Tonight’s Tribune column:
As I write this, it’s nearly lunchtime, and my tiny breakfast is holding me over quite well. That’s because instead of a doughnut or boxed cereal —or even my beloved half-Stretch at the Broadway Diner — I ate wheat berries for breakfast. Three ounces of earthy, nutty goodness, hit with a little sesame oil, soy sauce and chopped green onions. It won’t be the subject of any million-dollar advertising campaigns, but this breakfast of champions offers nutrition and satiety — a rare breakfast double threat, and all for less than a buck. Better yet, the wheat berries come from Audrain County.
But let’s back up a bit. You’ve probably never heard of wheat berries. I hadn’t until a few months ago, when I happened upon a plastic bag of the things at The Root Cellar. Tiny red-brown grains in a bag labeled “Missouri Grain Project,” they sat beside other bags of similarly labeled flour. Intrigued — and emboldened by the $1.20-a-pound price — I picked up a bag, fully intending to get all settler-like on the grains and grind them up in my coffee grinder. Instead, they sat for weeks in the bottom of the refrigerator. But a New York Times column by Mark Bittman — where he simmered the grains in water until tender, stirred in a couple of seasonings and had breakfast — was inspiring.
Margot McMillen, who owns Terra Bella farm near Auxvasse, was similarly moved a couple of years ago.
“I just thought it was ridiculous that Missouri grows all this wheat and it gets shipped away,” she said. “We don’t know where it goes.”
Missouri has ranked in the top five states in terms of soft red winter wheat production for decades, but none was available locally. McMillen is committed to local foods, so she got together with some area farmers and worked out an agreement: They would grow the wheat, and she’d get it ground and sold. The Missouri Grain Project was born. The effort started out small, barely 1,000 pounds of wheat in 2008, the first year. So far she has sold only to Clover’s Natural Market and The Root Cellar, though Uprise Bakery uses the wheat in muffins. McMillen would like to add a few more restaurants in the coming year but is cautious of growing too quickly.
“I wanted only to have enough customers that we could service them,” she said.
She now takes the wheat berries to Shepherdsfield Bakery near Fulton for milling, but as an operational bakery in its own right, it can only give McMillen so much time with the grinder. Farmers are lined up waiting to sell to her; the problem is finding cleaners, baggers and grinding facilities.
The strong demand has been a surprise, McMillen said.
“We sold more than half of it” between October and January, she said. “I thought this thousand pounds would go for a year.” She has purchased another 1,000 pounds to last her until the next crop comes in July.
Back in my kitchen, I’ve used the Missouri Grain Project’s wheat successfully in pizza dough and pasta. The pasta has been especially successful. But what about those wheat berries in the fridge? I’ve been simply simmering them in water for 45 minutes, draining and reserving for a quick breakfast. Pop a few spoonfuls in a bowl, microwave for 30 seconds and top with condiments of your choice. Butter and salt is great. Sesame oil, soy sauce and green onions? Even better.
As the Times columnist himself noted, it’s not really a recipe, but it will tide you over until lunch.
Scott Rowson works in communications at the University of Missouri, lives and eats in Columbia and writes about it at http://www.ShowMeEats.com