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10 ways to fill out the plate with whole grains & legumes

SHAPE May 2016

Chefs add flavor, complexity and nutrients to the menu with whole grains, legumes.










As consumers increasingly seek healthful alternatives when dining out, chefs and other culinary experts are finding ways to incorporate more whole grains and legumes into their menus.

While both categories of foods can be highly flavorful and add new levels of complexity to dishes, they also are rich in nutrients that that can help lower the risk of chronic diseases. At the same time, they provide a broader ingredient palette for innovative chefs and restaurateurs. “For chefs it can be fun to use new ingredients,” says Amy Myrdal Miller, founder and president of Farmer's Daughter Consulting in Carmichael, Calif. “They drive creativity.”

But while more whole grain items and legumes are showing up on menus, nutritionists say Americans still don't get enough of either in their diets.

Over the years Americans had largely shunned whole grains and legumes in favor of a more meat-based diet, experts say. “Americans are meat-centric,” says Katherine Polenz, a professor/chef-instructor at The Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y. “From a historic perspective, when you can afford to eat meat every day, you're considered to be a wealthy person. Meat is a sign of prosperity; whole grains and legumes are associated with the opposite.

Nevertheless, she adds, “We need to wean ourselves away [from meats] for a variety of reasons — including our health.”

Whole grain foods, according to the Oldways Whole Grains Council, contain 100 percent of the entire grain seed — the bran, germ and endosperm — as compared to refined grains, which tend to retain little nutritional value after being processed. Most whole grains provide more fiber, protein and other nutrients, including calcium, magnesium, potassium, B vitamins, vitamin E and niacin.

Among other things,  whole grain products help to reduce the risk of stroke,  type 2 diabetes, heart disease and certain cancers, as well as helping to maintain weight and promote gastrointestinal health, says Angela Ginn, spokesperson for the Academy of  Nutrition and Dietetics.  Common examples include buckwheat, barley, whole corn, amaranth, spelt, oats, brown and wild rice, rye and wheat — as well as the wildly popular quinoa. Nutritionists and culinarians point out that whole grains can be substituted for refined grains, often with a minimum amount of recipe adjustment.

Legumes are plants that bear their fruit in pods and are generally low in fat and high in protein. They are also high in fiber and other nutrients such as folic acid, iron, zinc, calcium and magnesium, and are gluten-free.

Among other things, legumes can help prevent blood sugar spikes, lower cholesterol and contribute to gastrointestinal well-being. Examples include all forms of dried seeds, beans and peas, such as chickpeas, navy beans, soybeans, black beans, lentils, and black-eyed peas. They can be substituted for pasta, white rice, potatoes and even center-of-the-plate protein in some recipes.

Overall, the USDA recommends that individuals consume three servings of whole grains each day — about half of our total grain intake — and about half a cup of legumes daily.

“We get plenty of refined grains,” says Ginn.  We need to consume more of the whole grains.”

Some examples of how healthful whole grains and legumes can be incorporated into a restaurant's menu are as follows:

•    Substitute popcorn or roasted chickpeas for potato chips or other snack foods. Also, offer corn tortillas in place of flour tortillas.
•    Include whole wheat pasta instead of regular refined pasta in dishes like lasagna — but make sure you've tested the recipes. Whole grain foods taste different than refined items. “Experiment to find the right replacement,” the CIA's Polenz says. “You don't necessarily want to replace a bland roux with something else that contains a lot more flavor.”
•    Dress up salads by adding wheat berries or barley instead of refined pasta.
•    Oats may currently be popular served in the form of oatmeal or sprinkled as a topping, but chefs may want to try using them in other ways too. For example,  oatmeal can be utilized as a thickening agent in place of flour in certain sauces or soups.
•    Use chickpea or whole wheat flour instead of refined flour in pizza crust. Puree great northern beans and use them as a pizza topping base with freshly roasted vegetables and cheese.
•    At breakfast, add beans to eggs, or make a breakfast sausage by blending 25 percent of cooked whole grains or legumes with the ground meat. “Whole grains or legumes take on the flavor and texture of the meat,” Polenz says. Also, fortify breads and cereals by using whole grain products.

•    Make a cream of asparagus soup with fresh asparagus and edamame. Thicken pureed soups with legumes like white beans.
•    Use hummus — which has emerged as a popular snack food — as a sandwich spread instead of mayonnaise.
•    Replace potatoes with a more nutritionally based side dish — such as barley, apple-smoked bacon and caramelized red onion — as an accompaniment to center-of-the-plate meats or poultry. Offer brown or wild rice or quinoa instead of white rice.
•    Legumes make a great substitution for meats. Menu a burger made with black beans, sweet potato, herbs and spices, and serve it on a whole grain bun. “It's healthful and delicious,” says Myrdal Miller.

This growing interest in whole grains and legumes provides innovative chefs with a great opportunity to try new ingredients and incorporate them into the things they're serving, Ginn says.

The bottom line, Myrdal Miller observes, is that it is important that restaurants be progressive and offer menu selections that address health and wellness. “Consumers are pushing for a 'better-for-me' food system,” she says.


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