The Challenge of Bulk Food

In my first newsletter, I made some disparaging comments about the shopping habits of the average Whole Foods patron: specifically, their tendency to go for the not-so-healthy prepared and processed foods. As an alternative, I extolled the virtues of the bulk food section (which doesn’t really exist anymore at Whole Foods, unfortunately – at least not at the stores in large metropolitan areas. Instead they have those little plastic cartons of dry foods, which, when you think about it, are antithetical to the meaning of “bulk”). Some people responded to me by saying that the bulk foods in general were a little intimidating –that the clear canisters of grains and beans even had an atmosphere of superiority about them. Is it similar to the air of superiority that you sometimes seem to get when trying to talk to organic-eating, McDonald’s-avoiding, skinny-looking people? I’m not sure. Actually, I think it’s the one that you get when flipping through those gourmet magazines – the ones that have pictures of designer kitchens where there are always a few glass jars against the wall, filled with pasta or rice or cannellini beans. The jars are probably slightly blurry and out of focus in the background while the model in the foreground is making dough for a flaky pastry product of some kind. Well, this is not my approach to bulk food. In fact, using whole grains and beans to make delicious meals from scratch can be one of the most rewarding, satisfying, hands-on cooking experiences you’ll ever have.

I find that the biggest challenge is probably what I’d call the “start-up cost:” a $30 electric steamer (I prefer the Black & Decker HS800 Flavor Scenter Steamer). Doesn’t sound too bad, does it? In truth, even a steamer isn’t really necessary – but it does help cut down on your time in the kitchen. I’ve referred to these foods a lot in various articles – whether it’s eating healthy or eating on a budget. I thought I should help people get over the hurdle of actually preparing them.

Note: when I say “bulk food” I am talking about rice and beans – not granola, textured vegetable protein, chocolate covered raisins, dried fruit, or any of that snack stuff that they toss into the bins.

Making Beans

The major issues with beans are time and digestibility. That’s why people either buy canned beans, or just avoid them like the plague. I prefer not to use canned beans because they are subject to a high-heat, rapid cooking process, and I believe that the best and healthiest way to cook beans is just the opposite – for a long time over a low flame. The following steps are meant to address the two obstacles mentioned above.

1. Shopping First of all, when shopping, I’d recommend that you go organic – the conventional ones that you can find in bags from Goya or other companies are usually sprayed with pesticides and more likely to be broken or split. I usually get a few cups of a given kind of bean at a time. They won’t really go bad, but if they’re three years old they might not be as tasty. So don’t get too much.

2. Preparing You will still get some small stones and withered or broken beans, and if you would like to spend some time really getting in touch with your food, you can sift through them before cooking them and pick out any that you see. Broken beans have less energy and nutrition and little stones really don’t have much at all. This can be a very meditative experience and lead to greater enjoyment of the meal. It will also help if you’re trying to avoid doing your taxes. After sifting the beans, you’ll want to rinse them off and then soak them. Soaking beans beforehand contributes to their digestibility. Unless it’s lentils or split peas, I usually soak my beans all day or overnight. When you’re ready to cook, discard the soaking water and rinse them off again.

3. Cooking. Most of the problems people have with digesting beans are a result of improper cooking. Soaking is the first step in breaking down beans and rendering their digestive enzymes more accessible. When cooking beans, I start by tossing them in a pot of water (cast-iron pots are the best) with a strip or two of kombu, a sea vegetable. In addition to being very nutritious in its own right, kombu helps to further soften the beans and over the course of the cooking it will typically dissolve completely. Bring the beans to a boil and use a shallow, wide spoon to scoop off the foam that gathers at the surface. After a few minutes lower the flame and let the beans cook, stirring every once in a while, until their texture becomes soft. For small beans like lentils this should only take 20-30 minutes, while kidney beans and garbanzo beans are more likely to take over two hours. I usually make beans on a weekend when I have a few hours at home to be near them while they are cooking and stir them occasionally. They cook best when you mostly forget about them while you’re preoccupied doing other things – but make sure the flame is on low and you stir them once in a while, otherwise the ones on the bottom will burn and the ones on the top won’t cook. Finally, don’t add salt until they reach that soft texture. Salt has contracting properties and will counteract the cooking process of the beans.

I also like to throw in a variety of vegetables – carrots, onions, celery, parsnips, turnips, daikon radish, cauliflower, potatoes, tomatoes, etc. The more the better. Beans tend to be a little bland all by themselves and sweet vegetables especially help liven them up. Also, don’t forget to season them! There is a range of possibilities here – from white beans with olive oil, thyme, sage, basil, etc. to lentils with curry, cumin, turmeric, and cardamom, all beans benefit from being seasoned. And I almost always include garlic.

