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Bulgur and Couscous

"Eat more whole grains!" That message is everywhere—on TV, online, in magazines, even on product packaging. No doubt you've heard the message a time or two (or a hundred and two). But despite getting the message, many of us still have a hard time getting enough whole grains into our lives.

Maybe part of it lies in the notion that all whole grains take a long time to cook. Sure, wheat berries need to simmer for nearly an hour, and brown rice takes 45 minutes. They're worth it when you have the time but did you know that you can have a delicious whole grain in 10 to 15 minutes?

It's also possible folks assume that all whole grains have strong flavors. It's true that many whole grains have robust flavors all their own, but with the right ingredients and accompaniments, this can be a wonderful characteristic.

Sentiments about carbohydrates' place in our daily diets have swung wildly as food fads rise and fall. Any lingering fear of carbs, however, should not extend to whole grains, which are filled with beneficial fiber, making them a slow burning energy food. In fact, many studies show that people who eat more whole grains have lower risk of obesity, a lower body mass index, and lower cholesterol. All good, so what to make?

There are plenty of mild flavored, quick-cooking whole grains to choose from. Two of my favorites are whole wheat couscous and bulgur, which have been the convenience foods of the Mediterranean and Middle East for centuries.

Whole wheat couscous is made with whole durum wheat flour and is really tiny pellets of pasta, so it's a great substitute for rice or noodles. I use couscous as a side dish, which is more traditional way to serve it, but I also think it's a delicious base under a stir fry or stew. Just boil 1 1/4 cup of water, stock or other flavorful liquid, add a drop of oil, and add a cup of couscous. In five minutes the little grains will have absorbed all the flavor and moisture and be ready to fluff and serve.

For more exotic flavors, I like to serve whole wheat couscous with the spicy tagines of Morocco, or under a braise of lamb and vegetables. A bed of fluffy couscous soaks up the tasty juices. Curries, stir-fries and steamed veggies with a drizzle of sauce also sit well on top of couscous.

While couscous is a tiny pasta, bulgur is an ancient form of pre-cooked wheat. To make it, the grains are par-cooked while still inside the chaff, then they are hulled and chipped into smaller pieces. This process drives the nutrients into the grain, rather than washing them away. In its native lands, bulgur is available in many sizes, from tiny to coarse. In the U.S. you'll most often find a medium size grain, which is what most recipes call for. It is possible to just steep bulgur in hot liquid until the liquid is absorbed (about 45 minutes, depending on temperature), but it's a bit quicker to simmer it for 10 minutes, then let it sit covered and off the heat to steam for 5.

Of course, bulgur is the grain used to make tabbouleh, but that's not all. Bulgur makes a fine pilaf, and is a great addition to breads, soups, meatloaves, and burgers. Its chewy texture and size make it a great substitute for other vegetable proteins in veggie chili.

Don’t just reserve these grainy co-stars for the evening meal. Both make great breakfasts, served hot or cold. I like to toss them with fruit and maple syrup, or scramble them with eggs or tofu. They also make a great hot lunch—sauté onion or veggies, add boiling water or stock, then couscous or bulgur. Leftover cooked couscous and bulgur can make a can of soup into a meal; just stir it in. I like to toss it with a dab of vinaigrette and sprinkle over my green salad to add heartiness and nutty whole grain flavors. With the addition of a little extra chopped veggies, leftover chicken or cheese, I can turn it into a full meal salad. For dessert, either couscous or bulgur can go sweet-- cook in part water and part apple juice with a little sweetener, then serve with fruit and a drizzle of honey or jam, thinned with apple juice. Couscous can be packed into a mold and chilled, then tapped out to make a pretty timbale.

If your quest to "eat more whole grains" needs some inspiration, here are some whole wheat couscous and bulgur recipes you might wish to try:

Tags: whole grains