You probably realize that not all grains are the same from a taste and texture standpoint, but do you know that some “grains” aren’t grains at all?
If you’ve heard the term “pseudograins,” this is exactly what I’m talking about — but what’s so pseudo (aka false) about these “grains”? The word pseudo means not just “false” or “fake,” it also means “to have the appearance of.” That fits pseudograins perfectly. Whereas most grains are seeds of the Poaceae botanical family of grasses — also known as cereals — pseudograins are the seeds of unrelated plant families that happen to look like, and have similar functions as, cereal grains. These are the three major pseudograins:
- Amaranth. First cultivated in Central America 8,000 years ago, this very tall plant with broad leaves and bright flowers was a staple crop of the Aztecs. The tiny golden seeds (about the size of poppy seeds) have a slightly grassy, peppery, nutty flavor and a creamy, comforting texture. Amaranth is an excellent source of iron and magnesium and a good source of calcium and fiber. It’s the only grain known to contain vitamin C.
- Buckwheat. This relative of rhubarb and sorrel originated in China and Japan, and has a mild, earthy, flavor. The pyramid-shaped groats are rich in phytonutrients and buckwheat is a good source of magnesium and fiber, including soluble and insoluble fiber, which can help promote healthy blood sugar levels. It’s also high in an antioxidant called rutin, which can improve blood circulation.
- Quinoa. This relative of spinach and Swiss chard was called “the mother of all grains” by the ancient Inca peoples. Quinoa has a mild, earthy, somewhat nutty flavor and a fluffy, creamy, slightly crunchy texture. It’s an excellent source of magnesium and a good source of fiber, folate, iron and zinc. You can find ivory, red and black varieties.
While they might not be genetically related, pseudograins fit into the diet much like “true” cereal grains. Nutritionally, they have much common, containing carbohydrates, fiber, protein (yes, really) as well as magnesium and other micronutrients. Where pseudograins stand apart is that their protein is often considered “complete,” meaning they have an adequate balance of all of the essential amino acids, rather than being shy on one or two. One cup of cooked quinoa has about 8 grams of protein; amaranth has 9 grams and buckwheat has about 6 grams.
Even though the botanical difference between pseudograins and true grains is clear-cut, many lists of pseudograins on the internet erroneously include cereal grains such as wild rice and teff. Even though each of those grains has its own culinary and nutritional benefits, teff is closely related to rye, barley and corn, and wild rice is a grass, so it is also a cereal.
A question I hear a lot: “Are pseudograins healthier than ‘regular’ grains?” This question often stems from the fact that pseudograins don’t contain gluten. Here’s the thing: Only a small percentage of people need to avoid gluten or gluten-containing grains — wheat, rye and barley — for medical reasons, such as celiac disease or food allergies. Some people with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) find that their symptoms are triggered by the fructans (a type of carbohydrate) found coincidentally in gluten-containing grains. Pseudograins, along with some cereal grains — including rice, millet and sorghum — are all viable options for these individuals.
How to use pseudograins:
- Pop amaranth seeds like popcorn in a hot skillet.
- Add cooked quinoa to frittatas.
- Use amaranth to make a polentalike side dish or instead of rice to make a dessert pudding.
- Use buckwheat like you would oatmeal for a breakfast porridge.
- Use a mix of quinoa and breadcrumbs as a coating for “chicken fingers.”
- Add buckwheat soba noodles to stir-fries.
- Use buckwheat flour in place of some of your regular flour in pancakes or other baked goods.
- Use quinoa instead of bulgur wheat to make a gluten-free tabbouleh.
- Add leftover cooked amaranth to quick breads.
Mediterranean Quinoa Salad
- 1 cup uncooked quinoa
- 3/4 teaspoon salt, divided, plus more to taste
- 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- 4 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
- ½ teaspoon ground sumac (see note)
- ½ teaspoon Aleppo pepper (see note)
- ¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- One 15.5-ounce can chickpeas, drained and rinsed
- 3 green onions (scallions) thinly sliced
- ½ cup chopped roasted red pepper
- ½ cup Kalamata olives, halved
- ½ cup marinated artichoke hearts, drained and coarsely chopped
- ½ cup walnuts, chopped
- ½ cup crumbled feta cheese
- ½ cup flat-leaf (Italian) parsley leaves, roughly chopped
- In a medium saucepan, bring 1 ½ cups water to a boil. Add the quinoa and ½ teaspoon of the salt; lower the heat to a simmer and cover. Continue simmering until water is absorbed and grains are tender, about 15-20 minutes. Remove from heat and allow to rest for 5 minutes. Fluff with a fork and transfer to a salad or mixing bowl.
- Meanwhile, make the dressing by combining the olive oil, lemon juice, remaining ¼ teaspoon salt, sumac, Aleppo pepper and black pepper in a small bowl. Prep the remaining ingredients.
- Drizzle dressing over the quinoa, and toss to combine.
- Add chickpeas, prepped scallions, roasted red pepper, Kalamata olives, artichoke hearts and walnuts to the bowl; toss to combine. Add crumbled feta and chopped parsley and toss again.
- Taste and adjust seasonings as needed. Does it need more salt or another few squeezes of lemon?
Note: If you don’t have ground sumac, you can add some extra lemon juice to taste, or some lemon zest. If you don’t have Aleppo pepper, add a pinch of cayenne to the dressing.