Amazing Grains

In praise of amaranth, barley, sorghum and other heirloom grains.

Roasted beets with pink grapefruit, endive and popped amaranth. Photo by Fred + Elliott

Photography and styling by Fred + Elliott • Food by Chef J Frank

Every month, Evrim Dogu, co-owner of Sub Rosa Bakery in Richmond, buys 4,100 pounds of both heirloom and ordinary grain and flour. He can only find about 20 percent of what he needs in Virginia, but Dogu isn’t giving up—he keeps searching for more. In fact, chefs and bakers like Dogu are driving an upswing in grain growth across the state. Farmers and chefs are experimenting with growing and cooking small batches of heirloom and ancient grains, including corn, winter wheat, sorghum, amaranth and barley. 

“People think of the Midwest, but Virginia is actually one of the largest grain-producing states in the mid-Atlantic,” says Ben Row of the Virginia Grain Producers Association. Much of that acreage is in corn and barley, destined for Virginia’s increasing number of breweries and distilleries. But home cooks and professional chefs are also bringing historical Virginia grains into the kitchen.  

Sorghum, for example, can be grown either for grain or for crushing into molasses. “Sorghum moved west over the Blue Ridge with the pioneers,” says Joseph Burkholder, co-owner of Compass Winds Sorghum in Dayton, outside Harrisonburg, which grows molasses sorghum. “Sorghum was more adaptable to our climate than sugar cane, and it became the first sustainable sweetener of the frontier.”  

Richmond chef Travis Milton, who is preparing to open Shovel & Pick restaurant in the Sessions Hotel in Bristol next summer, cooks frequently with spicy, dark sorghum molasses, and also experiments with growing, cooking and grinding the grains. 

“I was milling my own sorghum flour and I had these rough bits left at the bottom that wouldn’t grind,” says Milton. “I figured why not try grits with them?” Milton also pops the tiny sorghum grains like popcorn to use as a garnish. 

Corn has always been at home in Virginia, and today’s farmers are growing the trendy reddish Bloody Butcher variety for chefs nationwide to turn into cornbread, grits and polenta.

“Bloody Butcher came out of Virginia in the mid-1840s,” says Jake Garland, who grew five acres organically last year on his family farm in Clifford, just north of Amherst, and plans to double his acreage this year. “Then it disappeared. There was only one family growing it in Nelson County. They called it Thomas Family corn.” Garland found Bloody Butcher seed corn at Seed Savers Exchange in Iowa. He says that the heirloom variety is hardy, drought tolerant and has a high germination rate. Originally a cross between native and settler-cultivated varieties, it is said that the corn was named for the flecks of red on a butcher’s apron.  

Barley may be fueling Virginia’s brewery renaissance, but local varieties are also showing up on the plate. Milton featured barley risotto and pearl barley succotash on recent menus while cooking at Volt Family Meal in Richmond. It is a hardy grain that has held up well during Virginia’s history. 

Barley and corn are increasingly easy to find locally because they fit our environment better than many traditional grains, says Ira Wallace, author of Guide to Vegetable Gardening in the Southeast (Timber Press, 2014). Wheat, in particular, tends to mold easily in Virginia’s hot, humid climate: “When the European settlers first came they couldn’t grow wheat, but they grew barley well.” 

Virginians want more local grains. “The message we hear from retailers is they can’t find enough,” says Sue Ellen Johnson of the Virginia Association for Biological Farming. Evrim Dogu suggests that the learning curve is the main challenge. “We’re talking about reintroducing methods that have been abandoned for 50 years,” he says. But Virginia’s farmers are nothing if not resourceful, so we’re betting you’ll find more local heirloom grains coming soon to a specialty retailer near you.


Heirloom Polenta with Roasted Tomatoes 

2 cups Bloody Butcher cornmeal  

8 cups water 

2 teaspoons salt

2 tablespoons butter

¼ cup Parmesan cheese

4 medium tomatoes

salt and pepper to taste

In a large saucepan, bring the water to a boil and add salt. Slowly add the cornmeal in a steady stream while stirring. Cover, reduce heat and simmer for 30-35 minutes, stirring well every few minutes. Add the butter and cheese, and season with salt and pepper to taste. 

Pour the warm polenta into a jellyroll or sheet pan, smoothing the top with a spatula. Chill until firm, 2-3 hours (can be made ahead and stored in refrigerator). 

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Cut the chilled polenta into 3-inch rounds and place on a lightly greased pan. Place a whole tomato on each polenta round and bake in the oven until the tomatoes split, 20-25 min. 

Serve alongside your favorite kielbasa or Italian-style sausage. 

Serves 4


Sorghum, Green Olive and Celery Relish

1 cup green olives, roughly chopped

1 cup diced celery

2 cloves garlic, minced

1 teaspoon orange zest

1 teaspoon lemon zest

½ teaspoon fresh oregano

1 tablespoon fresh basil, chopped

1 tablespoon parsley, chopped

2 tablespoons lemon juice

3 tablespoons olive oil

¾ cup cooked sorghum (directions follow)

salt and pepper to taste

Mix all the ingredients except salt, pepper and oil. Combine well. Season with salt and pepper, and drizzle with oil. Sprinkle with fresh parsley. Serve alongside roasted chicken. 

