Amaranth, barley, farro, quinoa, and other ancient grains are making a comeback these days, finding favor with chefs who appreciate their earthy flavors, chewy textures, nutritional benefits, and novelty value. On the local scene, chefs are dreaming up new preparations, seeking out rare varieties, and even helping to resurrect grains that have become almost extinct.
Brian Enyart, chef de cuisine at Topolobampo (445 N. Clark, 312-661-1434, rickbayless.com/restaurants/topolobampo.html), says amaranth was widely used in Mexico until the conquistadors virtually eradicated it, forbidding it because of its role in Aztec religious ceremonies. It survived in remote areas of the country and nowadays is popular in alegria, a street confection, and in the hot drink atole. But Enyart sees its savory possibilities, so he's added dishes to his repertoire like amaranth-pumpkin seed "polenta" served with trucha "poc chuc," his reworking of a Yucatecan dish substituting trout for the usual sour-orange-marinated pork. "I want to infuse the grain back into the cuisine and get people excited about it," he says.
For tinga de verduras, his vegetarian take on a classic pork stew, he turns black barley into the "chorizo" he matches with three kinds of local potatoes prepared three ways and served with Pueblan-style roasted tomato-chipotle sauce, avocado, and homemade fresh cheese. He cooks the barley in water, then dehydrates and deep-fries it, which causes it to puff up light and crunchy. Then he tosses it with vinegar, ancho chile, and sweet spices for the chorizo flavor essential to the stew.
Enyart also uses quinoa, wild rice, and Chinese black rice, but Iroquois white corn has a special place on the roster: the Frontera Farmer Foundation is helping Spence Farm in downstate Livingston County rescue it from near extinction. Enyart uses the stone-ground corn lots of ways, including in the tortas that accompany entrees like rock hen in sesame sauce with arbol and guajillo chiles or borrego en salsa borracha, lamb in a "drunken" sauce of black pasillas, tequila, beer, and roasted garlic.
Mike Sheerin, chef de cuisine at Blackbird (619 W. Randolph, 312-715-0708, blackbirdrestaurant.com), has been excited about sorghum since late September, when Tim Burton of Burton's Maplewood Farm in Indiana brought him a sugarcanelike stalk with a cluster of grains attached. He's showcasing both the grains and the stalk in an entree of turbot with spaghetti squash, pickled ramps, mandarin orange, and popped sorghum. To make the sauce he purees mandarin orange rinds with Burton's sorghum molasses—made from the stalk. He dries the grains before popping them, an idea he says he got from "the Ethiopia episode" of Bizarre Foods With Andrew Zimmern on the Travel Channel. "I did it like kettle popcorn in a skillet at first," he says, "but the results are more consistent with a microwave."
Bruce Sherman, chef-partner at North Pond (2610 N. Cannon, 773-477-5845, northpondrestaurant.com), has become a fan of spin rossa della Valsugana polenta—made from rare Italian spiny red corn—because it goes well with delicate, buttery proteins. For his fall tasting menu he's cooking it in chicken stock until creamy with a little cheese and butter, finishing it with pork jus and pairing it with Nantucket bay scallops in sage brown butter with pancetta. "The grind is coarser than regular polenta, and it requires more moisture and a longer cooking time, but I love the texture," he says.
Sherman's had grains including Wehani rice, forbidden black rice, and bulgur on his menus for years, but one that always sparks conversation is frikeh, wheat that's picked green and scorched to give it smoky overtones. The chef simmers it with onions, white wine, and chicken stock, then folds in diced caramelized apples to serve with grilled Alaskan sablefish, Italian spinach, and apple consomme.
Another hearty favorite for Sherman is farro, or emmer wheat (similar to spelt), which he cooks risotto style in chicken stock and combines with diced carrot and celery, pears, and slivered toasted almonds for a warm farro salad with slow-braised pork belly on his prix fixe brunch menu. "Farro has a wonderful chewy texture, great mouth feel, delicious nutty flavor, and it's very versatile as long as you put it with something substantial," he says.
