Here We Grow Again


Canadian farmers are diversifying and chefs are demystifying some of the world’s oldest grains.

Remember when the menu featured, mashed, baked or fried? Whatever the protein — steak, lamb shank, duck confit or wild salmon fillet — the starch was invariably potatoes with an occasional nod to rice.

“We’ve come a long way from the traditional meat and potatoes plate,” says chef Michael Olson, professor at the Canadian Food and Wine Institute at Niagara College. “Our feet are still ankle deep in European cooking, but the ethnicity that makes Canada what it is today has changed things.” The most significant change has probably been the introduction of more grains to the list of ingredients with which chefs are playing and plating.

Across Canada, grains — in particular, what have become known as ancient grains — are surfacing on menus, often in a new interpretation of a traditional dish. In St. John’s, N.L., the Gypsy Tea Room serves Brome Lake duck with barley risotto ($36); at Montreal’s DNA Restaurant, mussels come with a red fife scone ($12); in British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley, Quail’s Gate serves five-spice marinated duck beside organic quinoa with fennel and almonds ($28).

Scott Vivian, chef and owner of Toronto’s Beast Restaurant, replaces Arborio rice with farro in classic risotto and there are good culinary reasons for this trend. “Farro holds up better in a restaurant setting; rice can get mushy,” says Vivian. “And, it has great flavour as well as being grown in Canada. Duck hearts with farro is one of our most popular dishes ($13).”

In fact, rice, which has less nutritional value than many other grains, has been moved off the front burner in many kitchens. At Jasper Park Lodge in Alberta, barley is first roasted, then cooked risotto style. It’s called barlotto and is served with B.C. forest mushrooms and Grizzly Gouda cheese. “It’s delicious and healthy, and well worth the extra bit of work to make it,” says Cory Ledrew, executive sous chef at Jasper Park Lodge. “It’s part of our Lifestyle Cuisine Plus menus.”

An initiative rolled out by the Fairmont chain in January, these new menus offer macrobiotic, gluten-free, heart healthy and other options that cater to a plethora of dietary concerns, which can challenge chefs devising today’s menus. Instead of white rice, nutrient- and protein-rich red quinoa is paired with prawn coconut curry ($33); wheat berries, with mashed roasted winter squash in a salad and wild rice with pecans and Napa cabbage and ginger, are served with black cod ($36). “Ancient grains are making a comeback because the focus is on healthy eating, and they add interest to a plate,” says Ledrew, adding, “I don’t think it’s a fad; it’s here to stay.”

At Vancouver’s Cru, executive chef Alana Peckham pairs sockeye salmon with red quinoa, fennel, tomatoes, garlic-herb yogurt and citrus vinaigrette($26); and organic free-range chicken is accompanied by couscous and apples, cranberries and sage ($28). Peckham is always on the lookout for new grains and Granville Market’s The Grainery is her hunting ground. When she spotted farro there for the first time, she thought it was a wheat berry, but decided to give it a try, and was delighted with the result. “Now I add it to eggplant, zucchini and Kalamata olives in a ratatouille and serve it with lamb ($16),” she says. “It has a wonderful chewy, nutty texture.”

Indeed, it’s the ability to add unique texture and flavour, which is drawing chefs to grains. At Saege Bistro in Halifax, duck breast is accompanied by creamy quinoa, cooked in chicken stock with garlic and shallots ($24). “It’s creamy but it also has a little bit of a bite to it; it’s not as heavy as mashed potatoes,” says Richard Tighe, sous chef. “We’ve had such good feedback on the quinoa, we’ve been looking at adding more grains to our menu.”

It may be healthier, and there are certainly customers who are already knowledgeable and even enthusiastic about ancient grains, but the challenge, says Kevin McKenna, executive chef of Globe Bistro and Globe Earth restaurants in Toronto, is getting your regular clientele to accept it. “They trust me so they know I’d make it taste good, but you have to introduce it gently,” he says. “And, even then, I may have scared a few people off.” But, “I guess they’re responding because we’re still doing well,” he adds.

