In Ancient Grains for Modern Meals, author Maria Speck draws on her childhood, spent in Greece and Germany, to create recipes for everything from hearty and flavorful stews, homemade breads, and rich desserts to light, bright, and flavorful salads and side dishes. Nearly all recipes include nutritious whole grains like barley, brown rice, quinoa, or oats. From the beginning of the book, however, she emphasizes that this is not a diet book, but rather a healthful way of eating that cultures around the world have enjoyed for generations.
Now that Speck lives in the U.S., she understands that cooking at home is a task most people rarely have time for. The long cooking time whole grains usually require is why many people avoid using them. Thankfully, many recipes in Ancient Grains for Modern Meals include advice for busy people such as "To get a head start . . .", pointing out the parts of a recipe that you can make ahead, and give storage recommendations. There is also advice for fitting a long prep time for things like bread into your schedule.
The introduction includes extensive information about many popular grains and their uses. Bulgur, couscous, quinoa, oats, amaranth, and others are explained in detail, including their varied uses, health benefits, and shopping and storage tips. The differencea between cornmeal, grits, and polenta are explained, and there are helpful charts of cooking times and ratios for quick-cooking grains like couscous and quinoa and slow-cooking grains like farro, barley, and brown rice.
It is perhaps Speck's background in journalism that has made her so skillful at packing lots of information into what is an otherwise moderately sized cookbook. There are instructions for rinsing, soaking toasting grains, and cooking methods, including making ahead and reheating. She shares her timesaving method of parboiling brown rice that can be kept in the fridge or freezer for quick cooking. And there is helpful information about other ingredients she uses often, like olive oil, nuts, herbs, and spices.
This cookbook isn't all salads and soups. There are recipes for waffles and scones, pasta salad, quiche, and for a roast chicken that doesn't include any whole grains, but "sparks a primordial craving" for the author. Most recipes incorporate whole grains or flours, but also flavor-boosting ingredients like olive oils, dark chocolate, saffron, lemon, rosemary, or lavender. Speck also unapologetically uses butter, cream, and other fats in her cooking, and in recipes, you'll see whole eggs are used as well as things like whole milk and full-fat yogurt.
In nearly every chapter, Speck has written essays about her experience with certain ingredients and how she was introduced to them or came to love cooking with them. Her teenage years were spent in the Bavarian region of Germany where they love barley, not necessarily to eat, but because it's used to make beer. Speck, however, loves the "sweet, ambrosial quality to the ancient grain," and has created recipes using barley, such as a bread that includes leeks caramelized in butter and beer, admitting that maybe the beer culture of Germany did indeed have an impact on her.