For sorghum: 

½ cup sorghum 

1½ cups water 

Bring the water to a boil, salt lightly, add the sorghum. Cover, reduce heat and simmer for about an hour. If the sorghum is still hard add another cup of water and continue cooking until the grains are tender but chewy. Drain and set aside. Makes 1¼ cups.

Serves 4


Pork Chops Stuffed with Barley, Sage and Thyme 

4 bone-in pork chops, cut 1½ inch thick  

2 slices of bacon, chopped

1 large onion, chopped

3 cups water

1 cup pearl barley 

5 sprigs of fresh thyme, stripped and finely chopped

2 teaspoons fresh sage, chopped 

2 tablespoons fresh parsley, chopped and divided

2 tablespoons olive oil

2 tablespoons butter

1 shallot, minced

1½ cups apple juice

2 tablespoons lemon juice 

salt and pepper to taste

In a medium-sized saucepan bring the water to a boil and salt lightly. Add barley, cover and simmer until tender but chewy, adding more water if necessary (about 25 minutes). Drain and reserve.  

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Cut deep pockets into the chops by slicing horizontally into the boneless sides. Set aside. 

In a large sauté pan cook the bacon and onions until the bacon is almost crisp. Add the cooked barley and mix well. Add the thyme, sage and half of the parsley. Season with salt and pepper to taste.  

Stuff the chops with the barley mixture and fasten the opening with a toothpick. Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in a large ovenproof skillet over medium high heat. Sear the chops for 2-3 minutes per side. 

Remove skillet to the preheated oven and bake the chops 20-25 minutes. Remove from oven and place chops on serving platter to let rest in a warm place for at least 5 minutes. 

Meanwhile, melt the butter in the same skillet. Add the shallots and cook until soft. Add the apple and lemon juice, bring to a boil and reduce by half. Add the remaining parsley and pour over the chops. Serve immediately. 

Serves 4


Roasted Cauliflower and Goat Cheese Quiche with Amaranth Crust 

1½ medium heads cauliflower, cut into small pieces  

½ cup mushrooms, quartered

1 tablespoon olive oil

5 eggs

½ cup cream

½ teaspoon fresh thyme, chopped

1 cup crumbled soft goat cheese 

1 amaranth crust (directions follow)

salt and pepper to taste

Toss the cauliflower and quartered mushrooms with the oil, salt and pepper. Roast in a preheated 375-degree oven until golden brown, about 25 minutes, mixing halfway through baking. Cool the mixture, then add eggs, cream, thyme, goat cheese, salt and pepper. Pour into the prepared crust and bake in a preheated 350-degree oven for 30-35 minutes, or until golden brown.

For crust: 

½ cup amaranth, rinsed

1½ cups water

1 egg, beaten

¼ cup Parmesan cheese 

salt to taste

Bring the amaranth to a boil in salted water. Simmer until tender, 20-25 minutes. Remove from heat and let rest for 5 minutes. Drain if needed and mix with the Parmesan, egg, salt and pepper. Press into a pie plate and bake in a preheated 375-degree oven until golden brown, about 10 minutes. 

Serves 4-6


Roasted Beets with Endive, Pink Grapefruit and Popped Amaranth

4 red or golden beets

2 pink grapefruit

3-4 endive heads 

¼ cup popped amaranth (directions follow)

salt and pepper to taste

fresh chives and tarragon for garnish

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Rub washed beets lightly with olive oil, season with salt and pepper and wrap in aluminum foil. Bake until tender, 35-40 minutes. Set aside. 

Section the grapefruit, reserving the juice and setting aside 2 tablespoons for the vinaigrette. Quarter the endives and pour all but 2 tablespoons of the grapefruit juice over them to prevent discoloration. Remove them after 5 minutes.

To assemble the salad, quarter the beets and toss with the popped amaranth. Toss the endives and grapefruit sections with the vinaigrette. Season lightly with salt and pepper. Arrange on plates with the beets and garnish with the fresh herbs.

For amaranth: 

Heat a dry skillet over medium-high heat. Add the amaranth 1 tablespoon at a time, using a lid to prevent the grains from popping out of the pan. Shake pan occasionally while popping to prevent burning. Remove each batch when popping noises start to subside. 

For vinaigrette: 

1 teaspoon Dijon mustard

1 small shallot, minced

1 tablespoon champagne vinegar

salt and pepper to taste

3 tablespoons olive oil

2 tablespoons grapefruit juice

Combine mustard, shallot, vinegar, salt and pepper in a small bowl. Slowly whisk in the olive oil. When blended, add the grapefruit juice. 

Serves 4


This article originally appeared in our August 2016 issue.

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