Whole grains you might not have heard of (but should probably be eating)

Great grains you might not know about.

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It's January which means you've probably been inundated with about a million articles and recipes on ways to eat healthier, jumpstart your diet, and blah, blah, blah, by now. Am I right? Well, guess what — I'm going to lay another "healthy" article on you (but this one is actually pretty good).

The subject: whole grains. They come in a variery of forms, plus they're deliciously versatile and incredibly easy to make, and these complex carbs pretty darn good for you. Whole grains are nutrient-dense and chock full of vitamins, protein and antioxidants. While they're considered to be a health food by some, whole grains are making a culinary resurgence and popping up on restaurant menus everywhere as a replacement to typical the starchy side dishes of pasta and potatoes.

Here's the rundown on a handful of great whole grain varieties that you may not have already been aware of. I encourage you to expand your culinary horizons and try them out.

Amaranth: Native to Mexico and Peru, the miniscule amaranth grain is a powerhouse of protein, iron, and potassium, and it's also a good source of lysine and Vitamin C. Bonus: it's gluten-free! To cook amaranth, use 6 cups water to one cup amaranth, put into boiling water, lower heat to a simmer and cook for 15-20 minutes. Amaranth can also be "popped" in a dry pan over medium-high heat, giving it a soft, yet crunchy texture and a nutty flavor. Try it dry popped and sprinkled over a dish to give it a crunchy topping.

Barley: Considered to be an old-school grain that's making a comeback, barley is a versatile, nutty-flavored grain that's slightly chewy and has a pasta-like texture when cooked. It's very high in fiber and nutrients, and can help to lower LDL ("bad") cholesterol and reduce blood pressure and the risk of heart attacks. To cook, measure 2 1/2 cups water to one cup barley, put barley in the water in a pot, bring to a boil, then simmer, covered, on low heat for about 30-45 minutes or until the barley is cooked through and water has dissolved. Try it cooked and added to soup to add texture and fiber.

Farro: Considered to be an "Old World heirloom" grain, farro has been grown in Tuscany for generations and is a staple of many Tuscan dishes. It can be found it its whole grain form, semi-pearled and pearled — the latter two having more of the outer bran removed. Farro has a good amount of fiber and B vitamins, but loses some of its nutrients when the bran is removed. To cook, combine with 2-3 cups water and bring to a boil; simmer, covered, for anywhere from 25-45+ minutes (depending on which type you're using) until tender and the liquid has been absorbed. Try it in place of arborio rice in risotto as it has a similar texture when cooked.

Kamut: Also known as Khorasan wheat, this grain is an "ancient grain" species of wheat native to Afghanistan and northeast Iran and was only recently rediscovered in more recent times. Kamut has a smooth texture and a nutty, buttery flavor. It almost 40% more protein than traditional wheat and is considered a "high-energy" grain as it contains a higher amount of lipids and fatty acids. To cook, soak 1 cup of kamut in 3 cups of water overnight; drain soaking water, add kamut to 3 cups of boiling water, and simmer, covered, for 30-40 minutes until grains are tender (drain off excess water). Try it added to a soup or stew at the beginning of the cooking process as it can handle a long simmering time.

Millet: Though millet is a main ingredient in bird feed, I assure you that this gluten-free grain isn't just for the birds. Grown around the globe for thousands of years, this small-seeded grass ranks sixth on the list of the world's most-produced grains. High in manganese, magnesium, dietary fiber, and B vitamins, millet is a great choice for a heart-healthy diet as it has been shown to lower blood pressure and reduce the risk of heart attacks. When cooked, this tiny grain is mild in flavor which makes it great served in sweet or savory dishes. To cook, bring 1 cup millet to a boil in 2 ¾ cups water, bring to a simmer and cook for 13-18 minutes, then let stand 10 minutes to allow excess water to be absorbed. It can also be toasted in a dry pan over medium-high heat for a few minutes before boiling to give it a fluffier texture. Try it as a porridge for breakfast in place of oatmeal.

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