4. Planning As I said before, I usually make beans on the weekend, maybe two cups at a time, with a few cups of the aforementioned vegetables thrown in. This amount of food should last you at least half the week and will only get better with more cooking. The difference between homemade and canned beans is that you do need some advance planning, but you will be much healthier and happier as a result. Beans are extremely nutritious foods, especially for vegetarians, with all their fiber (soluble and insoluble), complex carbs, protein, B vitamins, iron, calcium, and magnesium. They help people who have diabetes because they have their own enzyme for digestion (providing they are cooked properly) and don’t require much insulin to digest. They also help you plan your budget – they’re extremely filling and inexpensive, and can still be considered gourmet (refer back to those glossy magazine photographs). Just remember the garlic.

Making Grains

While there isn’t really a refined, processed, bleached, enriched alternative version of beans (canned was the best I could do), there are definitely two polar opposites when it comes to grain foods: specifically, the whole grains vs. everything else. Figuring out what counts as a “whole grain” can be complicated, primarily because of all the grain products that are flying around claiming to be whole grain this and whole grain that. When I’m really pressed on the subject, though, I have to admit that there is something of a gradation going from whole grains to refined grains. Oats, source of the ever-popular oatmeal, are a good example of the process. Behold the stages of oats:

1. Whole oats. A whole oat is the entire edible grain, plus an inedible outer husk or “hull” which the average consumer cannot easily discard at home. For this reason the least processed oats you can still take home and eat are called…

2. Hulled oats. These have the husk removed, leaving the remaining edible parts: the carbohydrate, the bran, and the germ. Sometimes I also call these “whole oats” because no one really cares about the hull anyway.

3. Steel-cut oats are hulled oats that have been chopped up into two or three pieces by a big blade. They cook faster but are not quite as good for you because some nutrition has been lost.

4. Rolled oats are hulled oats that have been crushed flat. These have less nutrition than steel-cut oats but cook even faster.

5. Quick oats are rolled oats that have been shredded a little, so that they cook in practically no time at all. However, they have the least amount of nutrition. You can see a pattern here.

Despite how processed the oats get, I would still consider them to be whole grains even at the quick oats stage. This is because all the original components of the grain are still present. For a long time, oats have had the reputation of being good for you because of their fiber content and their ability to lower cholesterol. You’ll often see it in the news or proudly reported on the Quaker Oats cylinder. In reality, though, oats share these properties with the other grains – millet, rice, barley, buckwheat, quinoa, amaranth, spelt, kamut, rye, wheat, etc. However, rice and wheat, the other popular grains, food manufacturers process by stripping away the bran and the germ, leaving only the white, carbohydrate part. Otherwise they’d be just as noticeably healthy as oats! The bran is the part that has all that valuable fiber; the germ, which is the embryo of the future grain plant, the very thing that gives it life, contains all the wonderful nutrients such as Vitamin E, folate (folic acid), phosphorus, thiamin, zinc and magnesium. It also contains what little fat there is in the grain, which is one reason why it’s been removed, leaving us with white rice and white flour: fat eventually goes rancid, and food processors wanted to profit from longer shelf life. A good general rule, however, is that anything that won’t break down on the shelf will have a hard time being broken down by your own body.

But the other benefit of processing grains is their subsequent quick-cooking time. This is why I use a steamer to cook all my grains. It’s very simple: just rinse the grains, put them in the steamer with the requisite amount of water, turn the machine on, and go do something fun for an hour. (Sometimes, in these articles about traditional eating, I may seem to be anti-technology. I’m really not. Maybe I do feel a little bit like I’m cheating when I’m not standing over a hot stove stirring my brown rice all day long – but that’s just me. You should enjoy yourself!).

Boiling grains, however, works quite well: just put the grains in water, bring to a boil, stir, reduce to a simmer, and check occasionally until they are finished. Refer to the table below for cooking times.

1 cup grains water Cooking time
common grains:
brown rice 2 cups 60 minutes
buckwheat (kasha)* 2 cups 20 minutes
Millet 2 cups 30 minutes
oatmeal (rolled oats) 3 cups 20 minutes
Quinoa 2 cups 30 minutes
misc. grains:
Amaranth 2 cups 20 minutes
barley (pearled) 2-3 cups 60 minutes
barley (hulled) 2-3 cups 90 minutes
Bulgur 2 cups 20 minutes
cornmeal (polenta) 3 cups 15 minutes
Couscous 1 cup 5 minutes
Kamut 3 cups 90 minutes
oats (whole groats) 3 cups 90 minutes
rye berries 3 cups 2 hours
Spelt 3 cups 2 hours
wheat berries 3 cups 60 minutes
wild rice 2 cups 60 minutes

One more word on grains and their products: I’m not really talking about pasta, bread, cereal, bagels, pastries, cakes, cookies, crackers, chips, etc., even if you can find these things that say “whole grain.” That means that the flour they are made from still has the germ and the bran in it, which is certainly a good thing; however, even baked goods made from whole wheat are not nutritionally equal to real whole grains. They are also a good bit more expensive. Now, I don’t have brown rice for breakfast every morning (I have toast just as often), but I’ve written what I have because including a few more servings of whole grains into your life can help you both eat inexpensively and healthfully.