Now that so many of us are working at home, cooking can provide a refuge from the startling news and a space for creative activity, especially with the kids around. There’s more time to explore unfamiliar cuisines together using pantry staples such as whole grains and dried beans, the foundation for boldly spiced Latin American, North African, Middle Eastern and Asian dishes.

Ancient grains, the varieties that have been eaten for thousands of years, are finally making their way onto our farms and into our kitchens — barley, farro, wild rice, whole-grain oats, dried corn. Whole grains are chewy and hearty, the perfect match with cooked dried beans. And let’s be clear, cooked dried beans simply taste much better than canned. While these whole grains and beans take longer to cook, they can be made ahead and stored in the refrigerator for at least a week, ready to be turned into healthful and delicious soups, stews, hot dishes, salads and pilafs.

Dry beans and whole grains do not need to be soaked a day ahead. I realized this the last time I forgot to pre-soak both of them. The pre-soak step does shorten the overall cooking time, but that can be made up by simmering the beans or the grains a little longer. The cooking time for both will depend on how long the beans or grains have been stored. (When possible, I prefer to buy grains and beans in bulk from the co-op as they’re less expensive and tend to be fresher.)

Forget conventional wisdom and, by all means, salt the cooking water for both the beans and the grains. The addition of a little salt and aromatic vegetables and herbs early on will season and intensify the flavor of the bean and grain broth. How much to salt? The same as for pasta; the cooking water should taste like the sea.

Because cooking times vary, simmer the grains and beans in separate pots. Cover both by at least 3 inches of water, then set over high heat and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to simmer and partially cover. Cooked gently and slowly, the skins of the beans will stay intact and the beans will become tender and creamy as they cook through. Similarly, grains will open up slowly, without turning mushy.

Store the cooked grains and beans separately and you have the makings for a range of different dishes, depending on your imagination and whatever spices and herbs you have on hand. This kind of home cooking won’t change what’s going on in the world, but it will provide comfort, focus and fun.

 

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

 

North African Whole-Grain Stew

Serves 4 to 6 (easily doubled).

Note: This North African-inspired stew is seasoned with baharat, a Middle Eastern spice mix available in the spice aisle of grocery stores, co-ops and specialty shops. It’s also easy to make at home and will store nicely for two months in a covered jar (see recipe). The grains and the beans can be cooked ahead and stored in separate containers and the stew assembled another day. Leftovers are great and taste even better a day or two after it’s made. From Beth Dooley.

For the grains and beans:

• 1 c. farro, hulled barley, or whole-grain oats

• 1 c. dry brown or white beans (or a mix of dry beans)

• 2 bay leaves

• 1 whole onion, cut in half

• 4 garlic cloves, divided

• 2 generous pinches of salt

For the stew:

• 2 tbsp. sunflower or vegetable oil

• 1 medium onion, diced

• 3 garlic cloves, coarsely chopped

• 1 tbsp. fennel seeds, crushed

• 2 tbsp. baharat (see Note or recipe below)

• 1 small cinnamon stick

• 2 tbsp. tomato paste

• Fresh thyme leaf or chopped cilantro, optional

Directions

For the grains and beans: Put your choice of grain and the beans into separate medium pots. In each of these pots, add a bay leaf, half an onion and 2 garlic cloves. Add enough water to cover the ingredients in each pot with 3 inches over the top, along with a generous pinch of salt. Set both pots over high heat, bring to a boil, reduce the heat to a simmer and partly cover each pot.

The grain is cooked when tender and no longer tastes “raw,” about 35 to 45 minutes. Drain the grain, remove and discard the onion, garlic, and bay leaf and set the grain aside.

The beans are cooked when they are very tender and creamy within about 45 minutes to 75 or 80 minutes. Reserve the beans in their cooking liquid.

To make the stew: Set a large pot over medium-low heat, add the oil and cook the onion, garlic and fennel seeds until the onion is translucent, about 3 to 5 minutes. Stir in the baharat seasoning, cinnamon and tomato paste, and cook until the paste begins to darken and caramelizes, about 1 to 2 minutes. Stir in 1 cup of the reserved bean stock, scraping up any of the browned bits sticking to the bottom of the pan.

Stir in the drained grain and, with a slotted spoon, add the beans. If the stew seems dry, add more bean stock as necessary. Remove and discard the bay leaf, onion and garlic from the bean stock and reserve any leftover stock in a covered container in the refrigerator for up to 4 days. Serve the stew garnished with fresh thyme or cilantro if available.

Nutrition information per each of 6 servings:

Calories 290 Fat 6 g

Sodium 110 mg Carbohydrates 51 g

Saturated fat 1 g Added sugars 0 g

Protein 13 g Cholesterol 0 mg

Dietary fiber 11 g

Exchanges per serving: 1 vegetable, 3 starch, ½ fat.

 

Baharat Seasoning

Makes about 1/4 cup.

Note: Sprinkle this Middle Eastern spice blend on toasted flatbread, hummus and plain yogurt. From Beth Dooley.

• 1 1/2 tbsp. dried mint, crushed

• 1 tbsp. dried oregano

• 1 1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon

• 1 1/2 tsp. ground coriander

• 1 1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon

• 1 1/2 tsp. ground nutmeg

• 2 tsp. smoked paprika

• 1 tbsp. freshly ground black pepper

Directions

Put all of the ingredients into a small jar and shake to combine. Store in a covered container.