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October 2011

Food for Thought

Glorious Grains
By Lorinda

Food for Thought archive

Lovely sheaves of wheat, oats, barley, and camelina.
(Camelina, a seed, will be featured in a future column.)


In October my squirrel instincts are in high gear as I trudge (I'm far too old to scamper) back and forth from the garden to the kitchen, rejoicing in the act of tucking food away for winter. I love to see the shelves in the fruit room fill up with glowing jars of peaches, pears, and jams, and the freezer filled with containers of vegetables.

But while I am wrestling with the zucchinis that WILL NOT QUIT, freezing tomatoes, and making applesauce, my attention—my fascination—is centered on grains.

Even though I realize it isn't an efficient use of my time, every year I try a few new grain varieties, and save the seeds of the high achievers for the following year. Most grow enthusiastically in spite of my lack of expertise and sporadic watering habits.

There are compelling reasons to grow your own grains: They are low maintenance, good at choking out weeds, beautiful to look at, and wonderfully healthful to eat. Home-grown grains retain the nutritious bran that is usually polished off during commercial processing.

To be fair, there are a few bad points, too: Harvesting usually happens during the hottest part of the summer, grains can take up a lot of space in a garden, and you have to husk, shuck, thresh, and winnow your harvest, which is a lot of work. Luckily, I like fussy, messy work, especially when the reward is so delicious.


For you brave souls who are interested in growing wheat, Mother Earth News has a great article for beginners: Growing Your Own Wheat.

To give you some perspective: My wheat plot was about 10 feet by 20 feet, which should have given me as much as 40 pounds of grain (up to 20 pounds per 100 square feet). But beginners like me tend to lose a lot of grain in the harvesting/threshing/cleaning process. I'm guessing I got about 6 or 7 pounds of grain (about 30 cups of flour, enough for 7 or 8 loaves of bread) and that we're going to have a lot of volunteer wheat plants in the garden next year.

Here is my method for harvesting wheat:

First I tested the grain by biting on it, and since it nearly broke my tooth, I determined it was ready. I asked my husband to cut the wheat down with the weed trimmer with the nice, sharp blade. He agreed pleasantly, but sneaked off the next morning for a hunting trip without touching the grain. I cut it with scissors, lopping off the little heads and throwing them into bushel baskets. It seemed like a much bigger patch of wheat than I recalled, as I was cutting it ALL with scissors, cussing under my breath at my absent husband.

It took me three days because I hid inside when the temperature went above 90 degrees. Did I mention that hard red wheat has sharp little pokey things on each and every grain? I tried rubbing each head against a flat sieve, thinking the grains would drop into the bowl below and the chaff would cooperatively stay on the screen. Hah. I then checked Google and found that I could thresh the wheat by beating it against the sides of a clean garbage can. That sounded reasonable, but who has a garbage can handy that's clean enough to put wheat in? And since I cut it all just below the grain head there were no stalks to hold it by, so I put the wheat in a big pillowcase, laid it on concrete, and stomped it. Hard. Much better . . . a lot of it was loose now. And . . . a lot of it wasn't.

I found that if I spread out a clean sheet, put clean socks over my flat shoes, and sort of ground my feet around on the sheet—basically doing the Twist—I got the majority of the grains finally detached from the stalks. I'm sure I heard the neighbors laughing from the other side of the road. I poured the grains from one basket into another, letting the wind blow the chaff away. The wind also blew some elusive grains all over the yard. Hopefully they aren't winter-hardy, or I'll be watering next year's crop from my front porch.

Before I could grind the wheat I had to go through and pick out husks that managed to avoid all my cleaning efforts.


The next step, turning the wheat into flour, was much easier. I bought a grain mill this season and just baked my first batch of whole wheat bread made from my own harvest. I usually find whole wheat bread to be too heavy, but this was moist and had a nice, even crumb. I felt like the Little Red Hen, except I shared my bread with my husband, since he did till the garden for me.

A wheat mill in use.

Yes, the labor involved in producing those loaves of bread was insane. But the satisfaction was immeasurable. An easier option would be to buy whole wheat and grind it, or find good-quality whole wheat flour.

Can you understand why I am so deeply proud of my fragrant, crusty loaves of bread?

