Author Maria Speck Talks Grains, Quick-Cooking Tips, and Her Favorite Food Gift (+ A Cookbook Giveaway)

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Maria Speck is a grain guru. I bestow upon her this title, not only because she is an award-winning author with two cookbooks on the subject, but also because she elevates the humble grain into the main attraction of any meal with very little effort. We here at Eat Boutique have been long-time fans of hers and were so excited about her new book, Simply Ancient Grains–just released a few weeks ago–that we wanted to share it with you. Maria kindly spoke to us all about the glory of grains, but also about her own inspiration and motivation in the kitchen. She also shared her recipe for a divine salad below.

 ** *THIS GIVEAWAY IS NOW OVER! Thank you for participating. A winner has been chosen and will be notified shortly. 

WIN A COPY OF MARIA’S NEWEST COOKBOOK, SIMPLY ANCIENT GRAINS, by commenting below with your favorite type of grain. For an extra entry, follow us on instagram and note your username in the same comment. One winner will be chosen at random on Wednesday, May 13. We can only ship to those located in the continental U.S. Take it away, Maria.

Tell us about Simply Ancient Grains—Fresh and Flavorful Whole Grain Recipes for Living Well and what inspired you to write this particular cookbook?

During many events with my first book, Ancient Grains for Modern Meals, it became clear to me that many people think that grains take forever to cook, and that they are challenging to prepare. But the contrary is true: grains are as easy to cook as a pot of pasta. They can be on the table fast, and every day, for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, if you know a few tricks.

How does your new book differ from your first cookbook, Ancient Grains for Modern Meals?

I am a trained journalist and I have spent the first half of my career working long hours and late nights. Still, I’ve always eaten whole grains. With my new book, I want to show that this can be done, and how easy it is. I highlight some of my favorite quick-cooking grains such as bulgur, freekeh, millet, and buckwheat. I introduce short-cut cooking techniques to bring grains such as polenta to your table fast. And I’ve created a Pick Your Grains table. It enables you to make a large pot of grains ahead, and shows you which dishes you can prepare with them during a busy week. My motto for the new book is “Simple is more.”

What initially got you interested in cooking with and eating Ancient Grains? 

I always say I was very lucky because I was raised by a Greek mom and a German dad. Grains were on our table every day, not as health food, but simply as part of mouth-watering meals. No one ever told me, with a wagging finger, that I’d better eat healthy whole grains or else… For me, they are a phenomenal nourishing staple that feeds you well and sustains your energy. Best of all, most ancient grains from amaranth to teff are gluten-free.

What is an ancient grain you feel is especially underrated?

Millet and buckwheat, both. These are two splendid gluten-free grains, immensely versatile and quick-cooking—perfect for busy weeknights. One of my favorites in the book is a simple Saffron Millet. You can warm the leftovers with milk and honey: voila, breakfast.

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What grain is the most versatile to use in cooking? A pantry staple, if you will.

Given my own Greek roots, quick-cooking bulgur is my number-one weeknight staple. This par-boiled, dried, and cracked wheat can be ready in 10 minutes. You can use it all day: for breakfast, salad, soups, or as a side dish. In the summer, you don’t even need to turn on the stove. Just pour some water over the bulgur to re-hydrate it, then use it as a base for salad. What’s not to love?

Talk to us about one of the most unusual or surprising ways you’ve used ancient grains in your daily meals.

I’m inspired by tradition and by the glorious simplicity of Mediterranean food. In my book, there are a few recipes I call One Good Grain: these are recipes I created to let the flavor of grains shine, a paired-down surprise for your palate. One of my favorites is Just Tomatoes and Farro Piccolo. It showcases the smallest ancient wheat, also known as einkorn, and the dish is as simple as it is divine.

You work with many grain farmers. Tell us about one and how we can incorporate their grain into our meals.

Four Star Farms in Massachusetts grows amazing local grains such as spelt, rye, and whole wheat. I always rave about their hulled (whole-grain) barley — it is so fresh that it cooks up in 35 minutes and the aroma is beguiling. Try it in my Roasted One-Pan Chicken with Leeks and Barley.

You were raised in Greece and Germany. What were your family dinners like? I imagine, delicious, but tell us about the foods on the table.

Our meals were and still are, of course, cross-cultural: muesli for breakfast, warm Greek cauliflower salad with olive oil dressing for lunch, and German open-faced sandwiches for dinner, next to Greek salad with feta and olives. Or we might have my mom’s egg scramble with lots of fresh tomatoes, served on huge slices of crusty German whole grain bread—needless to say: it’s a splendid combo!

What motivates you to do what you do in the kitchen? 

I simply want to eat well, and—unlike my easygoing husband—I absolutely don’t like eating the same thing two days in a row. This is the motor of my creativity, and this is how I come up with new recipes all the time.

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What’s the first recipe you’d like us to tackle in the cookbook – something that will hook us in?

After the long winter, I love making the Spring Salad with Asparagus Coins, Kamut, and Lemon Vinaigrette. For breakfast, the Creamy Bulgur with Honey and Tahini. Super-simple, fast, and oh-so-good.

What do you eat when no one is looking? A guilty pleasure of sorts.

If I could, I would end the concept of guilty pleasures. Eating should always be a pleasure and enjoyed to the fullest. This includes cream, bacon, chocolate truffles, and one of my favorites: deep-fried calamari. I firmly believe that all good food can be eaten in moderation. Long ago, I made a pact with myself: since I can’t refrain from anything—I love food too much—I might as well not feel guilty.

Please share a little tip to inspire a home cook.

Always cook a large pot of ancient grains ahead on the weekend. You will be surprised how many things you can do with the grains, and how much this easy step can simplify your cooking during the week. Use the grains as a base for salads, add them to soups, or create a warming breakfast in the morning. Grains can last up to seven days in the fridge so you always have a nourishing staple at the ready.

What’s your go-to food gift?

Whatever I’m testing in my kitchen. I need eaters.

What’s one of the best food gift you’ve ever received?

Cookbooks. I eat them. Because everything I know I’ve learned either from my Greek mom or from devouring every book I own.

Editor’s Note: We couldn’t agree with Maria more. Here are a few of our faves.

What is the one item in your kitchen you can’t live without?

My German grain mill. This wood-encased stone-mill is not only gorgeous to look at. If you love to bake with whole grains, using freshly milled flour is a game-changer. I always compare it to buying a supermarket tomato and a farmers market tomato. Once you try it, you will never go back. In the meantime, look for freshly milled flour that more and more local farmers have started to offer. Get ready for a revelation!

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Kamut Salad with Oranges, Leeks, and Blue Cheese

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 spelt, 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. -Maria

Serves: 4

Ingredients:

For the Kamut
  • 1 1/2 cups water
  • 3/4 cup Kamut berries, soaked overnight and drained, or about 2 cups cooked
  • 1 bay leaf (optional)
  • 1 small dried red chile (optional)
For the salad
  • 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 (about 4 cups)
  • 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.
Reprinted with permission from Simply Ancient Grains by Maria Speck, copyright (c) 2015. Published by Ten Speed Press, a division of Penguin Random House, Inc. Photography (c) 2015 by Erin Kunkel.

Eat Boutique was an award-winning shop and story-driven recipe site created by Maggie Battista – an author, business guide and alignment seeker. After hosting retail markets for 25,000+ guests, Maggie now supports entrepreneurs as they create values-based businesses through We Are Magic StudioFollow Maggie Battista on Instagram.

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