Health on the side

Nutritious substitutes for starchy side dishes

August 16, 2012

It’s been a few years since we ran the Whole-Grain Challenge on Culinate. We all knew we should be eating more whole grains, but weren’t sure how to go about integrating them into our daily lives. The Challenge — complete with a handy glossary — was an effort to problem-solve.

Breakfast was easy — hot grain porridges, overnight muesli, granola, whole-grain toast, and the like. Lunch was a little trickier, made easier if we had leftover grains that we could work into a roll-up or a burrito or a grain salad.

Dinner, though, was the biggest challenge. Culinate’s recipe editor, Carrie Floyd, tackled it by putting whole grains at the center of the meal. I’ve since decided to do the same, although I’ve found it easier to think of a typical starchy side dish and then try to come up with a whole-grain alternative.

So where I might once have served white rice, I now serve unrefined rice. Sometimes I make farro or barley instead of risotto rice; both farro and barley have an agreeable chewiness, if not the creaminess of the risotto. Couscous or spaetzle or another sauce-absorbing side might now be whole-wheat couscous, or quinoa, or millet, or polenta. And, of course, I try to buy (or bake) bread made mostly (or all) from whole-grain flours. I’ve even found a whole-wheat tortilla I like; cornmeal tortillas are great, but for roll-ups and burritos, you need a pliable wrapper that won’t crack as you roll it up.

Serve black rice for nutrition, flavor, and color contrast with a fish curry.

Soba noodles are excellent in Asian dishes, of course, but Western-style pasta has been a bit trickier, since I’m not wild about many of the spelt, whole-wheat, or brown-rice versions on the market. Since Ric Watson has made the argument that conventional pasta made from durum wheat isn’t as bad as you might think, I’m sticking with traditional noodles for now.

As for the lowly potato, Cynthia Lair has rushed to its defense, pointing out that the potato is still a whole food and not quite as unhealthy as the all-white-food-is-evil crowd might believe. Still, I often find myself skipping roasted or mashed potatoes in favor of the vibrant color, flavor, and nutritional oomph of yams and sweet potatoes.

The loudest knock against these healthier substitutions? They often take much longer to cook than their more refined cousins, which are generally done in less than 30 minutes. (Quinoa is the notable exception.) My main trick here has been to start whole grains before prepping anything else, giving them an hour or so to get ready while everything else is cooking. You can also look, as Lorna Sass suggests in her cookbook Whole Grains for Busy People, for products that are partially cooked or even ready to eat, such as canned hominy, quinoa flakes, and parboiled brown rice. And, of course, chopping big sweet potatoes into small pieces helps them cook faster.

Do I eat a diet of nothing but whole grains and whole foods? Not quite; I still tend to bake with regular flour, dividing a recipe between all-purpose flour for loft and whole-wheat pastry flour for flavor. My local grocery store produces a mean traditional baguette and sells a decent bagel; both are occasional indulgences. And I still prefer my sushi made with delicate white rice, which lets the flavor of the fish or vegetables shine.

How to Cook Everything for iPad ad

That said, I’ve found side dishes much more enjoyable since getting creative with them. Here are a few swap-outs to try.

Old: White rice
New: Brown, black, red, or wild rice
OK, so wild rice isn’t technically a rice, but it looks and feels like rice grains. All of these rices are unrefined, prettier in color, and tastier than white rice. Wild rice takes the longest to cook.

Old: Spaetzle or egg noodles
New: Polenta or grits
Be careful at the grocery store here, as there are both refined and unrefined versions of ground corn on the market. The refined versions are labeled “degermed,” while the unrefined are generally labeled “whole grain” and, often, “stone ground.” Cooked cornmeal gets bonus points for its ability to solidify into a quivery mass that you can cut into squares or triangles, refrigerate, and easily pan-fry later as a side dish.