Here is a link for the recipe I used: Clayton's Buttermilk Whole Wheat Bread. I followed Bernard Clayton's variation, and substituted muscovado sugar for the brown sugar, so that it would have a light molasses flavor.

There are many good grain mills on the market. I would advise against a hand mill unless you want a real workout and are trying to build just one of your biceps. My little granddaughter loves to grind corn with my hand mill, but I use an electric Champion Juicer with a grain mill attachment and am very happy with it. When purchasing a mill, pay close attention to reviews and make sure the machine is right for your needs.


Barley is grown and harvested like wheat; unless you have the foresight to buy a beardless variety, barley has bristles, and is a lot of work to de-husk. But it is wonderful in soups. Unlike the pearled barley you get in the store, this retains its coating and is much more nutritious and nutty flavored. I plant mine in the spring and never have a problem getting it to fully ripen. Note: If you make your own beer, growing organic barley would add a distinctive touch to your brew and should be ready to use when hops are being harvested.


Oats are simple to grow, but need a lot of water and soil that drains well. They're a little easier to process, since they don't have prickly "beards." Oats can be ground into flour, cooked whole and added to breads, or if you have an oat roller, they can be turned into oatmeal. Oat rollers (or "grain flakers") have a hopper on the top where you drop in your grains. They then pass through stainless rollers, coming out flattened and tender. There are many styles on the market: hand-crank, electric, and attachments for Kitchen-Aid or Bosch mixers. Here is a wonderful website for any grain-related appliances: Pleasant Hill Grain.

If you are considering growing barley or oats, make absolutely sure you buy a hulless variety of both. I'm speaking from experience here . . . my first year's harvest went right onto the compost pile. If you don't buy a hulless variety, there is very little hope of ever extricating the kernel from its hull.

I recently bought a very good book about growing grains, since I'm actually tired of learning things the hard way. It is: Homegrown Whole Grains by Sara Pitzer. With her help, hopefully next year will bring less work and more flour!



Vegetable Beef and Barley Soup

1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 pound steak (round or sirloin)
1 small onion
2 cloves garlic
2 cans (14.5 ounces each) beef broth (I use Swanson's "lower sodium")
12 ounces beer (or you can substitute water)
3/4 cup pearled barley
1 jar (24 ounces) tomato basil spaghetti sauce
2 cups favorite fresh vegetables (carrots, green beans, tomatoes, peas, etc.)
Mushrooms (if desired)
Salt and pepper to taste

  1. Heat oil in large saucepan set on medium-high. Cut meat into small bite-size pieces and drop into hot oil. Chop onion and add to meat. Stir until meat is no longer pink. Reduce heat to medium and add finely chopped garlic, stirring to mix the garlic into the meat mixture.
  2. Add broth, beer, and barley. Cover and cook for 1/2 hour.
  3. Chop fresh vegetables into small pieces and add to the pot, along with the spaghetti sauce. Stir, cover, and simmer for at least 15 minutes, or until vegetables and barley are tender. Season to taste.


Vietnam Cookies

These cookies got their name because they were sent to
the troops in Vietnam. They travel well and get better with age.

3/4 cup shortening
1 cup brown sugar
1 egg, beaten
1 1/2 cups flour
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1/2 cup walnuts, chopped
1/2 cup mint chocolate chips
1/2 cup shredded coconut
1/2 cup raisins
1 cup (about 3) very ripe bananas, mashed
1 3/4 cups rolled oats

  1. Mix together shortening, brown sugar, and egg until creamy. Add flour, soda, salt, cinnamon, and nutmeg, and mix well.
  2. Add walnuts, chips, coconut, raisins and bananas. Mix. Add oats.
  3. Drop rounded tablespoons of dough onto lightly greased cookie sheet. Bake at 375 degrees for 12 minutes.

Makes about 3 dozen.

These tasty banana-mint-flavored cookies age well, but will they last long enough to prove it?


Contact Lorinda at lorindamckinnon@gmail.com

Lorinda resides in Eastern Washington, where she joyously combines her love of cooking and gardening. Baking is her passion, and licking the batter off the spoon after making a cake is her reward. When she's not in the kitchen, she's out in the garden pulling weeds and snacking on young peas. Enjoy Lorinda's blog, The Rowdy Baker.


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