & wheat flour, or bread and pasta! With a global increasing interest around health and the eternal hunt for ‘better & healthier’ substitutes, it seems like there’s a new flour or grain we’re learning about every day.
Grains and flours, in all their shapes & forms, are some of the most ancient ingredients in the world- and are in most cases, nutritious and a valuable source of energy. But not everything is a grain and not everything is a flour either. We’ll touch on that in the next few paragraphs.
With the industrialization and modernization of our food system however, many of these precious ingredients have been ultra-processed, refined and stripped down from their benefits. Additionally, there seems to have been a stigma against carbs for in recent years, but fortunately, we’re slowly overcoming that!
Let’s start with flour. We typically associate flour with wheat flour, which is generally available white (bleached & fortified), whole, or unbleached white. Great for baked goods or items such as fritters, dumplings, pancakes & crepes, wheat flour is the most commonly available flour out there. However, these days, we’re seeing a ton of exciting alternatives on our shelves; some that have been used for years in certain parts of the world or that are simply made from our favourite ‘ground provisions’. Breadfruit flour, green banana flour, cassava flour, sweet potato flour, rice flour, spelt flour, masa harina, or garbanzo flour are all gluten-free, highly nutrient-dense and largely rooted in ancient practices. There are at least 25 varieties of flour out there on the market- and possibly more! Take note, however, that they often come with their own particular flavour and aroma, so you’ll need to play around with these ingredients first. They don’t always make a direct substitute for traditional wheat flour in recipes either. But once you’ve become accustomed to the specific flour, you’ll see that the options are endless! This is a great opportunity to tickle your curiosity!
In the flour family, there are also ‘nut meals’, such as almond meal or coconut ‘flour’ – which are none other than the dried nut or coconut very finely grounded. These tend to be high in fat but are excellent in adding flavour and softness for baked goods, in particular. I personally love to use them in cakes as they lend to an unequalled softness and leave a lingering nutty aroma.
Moving onto grains: we must talk about rice (and beyond), as a large part of the global population has consumed rice at least once. Rice is, very likely, the most universal grain we have out there cooked in countless ways across cultures! But we’re also exploring fabulous alternatives that come in various shapes, textures and tastes.
As with most grains, the cooking method tends to be similar: the right grain/water ratio – with the grain being fully cooked once it has absorbed all the water within a defined amount of time. Grains are generally cheap, filling and rich in fibre & protein, especially the minimally processed ones (eg. bulgur).
While oats may be a very common grain to many of us, the range of grains come from all four corners of the world and with names that may sound new to some of us: teff, farro, freekeh, bulgur, kasha – to state a few! A general rule of thumb is: the darker the grain, the less processed it is.
Often we also lump certain ingredients into the grain family, when they are neither grain NOR flour! Couscous, the scrumptious ingredient from Berber cultures of North Africa, is a combination of semolina and water, and would hence be a pasta that ‘looks like a grain’.
Quinoa is also another ‘superfood’ that gets lost in translation. This Andean ingredient is actually a seed that is prepared like a grain. Particularly popular in recent years, quinoa is healthy, versatile and easy to cook. Just remember to rinse the seeds before you cook them, as they can taste quite bitter!
Millet, which has been under the health radar in recent years as well, is also a seed! Amaranth & buckwheat are ‘pseudocereals’, as they are neither grain nor flour, but are treated in the same way a traditional grain would be.
Regardless, all the ingredients covered so far are great for you!
With that said, go out and explore all the alternatives out there! Read up on their benefits and use the internet or your smartphone to find recipe inspirations, then add your own twist!
I’ve also included two recipes you can try at home that are easy to make and use two of my favourite alternatives: garbanzo flour & couscous!
I always carry a pack of garbanzo flour (aka chickpea flour aka gram) at home, as it is extremely versatile and PACKED with protein & fibre. It’s in my opinion, the most nutritious flour out there. It also acts as an excellent egg binder substitute- and can be used in sweet and savoury recipes. You’ll find a fun recipe for a vegan, gluten-free callaloo fritter that I make countless times!
Couscous is another ingredient that I love because it can be ready within five minutes. Traditionally, there is a real art to prepare couscous and you need some special equipment to get it right- but there’s also a short cut that produces a great result. Here in Jamaica, you’ll be able to find whole-grain couscous and I’ve even seen a gluten-free based one at a few supermarkets.
Enjoy and look for more alternative grains/flour ideas on my Instagram @missmariannaf or on my blog http://nanas.kitchen
- 1 1/3 cup garbanzo flour
- 2 cups chopped callaloo
- 1 cup water + extra tablespoons
- 1 tsp baking powder
- Coconut oil
- Add-ons: scotch bonnet, finely chopped scallion (my fave), chopped parsley or cilantro (or both), thyme leaves, ground flaxseeds etc
- In a bowl, add the garbanzo flour, callaloo, baking powder and salt- mix all ingredients together.
Here is also where you add your add-ons. I highly recommend some chopped scallion FYI.
- Then add the water- add more by tablespoons to achieve a “fritter” like consistency.
- The batter will then need to sit for 15 minutes in the fridge- during this time, the garbanzo flour will bind the ingredients together so it may appear thicker then when you first mix it.
- Drizzle a bit of oil onto a large pan and allow the pan to warm up on MEDIUM heat.
- Place large spoonfuls of the batter onto the pan- flip after 3 minutes on each side. Be sure to cook these on medium heat so they don’t burn on the outside and remain undercooked from the inside. Drizzle more oil as necessary, while you go.
- At the end, I like to sprinkle some paprika on each fritter
COUSCOUS (BASIC PREPARATION)
- 1 cup couscous
- 1¼ cup water
- 1 tsp oil (optional)
- Boil the water.
- In a pot or heatproof bowl, place the couscous, oil & pinch of salt.
- Then add the hot water (it needs to cover all the couscous & just a tad more).
- Cover immediately and let it sit for exactly 5 minutes.
- Remove lid, fluff with a fork- your couscous is ready!
Marianna Farag is the passionate food-loving author behind the blog ‘Nana’s Kitchen’. Currently residing in Jamaica, she has spent years travelling the world exploring and celebrating food. This love for world culture has evidently influenced her style of cuisine – even now as a vegan. Connect on Instagram @missmariannaf for more.