If you are not familiar with wheat berries, trust me when I tell you — in as understated a fashion as possible– that they are these incandescent, golden pearls crammed germ-to-hull with more goodness and flavor than you can possibly imagine.
In India, we get our exposure to wheat berries early– or at least I did. Back when I was growing up, my mom would buy wheat berries by the kilo from the grocer’s. She would sort through them for any impurities, put them into a large, round aluminum tin, slap on a large, round aluminum lid, and then dispatch me, tin in tow, to the neighborhood flour mill.
The flour mill, usually housed in a small store, was an interesting sight: a mammoth contraption of clunking metal wheels, shafts and levers all connected by speeding rubber belts. For a few rupees, the miller — his face hair, face, eyelashes and clothes smothered in fine wheat dust — would grind up the wheat berries into a powdery flour, or atta, that would make the most perfect chapatis, puris, parathas, and what have you.
I hated going to the flour mill because my mom always had a million specifications that Easygoing Me couldn’t care to remember: Be sure to tell the miller not to grind the flour just after he has ground rice or another grain for someone else (so the flavors don’t mix). Be sure to watch with an eagle eye so he does not substitute our better-quality wheat for a cheaper variety. Be sure to watch carefully when he weighs it once he’s done, so you know he’s giving you back exactly what you brought in, and no less.
Today, I still eat a lot of wheat, usually in the form of some Indian bread or another. I buy my atta from the Indian store, pre-ground, pre-packaged and utterly without any character. I also often cook with cracked wheat because of how good it is, and how great it tastes. But I really hadn’t thought much about cooking with whole-wheat berries until recently when I ran into a wheat berry salad at my local Whole Foods.
Rightaway I went and picked up some wheat berries and began to plot just what I might be able to do with them. And when I did get around to cooking them yesterday, they turned out so fabulous that I couldn’t wait to share with you.
I cooked my wheat berries into a pilaf–it may sound complicated, but trust me, this dish and the chana masala I put together to go with it took me under an hour to make. Honest. Would I lie to you on a weeknight?
Here’s the recipe, then. It’s really simple, really uncomplicated, but it results in a dish that’s incredibly delicious and beautiful to look at. Feel free to experiment with any or all of the flavors and the veggies. I used eggplants and tomatoes, but zucchini or scallions or broccoli or peas would be amazing too. And just the idea of adding some roasted bell peppers to this makes me want to choke up with delicious joy.
1 cup wheat berries. Pick over for any impurities, place in a strainer, and wash under running water. I cooked the berries like you would pasta. In lots of water with salt added to it. It took about 30 minutes for them to get the chewy, delicious consistency I was looking for. Be sure to drain the wheat berries before you use them.
1 medium eggplant, cut into a 3/4-inch dice.
1/2 tsp red chilli powder, like cayenne
1/4 tsp turmeric
1/2 tsp garlic powder
Salt to taste
1 tsp garam masala powder or curry powder
2 tbsp cashew nuts, chopped
2 tbsp golden raisins
2 tsp vegetable oil, like canola
1 tsp mustard seeds
4 small tomatoes or two medium ones, cut into a fairly small dice
1 tbsp minced, fresh rosemary
Salt to taste
In a baking dish, toss together the eggplant, 1 tsp oil, chilli powder, turmeric and garlic powder.
Place in a 400-degree oven and bake about 15-20 minutes or until the eggplant is really creamy and tender.
Heat the remaining oil in a skillet.
Add the mustard seeds and, when they crackle, add the cashew nuts.
Toast until they begin to just color. Add the raisins and garam masala and toss to heat through.
Now add the cooked wheat berries and eggplant and stir well to mix.
Add salt to taste. Turn off heat.
Stir in the tomatoes.
Add minced rosemary. Cilantro or basil would also be great here.