There’s something in wheat that speaks to our American souls.

We sing to “amber waves of grain.” Wheat sheaves were minted on the backs of pennies until 1959. Wheat, milled into flour, earned Minneapolis the nickname of Bread Basket of the World.

Now a new grain, bred from intermediate wheatgrass — a different species but a wild cousin of wheat — is being introduced to our farms. After nearly a half-decade of research and development, Kernza is entering the market as a delicious, healthful grain.

Kernza grains are a pretty mahogany color and the size of rice or grass seed. When cooked, whole-grain Kernza has a wheaten, slightly nutty flavor with notes of molasses. Marshall Paulson of the Birchwood Cafe in Minneapolis tosses cooked Kernza into pancakes, savory waffles and grain salads.

“It adds a chewiness and texture and a nice nuttiness to the mix,” he says. Paulson also makes crackers and tortillas with Kernza flour milled for wholesale use by Baker’s Field Flour & Bread in Minneapolis.

“The flour has a unique personality,” Paulson says. “Its slightly sweet, grassy flavor reflects the land where it’s grown.”

Jeff Casper, co-proprietor of Dumpling & Strand, those innovative “noodlers at large” in St. Paul, is making long fettuccine-shaped pasta with Kernza, which is sold at their stand at two farmers markets and at local food co-ops and several stores (see dumplingandstrand.com for complete list).

“We’re looking at ways to showcase Kernza’s distinct rye-like flavor and soft brown color, ” Casper says. He is adding a levain (sourdough starter) to the pasta dough to give it a little tang. He suggests serving Kernza pasta tossed with a parsley pesto or mushrooms sautéed in browned butter.

“Our noodles are not a blank canvas or carrier for other foods, they are equal partners on the plate,” he says.

A useful crop

The Land Institute in Salina, Kan., is responsible for domesticating Kernza, and has trademarked its name (hence the capitalization). In 2013, it began collaborating with the University of Minnesota, where agronomy professor Don Wyse leads the Forever Green Initiative. This team of researchers, farmers, food producers and entrepreneurs is developing and promoting the use of new crops that enhance water and soil quality.

A crop of Kernza covers the farm year-round and is not tilled for planting each season; it absorbs water and prevents runoff, reduces erosion, captures carbon and provides year-round ground cover for wildlife.

“These perennial crops add to the productivity and profitability of a farm, creating new economic opportunities while enhancing our environment,” says Jacob Jungers, a University of Minnesota ecologist.

Carmen Fernholz, a farmer in Madison, Minn., has been growing Kernza for five years. The crop produces years of harvests and provides grazing for cattle in the spring and fall. Grown organically, it eliminates the need for chemicals, cutting costs dramatically.

“It’s a game-changer,” according to Fernholz.

General Mills agrees. The food giant has committed to buying a significant quantity of Kernza for use in its Cascadian Farm line of organic cereal products, and it has pledged a $500,000 grant to the Forever Green Initiative. This financial support will help serve as an incentive to farmers to plant more Kernza and invest in the processing equipment to de-hull and store the grain for millers and end users, a role the University of Minnesota’s Forever Green team currently plays.

There’s more Kernza news brewing, literally. In St. Paul, Bang Brewing is working on a Kernza beer, dubbed “Gold,” in a nod to the U of M. Patagonia Provisions of Sausalito, Calif., has created Long Root Ale for sale through Whole Foods Market stores in California and Oregon. Ventura Spirits of Ventura, Calif., is aging a Kernza whiskey now.

In my kitchen, Dumpling & Strand’s Kernza Pasta is tossed with fresh mint, parsley, lemon butter and Parmesan cheese. It’s also terrific as a salad with seasonal veggies in a zesty vinaigrette. I’ll be looking for more ways to use Kernza at home.

 

Beth Dooley is the author of “In Winter’s Kitchen.” Find her at bethdooleyskitchen.com.

 

Pasta With Lemon Herb Butter

Serves 2 as an entree; 4 as a side or small plate

Note: The nutty, rye-like favor of Kernza pasta is enhanced with sautéed onions and lemon herb butter. Lovage, an old-fashioned herb with celery notes, works nicely here. Be sure to follow the pasta package’s directions because cooking times will vary depending on the type of pasta and whether it’s dry or fresh. From Beth Dooley.

• 1 (9-oz.) pkg. fresh Kernza pasta or whole-wheat fettuccine (see Note)

• 3 tbsp. unsalted butter

• 1 bunch spring onions, white part only, thinly sliced (about 1/2 c.)

• 1/4 c. chicken or vegetable stock

• 2 to 3 tbsp. fresh lemon juice, or to taste

• 1/4 c. chopped fresh parsley

• 1 tbsp. lemon zest

• 2 tbsp. chopped fresh lovage or fresh celery leaves

• Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

• 2 to 3 tbsp. shaved Parmesan cheese, optional

Directions

Cook the noodles according to package directions, drain and set aside.

In a large sauté pan set over medium heat, melt the butter and sauté the onions until translucent and soft, about 2 to 3 minutes. Add the stock and then put the pasta into the sauté pan and toss in the lemon juice, parsley, lemon zest and lovage or celery. Season with salt and pepper to taste, and toss in the Parmesan cheese before serving.

Nutrition information per each of 4 servings:

Calories 290 Fat 12 g Sodium 130 mg

Carbohydrates 38 g Saturated fat 6 g Total sugars 1 g

Protein 8 g Cholesterol 55 mg Dietary fiber 4 g

Exchanges per serving: 2 ½ starch, 2 fat.

 

Pasta Salad With Sesame-Ginger Vinaigrette

Serves 2 as an entree, 4 as a side.

Note: This simple salad can be made ahead and travels nicely to picnics and potlucks. It’s delicious served at room temperature or chilled. Store any leftover vinaigrette in the refrigerator to drizzle over grilled chicken or pork. Be sure to follow the pasta package’s directions because cooking times will vary depending on the type of pasta and whether it’s dry or fresh. From Beth Dooley.

Vinaigrette:

• 1 garlic clove, minced

• 1 tsp. grated fresh ginger

• 3 tbsp. rice vinegar

• 1 tsp. soy sauce

• 1 tsp. honey

• 1/4 c. light sesame oil

• 3 tbsp. toasted sesame oil

Salad:

• 1 (9-oz.) pkg. fresh Kernza pasta or whole-wheat fettuccine (see Note)

• 1 medium cucumber, cut into 2-in. pieces

• 1 pint (2 c.) cherry tomatoes, cut into 2-in. pieces

• 1/4 c. sliced red onion

• 1/4 c. chopped fresh cilantro or parsley

• Salt and freshly ground black pepper

• Lettuce for serving

Directions

To make the vinaigrette: In a small bowl, whisk together the garlic, ginger, vinegar, soy and honey. Whisk in the light sesame oil then the toasted sesame oil until the mixture is thick. Set aside. (This can also be done in a blender.)

To make the salad: Cook the pasta according to the package directions. Drain and set aside to cool.

In a medium bowl, toss together the pasta, cucumber, tomatoes, onion, with just enough vinaigrette to lightly coat. Toss in the cilantro or parsley and season with salt and freshly ground pepper. Serve on a lettuce-lined serving platter or individual bowls.

Nutrition information per each of 4 servings:

Calories 455 Fat 27 g Sodium 200 mg

Carbohydrates 44 g Saturated fat 4 g Total sugars 5 g

Protein 9 g Cholesterol 30 mg Dietary fiber 5 g

 

Exchanges per serving: 3 starch, 5 fat.