I don’t know Maria Speck, other than exchanging a few friendly e-mails. But after diving into her gorgeous new book, Ancient Grains for Modern Meals (Ten Speed Press), I’ve got a big ole fangirl crush.
Here’s what I really love about the book: While Speck acknowledges the health benefits of whole grains, her primary goal is to make staples like millet and spelt so appealing that the reader can’t resist craving them. Who wouldn’t want to start the day with Walnut Spice Breakfast Cake?
“I was very lucky,” she writes. “Unlike many of us today, I was never introduced to whole grains as a health food. No one lectured me to add them to my diet.” Instead, Speck, who grew up in a Greek-German household where grains were always on the table, treats them as the ultimate comfort food.
“To me, whole grains carry luxurious qualities: lively textures, vivid colors and rich flavors.”
That passion comes through in every recipe and tip. You can’t help by be drawn to fare as tempting as Mediterranean Mussels with Farro and White Wine or Greek Millet Saganaki with Shrimp and Ouzo. (Sara Remington’s stunning photos add to the mouthwatering appeal of Speck’s wonderful prose and tempting recipes – that’s Remington’s handiwork, above left.)
While her Greek grandmother rose at the crack of dawn to cook for the family, Speck’s approach to cooking whole grains is in sync with hectic American schedules. Her handy reference cooking guides are divided by quick-cooking grains (those ready in less than 30 minutes) and slow-cooking grains, which may require overnight soaking and take up to an hour to cook.
She also offers plenty of helpful tips to make whole grains easier for busy cooks to prepare with strategies like putting a potful of grains on to soak before you leave for work (one our favorites!) and parboiling brown rice for quick weeknight suppers.
The book’s 100 recipes run a wide gamut of seasonality, and while Speck adores hearty, slow-cooking wheat berries and the like, she’s no whole grain snob. There’s room on her plate for instant brown rice, which turns up in Spring Pilaf with Artichokes and Green Peas. There are plenty of ideas for quick-cookers like bulgur, whole grain pastas and, my current favorite, whole wheat couscous (a curious anomaly, she notes, that’s neither a grain nor a pasta, but a sort of hybrid).
Such speedy options are balanced with recipes sure to appeal to more ambitious cooks. You can try your had at making Homemade Spelt Fettuccine, for example, or an intriguing Floating Sesame Bread, a yeast bread that calls for proofing the dough in a pot of cool water (can’t wait to try that one).
I suspect my now-pristine copy of Ancient Grains will soon be dog-eared and spattered with kitchen stains – sure signs of a well-loved cookbook.