Olson adds a similar note of caution, insisting it’s important to listen to the customer. “It’s an ongoing guessing game where you’re trying to tell the customer what they should be having.” And, he says, when chefs discover something hip like ancient grains, it’s easy to get swept away with enthusiasm. “At first, everyone wants to put these on the menu — they sound cool, they have a historic cachet, they’re Biblical.” he says. “But the best intentions can get lost in translation.”

The key, says Jasper Park’s Ledrew, is finding the right fit. “You can’t just put [a grain such as] barley anywhere. It sort of finds its place on the menu.” But, he points out, an increasingly global clientele — both immigrants and tourists — means there is already a market used to having grains as a part of their daily fare. For Ledrew, the greater challenge is finding locally and sustainably produced grains that are high quality. When he finds a new one, he happily begins to incorporate it into recipes.

Globe’s McKenna, too, is willing to experiment with new grains. Introduced to red quinoa by his chef de cuisine, it’s now part of the menu. Prepared in a pilaf with shallots, garlic, dried fruit and herbs, it’s served as a side with meats. And, at Slow Food’s Terra Madre in Italy, he first came across, and fell in love with, red fife wheat.

A heritage variety that doesn’t require large amounts of fertilizer, red fife is now — as it was more than a century ago before deferring to faster maturing wheat varieties — grown across Canada. That puts it into the 100-mile category for chefs concerned about food miles. McKenna uses it as a standard ingredient in bread as well as in crackers, crostini, tortillas and even pasta. “It’s a little heavier, but it has a much better flavour,” he says. “And, it’s healthier for the customer and the environment.”

Concern for the environment is another reason chefs choose to cook with ancient grains. Food miles and sustainability are key factors for Beast’s Vivian in his choice of red fife wheat pasta. He buys it in ready-to-cut sheets from a local supplier.“Our policy is to find it in Ontario first, then in  Canada,” he says. “If neither is possible, we figure out if we really need it on the menu. Some things are necessary, but we try to limit their use.”

Traditional Native Canadian fare is also entering the mainstream, and you can’t get more local that that. Although grits — coarsely ground corn — are generally associated with the Southern U.S., corn has always been a native crop in Canada. At Beast, Vivian uses grits in everything from grit cakes to a soft risotto, flavoured with local cheese and herbs. And,a grain as distinctly Canadian as wild rice is a bonus, says Globe Bistro’s McKenna. “It’s my go-to for being local and sustainable,” he adds. “I cook the heck out of it, dehydrate it, then deep fry it. It puffs up beautifully as a garnish for soups. And, wild rice flour makes terrific crepes; I serve them with morel mushrooms.”

There can be cost implications to substituting alternative grains for more mundane staples such as potatoes or rice. While barley may be a little cheaper than Arborio rice, in general, grains like quinoa, farro and wild rice are more expensive.“For me, the most important thing is flavour,” saysVivian. “The dishes are created for their flavor profile, and if there’s an increase in cost, it’s included in the price of the meal.”

Ledrew agrees. “Our aim is to provide top-quality local ingredients, and the value for us is in the feedback we get from our customers,” he says. “They like to know we’re sourcing close to home, and their positive comments make the extra cost worthwhile. We’ll spend a few more dollars, but we’ll pick it up somewhere else.”

Until recently, the move to alternative grains was a restaurant-only phenomenon. But today, one can see the incorporation of ingredients such as alternative grains into chef school programs. Cru’s Peckham graduated 10 years ago from Dubrulle Culinary School in Vancouver, and says, alternative grains weren’t part of her education but certainly are today. And, across the country, future chefs are being introduced to ingredients that would never have been part of a classic curriculum.

At Niagara College, says Olson, “Grains are discussed in food theory in second year and some labs are devoted to vegetarian cuisine and cultural contexts.”

With such a large mix of international students at the school, even the student foodservice kiosk is adding grains such as red quinoa in quinotto (risotto). Olson, recalls the 125 to 150 sandwiches the school serves daily were once made with white bread. “It was a little galling to have an average student — not a chest thumper — ask seriously whether any of our sandwiches were made with whole grains,” laughs Olson, who introduced an ancient grains bread made with amaranth and millet. “They weren’t, but they are now.”

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