Old: Couscous
New: Whole-wheat couscous, quinoa, and millet
Couscous and quinoa are the champions of the high-speed whole-grain kitchen, since they cook in about 15 minutes. (Admittedly, couscous is a pasta, but due to its seed-like shape, most people think of it as a whole grain. It’s the one Western-style pasta product that doesn’t suffer when turned into a whole-wheat version.) Millet, while similar in size to couscous and quinoa, nevertheless takes longer to cook and can be unpredictable; old millet, for example, can take hours to soften up while simmering. All are good for dishes with a good deal of sauce or gravy that needs sopping up.

Old: Risotto rice
New: Bulgur (cracked wheat), pearled farro, and pearled barley
Bulgur, farro, and barley all take at least 30 minutes to cook. (The cracking and the pearling processes shorten cook time, but they’ll still take a while.) But since a nice dish of risotto takes at least 30 minutes of stirring anyways, why not try a similar whole grain that you can simply ignore on the stovetop? Plus, all of these grains, once cooked and cooled, are excellent mixed into salads, as they retain their chewy mouthfeel.

For more suggestions, check out recipe editor Carrie Floyd’s whole-grain glossary, as well as Erin Gibbons’ recent article on healthy food substitutions.

Caroline Cummins is Culinate’s managing editor.

There are 9 comments on this item
Add a comment
1. by Sandy Ty on Aug 17, 2012 at 10:33 AM PDT

Instead of rice, I like to pulse cauliflower too. Tastes delicious!

2. by RainandSnow on Aug 22, 2012 at 9:03 AM PDT

These are great options - unless you are trying to maintain a healthy weight -- grains are an inflammatory food, remember. The overuse of grains in American diets is a huge health issue.

3. by Kate Sherwood on Aug 23, 2012 at 12:16 AM PDT

Bulgur is whole wheat that has been cracked then steamed(pre-cooked) - it only take 10 minutes to cook. Cracked wheat has not been steamed and takes longer to cook as you indicated.

4. by Janne on Aug 23, 2012 at 7:26 AM PDT

Yay for the cauliflower option and nay to too many grains. I’d love to see a feature on how soaking and sprouting can make grains more nutritious and less inflammatory. Also a feature on modern wheat and its damaging properties.

5. by RainandSnow on Aug 23, 2012 at 9:14 AM PDT

I second Janne’s suggestions for future articles.

6. by Caroline Cummins on Aug 25, 2012 at 3:05 PM PDT

Kate -- You’re right; bulgur has been parboiled and therefore takes less time to cook. Often, however, bulgur and cracked wheat are cross-labeled at the store, making it hard to know what you’re getting.

7. by India food tour on Jun 27, 2013 at 11:24 AM PDT

Millets, barley etc also make for good nutritious whole grain meals. They used to be cheaper but demand for certain industries like beer have pushed up the prices

8. by Larry Ingles on Nov 6, 2013 at 1:55 PM PST

I’ve only heard of white and brown rice. These other color look delicious.

9. by Robert Seger on Nov 15, 2013 at 7:54 AM PST

I really do find this to be quite enjoyable. I third Janne’s suggestion.

Add a comment

Think before you type

Culinate welcomes comments that are on-topic, clean, and courteous. For the benefit of the community we reserve the right to delete comments that contain advertising, personal attacks, profanity, or which are thinly disguised attempts to promote another website.

Please enter your comment

Format: Bare URLs are automatically linked; use this style: [ "place text to be linked here"] for prettier links. You may specify *bold* or _italic_ text. No HTML please.

Please identify yourself

Not a member? Sign up!

Please prove that you’re not a computer

Our Table

Pull up a chair. Here’s the spot for dispatches from Editorial Director Kim Carlson and, occasionally, others on our staff.

Want more? Comb the archives.

Our Table

Joy of Cooking app

A new tool for the kitchen

The latest in our collection of cooking apps.

Graze: Bites from the Site
First Person

The secret sharer

A father’s legacy

The Culinate Interview

Mollie Katzen

The vegetarian-cooking pioneer


Down South

Barbecue, tamales, cocktails, and more

Local Flavors

A winter romesco sauce

Good on everything

Editor’s Choice