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Wheat-berry stew

(article, Deborah Madison)

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That’s what I’ve been noticing at farmer's markets of late, whether the grain is wheat, corn, wild rice, frikeh, or another member of the grass family. In Santa Monica last week, it was wheat. Old varieties. Glenn. Red Fife. Sonoran White.

[%image reference-image float=right width=400 caption="A Bowl of Wheat with a Simple Green Sauce"]

On Wednesday night, I couldn’t resist ordering a wheat-berry stew with fennel salsa verde at Rustic Canyon, where Jeremy Fox, formerly of Napa’s sadly defunct [/columns/deborah/eggsandwichesandstrange_vegetables Ubuntu newpage=true], is now chef. It was but one of his startlingly simple offerings made from beautifully grown grains and legumes. 

The next day I toured the Santa Monica Farmer’s Market with market maven Amelia Saltsman, with whom I had enjoyed the stew. The first thing she pointed out were the packages of Glenn wheat at Kenter Canyon Farms — the same wheat we had enjoyed the night before — tucked among bags of Sonoran White and Red Fife.

Andrea Crawford, who owns Kenter Farms with her husband, has long been a baker, but one who was not happy with her flour. Being a farmer, she figured she could grow her own wheat, which is what she did on 50 acres, then milled it and was happy with the results. (Her bread gets stellar reviews.) 

And now, for some lucky Southern Californians, she is also selling the wheat berries. I managed to wedge a five-pound bag into my suitcase, though it was already crammed with sweet potatoes from Chico Farm and other such goodies.

Jeremy Fox’s wheat stew was simple and good and beautiful to look upon. I have always liked simply cooked grains with green herbs, so I made my own version when I got home with my Glenn wheat. I made a green sauce based on the marjoram and parsley I had to pull before the first hard freeze. 

I can’t imagine a salsa verde that wouldn’t be perfect with simmered wheat, but I also saw other directions this dish could go: Plump, gently cooked white beans of some kind would make a fine match. In fact, I added some of the cooked wheat to a Bolita-bean-and-vegetable soup, for its contrasting texture. 

The grains would also be great in a hearty salad — say, of slivered kale and shaved turnips and other roots, or simply drained and dressed with your best olive oil and freshly ground pepper. 

There is a profound earthy goodness to such a simple and ancient collection of foods — the grain, the salt, the oil of the olive. With all the craziness in our country, I can’t think of a more grounding dish than a bowl of wheat with a handful of herbs, salt, and oil. I’m grateful to Andrea for dedicating her energy to bringing back these old grains. May others follow suit — and soon!

A Bowl of Wheat with a Simple Green Sauce		
Serves 4

1 cup whole wheat, such as Glenn, Red Fife, Sonoran White, or Turkey Red
1 shallot, finely diced 
A full-bodied, oaky vinegar
Sea salt
3 tablespoons minced parsley
2 tablespoon minced marjoram
Best olive oil
Freshly ground pepper

Cook the wheat: Cover the wheat with boiling water and let it stand for an hour, then drain. Cover with at least a quart of fresh water and add a teaspoon of sea salt, then bring to a boil, reduce the heat, and simmer until tender but still somewhat firm, about 40 minutes depending on your altitude. (At 7,000 feet, mine took nearly an hour.) Reserve a little excess liquid to mingle with the sauce and make it somewhat soupy.

Make the green sauce: While the wheat is cooking, put the shallot in a bowl and add a teaspoon or two of vinegar and a good pinch of salt. Let rest while you chop the herbs. Stir in the herbs, then olive oil to cover generously, stirring to make a thick, green sauce. 

Assemble the stew: Divide the cooked wheat among bowls and stir in a generous spoonful of the sauce. Season with pepper and serve.

reference-image, l