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Bargain hunt: grains

Categories: Expert guidance

Tom Hunt, author of The Natural Cook, uses high quality ingredients to create a balanced meal for under £10, focusing on a different food group each time. This month: grains

Grains create the foundation for a perfect meal. They pull together disparate flavours and bridge the gap between meat and vegetable. They hit the spot and satisfy any itch for umami richness and a full tummy. And they provide us with long-lasting energy and nutrition to keep us ticking along during those oh so long intervals between breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Rice, wheat and corn fill the world’s breadbasket, but each country has its own favourite grains that form their native cuisine. Spelt, barley, millet, buckwheat, emmer, einkorn, rye, quinoa, teff and kamut are just some of my favourite grains from around the world.

If you’re looking for grains at Borough Market, the first point of call is Spice Mountain. This beautiful spice shop has recently moved into a large space in Three Crown Square, filled with quite literally thousands of spices, salts, chillies, herbs and grains. I often visit the shop to discover exotic new ingredients.

Trompette de la mort mushrooms

Earthy Japanese spice
My recent discoveries are amchur, a powder made from ground mangoes which is lip-smackingly sweet and sour, used in Indian cuisine; sansho an earthy Japanese spice that tastes lemony and gives an electrifying sensation when put directly onto the tongue, and good for grilled foods like yakitori chicken skewers; and amaranth. Strictly speaking, amaranth is a seed but it is also classified as a pseudocereal and used as a grain, like quinoa.

Amaranth was thought to be the Aztecs’ main staple, before the Spanish conquest. It has a very small pearl shape and is usually yellow in colour. It is still used a lot in Mexican cuisine mixed, with chocolate and/or honey.

On this visit a pack of barley caught my eye, at just two pounds a bag. Barley was one of the first cultivated grains in Eurasia and has been grown as early as 13,000 years ago. Barley is used in soups and stews but also animal fodder and commonly fermented into malt or to make beer. Although barley is less commonly used in our cuisine than rice, corn or wheat, it is still widely produced, affordable and easy to get hold of. It’s delicious made into a risotto or served cold as a base for salads.

Rolling in truffles
With autumn well underway, the Market is full of earthy wild mushrooms. Turnips has its usual brilliant display, Tartufaia is rolling in truffles and Fitz Fine Foods has a small selection, some of which Noel Fitzjohn picks himself. Fitz has the best price on wild mushrooms in Borough. On this occasion he had the scarily named yet beautiful and very tasty trompette de la mort for £2.50 per 100g. I decided that as my barley was so cheap, I should treat myself to a bag to make a fine autumnal barley risotto.

I like to represent the seasons and landscape in my food. At this time of year, when I think of vegetables, I think of the trees. In autumn, the ground is dappled with leaves showing a spectrum of colour from green through to yellow, red and brown. In the fields, crops mimic the trees with similar colours—green brussels sprouts and other brassicas; orange squash and pumpkins; dusky yellow parsnips; vibrant red beetroots and rusty-skinned jerusalem artichokes. These colourful roots and brassicas are brilliant value and make for the most satisfying dish on a cold evening.

Rather than making a traditional risotto with dairy, I decided to make a rich, meaty stock to cook the barley in. Butchers are often happy to donate spare bones if they have them, or if not they are usually very affordable and will provide a lot of nutrition and flavour to whatever you are cooking. I was kindly given some lamb bones from Cumbrian Speciality Meats to boil up with my vegetable trimmings. Perfect for making a free, flavourful base for my risotto and a warming drink while preparing my supper.

Read Tom’s recipe for barley, jerusalem artichoke & brussels sprouts risotto with trompette de la mort