At Green Zebra (1460 W. Chicago, 312-243-7100, greenzebrachicago.com), chef de cuisine Molly Harrison makes farro risotto with vegetable stock, incorporating crab apples, currants, and golden raisins, and finishing with mascarpone, cream, and lemon gremolata. "We've always had risotto, but rice gets a little bland, so this summer I switched to nuttier, firmer-to-the-tooth farro," she says. "It had roasted and pickled sweet peppers, yellow squash, and zucchini, but I wanted the apples for autumn."
Harrison also makes rye spaetzle, serving it with kraut, smoked caramelized onion, caraway, and stout foam. After poaching the spaetzle, she pan sears it with caramelized onions, raw cabbage, and caraway seeds, then plates it atop smoked onion puree and piles on Savoy cabbage that's been braised in sour beer broth and seared so the outside is crispy. Finally, she dollops stout foam around the plate. "Rye flour changes the texture of the spaetzle, and the key is not to stir the batter too much, or it will become tough," she says.
Cary Taylor, executive chef of Chaise Lounge (1840 W. North, 773-342-1840, chaiseloungechicago.com) says he employs "the Socratic method" to come up with fall specials like cider-braised pork shank, pearl barley, glazed pearl onions, and brussels sprouts. "Braising is a good way to highlight cider, which was my goal, and pork shank lends itself to braising," he explains. "The wheatiness of the pearl barley, which is cooked in pork stock, just works well with that."
Taylor briefly toasts the quinoa for a special of Wisconsin whitefish with garlic-scented rapini, toasted quinoa, and lemon vinaigrette because it releases the aromas and gives the grain a fuller flavor. "It's like toasting a nut," he says. "Then I simmer it in water with a little mirepois for color and incorporate butter when it's warmed for service."
Giuseppe Tentori, executive chef-partner at Boka (1729 N. Halsted 312-337-6070, bokachicago.com), also toasts the grain for an appetizer of crispy veal sweetbreads with creamy quinoa, watermelon radish, fennel salad, and grilled tomatillo sauce, but after simmering it very slowly "couscous style," he adds a little onion confit to make it creamy like risotto. "It's healthier than using cream or butter," he says, "and the texture contrasts with the crispiness of the sweetbreads, crunchiness of the raw fennel, and acidity of the sauce."
For an entree of rabbit confit with Asian barley, chanterelles, salsify, and black garlic, Tentori buys hard-to-find, very expensive hato mugi, a Japanese barley also called Job's tears. He cooks the grain—which is slightly larger and crunchier than most barley—in rabbit stock with a brunoise of onion, carrot, and celery and finishes it with Parmesan and chopped sage for service. The rabbit leg is marinated in Chinese five-spice mixture, confited in duck fat, and sauced with pureed onion blended with Chinese fermented garlic, which is licoricelike, milder and sweeter than regular. "This barley was a staple in ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome, and it's very healthy," he says. It's even reputed to clear up blemishes.
Purple sticky rice, or the"wild rice of Thailand," as he calls it, is a frequent choice of Troy Graves, executive chef at Eve (840 N. Wabash, 312-266-3383, evechicago.com), who's currently serving it alongside seared wahoo with mango, cucumber, and a lemongrass-orange jus. "The rice is brown like wild rice," he says, "but when you cook it, it turns purple and the starch on the outside makes it sticky." Graves, who originally found the rice at an Asian market, says it's a little sweet and mates well with the fattiness of the wahoo.
He also pairs a wheatberry-root vegetable salad with his grilled chicken in caper tarragon beurre blanc, tossing the cooked grains with raw julienned kohlrabi, turnip, carrot, and the like. "I like the contrast of the cool salad and warm sauce," he says. "I use whatever vegetables I have. Anything goes with chicken—it's the blank canvas of the protein world."
At their just-opened Hearty (3819 N. Broadway, 773-868-9866, heartyboys.com/hearty/index.html ), Hearty Boys Dan Smith and Steve McDonagh are offering a chicken and porridge dish that starts with a traditional breakfast porridge of slow-cooked white rice and grits, which Smith transforms into a savory base for seared chicken breast by adding wheat germ (for extra texture), flat parsley, and chives. "We started using it in our catering business because we got tired of the same old starches, and when people tasted it, they loved it," he says. "The hard part was selling porridge in the first place, but that should be easier in the restaurant."