In-Grained: Interview with Maria Speck, author of "Ancient Grains for Modern Meals" (with bonus recipe)

I don't think it's ever been a big secret that Europe (in this case, Greece and Germany) has a tendency to blow us out of the culinary water. But here's further proof: whole grains, people, whole grains! Yes, quinoa is trendy (and mostly mispronounced), but I'm talking about the kind of whole grains that steal meals on their own. They are capable of subtly elevating a dish to stellar levels, and they have recently gotten the full star treatment from food-writer-turned-cookbook-author Maria Speck, who will be at the Harvard Coop on December 8, giving out treats from her new Mediterranean-inspired book, Ancient Grains for Modern Meals.

When Speck picks up the phone for our interview, she is breathless with excitement and giggling. The book, her first, has just been awarded a coveted spot on the New York Times' holiday must-have list of cookbooks for 2011.

"It's an unbelievable surprise for a first-time author," she gushes. "I've just been so blown away!"

"Whole grains are my lifelong passion, but it's a niche topic that has somehow captured the zeitgeist," she adds. "I feel very lucky that the book is getting any attention."

A journalist by training and German and Greek by birth, Speck arrived in the United States as a fellow at Stanford University in 1993. Covering technology and society for German magazines soon morphed into food writing as she realized her precious whole grains--a staple on her family's table--were creeping into the public consciousness.

After arriving, trying Wonderbread and quickly deciding it tasted "like cotton," Speck realized she had to seek out a way to recreate the cardamom-and-fennel-flecked German loaves she loved. Because all she did was, and is, "eat, cook, and bake with whole grains," it made sense to take the little guys -- wheat berries, kamut, barley and the like -- to the top. She spent the next decade of her life working her tail off, getting her work into top food magazines in the US (Saveur, Gourmet and Gastronomica to name a few), and making herself known.

"It was always about whole grains!" she says, laughing as she recalls trying to make editors care as much as she did. "At the time, it wasn't that trendy, like it is now. I had to work really hard to get my pieces published!"

As a young journalist, surviving on frozen pizza and chocolate pudding, Speck found herself constantly dieting. Once she made the switch and gave serious attention to giving whole grains the kitchen spotlight, the dieting disappeared. Now the proud owner of a grain mill and devotee of home-milled flour, she is as close to the subject as one could get.

"It's a very personal book. What was really important to me was to not write another healthy, whole-grain cookbook," she emphasizes. "For way too long, we have called whole grains 'healthy' and nothing else! I love that they're good for us, don't get me wrong, but they are so much more than that. They have amazing textures, and these subtle flavors, and stunning colors. 'Healthy' is such a turn-off."

Speck leaves me with a key story from her childhood. At six years old, she found herself in a cemetery on the 40th day of mourning her grandfather's death, when she was handed a small paper bag of sweetened whole wheat berries, walnuts and sugar-coated almonds, spiced with cinnamon and cumin.

"I was chewing away, and I forgot everything all around me, completely mesmerized by this treat," she says. "Of course, I thought it was dessert and was happy as a clam, but then the howling pain of my grandmother crying, my mom crying, hits me. As a child, you don't understand those things ... so I felt kind of guilty, but that's what food does to you. It really sweetens moments."

Speck directs me to this recipe after I ask her for a few favorites. It's a pleasing balance between the two cultures of her personality: Greek yogurt balanced with heavy cream, figs with an orangey kick, and a homey note of honey finishes it off.

Wheat Berry Fools with Grand Marnier Figs

Serves 6 to 8

3/4 cup finely chopped dried figs, preferably Turkish or Greek

3 tablespoons Grand Marnier or other good-quality orange-flavored liqueur

1 cup plain whole-milk Greek yogurt

4 tablespoons honey

1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon freshly grated orange zest (about 2 oranges)

1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1 cup cooked soft whole wheat berries

1 cup heavy whipping cream, chilled


1: Combine the figs and the liqueur in a small bowl and set aside to plump for 15 minutes, stirring once or twice, while you prep the ingredients.

2: Meanwhile, beat the yogurt with 2 tablespoons of the honey, 1 tablespoon of the orange zest, and the cinnamon in a large bowl until smooth. Stir in the wheat berries. Using a hand mixer at medium speed, whip the cream in a medium bowl until foamy. Add the remaining 2 tablespoons honey and continue whipping until soft peaks form.

3: Drain the figs, reserving their juices. Combine 2 tablespoons of the figs with the remaining 1 teaspoon zest in a small bowl and set aside for garnish. Stir the remaining figs into the bowl with the yogurt mixture. Scrape one-third of the whipped cream on top and fold in using a spatula. Fold in the remaining whipped cream in 2 additions until just incorporated. Divide among serving bowls, cover with plastic wrap, and chill for 2 hours. To serve, top each bowl with a bit of the reserved figs and their juices.

To get a head start: The dessert can be prepared up to 4 hours ahead. Add a dash more liqueur to the figs reserved for the garnish, if necessary.

To lighten it up: You can use lowfat plain Greek yogurt, if you like.

Reprinted with permission from Ancient Grains for Modern Meals by Maria Speck, copyright © 2011. Published by Ten Speed Press, a division of Random House, Inc.

For more whole-grain awesomeness, follow Speck on Twitter, @mariaspeck.


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