In a bid to find a gluten-free alternative to all my favourite grainy lunchtime carbohydrates (couscous, bulgur wheat, pearl barley), I have fallen in love with buckwheat.
Buckwheat, although it might look, cook and taste like your ordinary gluten-filled grain (and, of course, it has 'wheat' in its title) is actually a seed. In fact, it is related to rhubarb. It's not a grain and therefore is totally gluten free. You can buy it as flour, which is perhaps more commonly known - it's what the French use to make those gorgeous dark, nutty crêpes that they fill with savoury stuffings. This is ideal for a spot of gluten-free baking, although it has quite a strong flavour so is usually best 'diluted' with another more neutral gluten-free flour.
You can also buy it as groats, however, which is where it really comes into its own.
These are a funny little convex triangle shape, looking at first glance a bit like giant, angular couscous granules. They can be cooked in the same way as rice - boiled in twice their volume of water or stock - to result in creamy, nutty pellets of deliciousness. They have a similar sort of chewy texture to pearl barley, but not as dense. In fact, the closest similarity is probably with cooked risotto rice - tender and starchy, but still with a little bite. You can use them to make a risotto, and you can even cook them in water and milk to make gluten-free porridge. Incidentally, they are also packed with protein and other nutrients, so not only are they a lovely comforting carb-blanket, but they are even healthy, and very low in calories for something so squidgy and delicious.
I like to cook them simply in water or stock, and then use them as the starchy, comforting, chewy base of a delicious salad. The first time I tried buckwheat, I made this wonderful salad from Sonia over at The Healthy Foodie. The combination was irresistible: sweet, chewy pieces of dried fruit coupled with toasted nuts and tangy goat's cheese. Buckwheat works so well in salads because it has a slight nutty flavour of its own, which means it can assert itself well against both sweet and savoury ingredients.
For dinner this evening, I was really craving a favourite salad of mine: pomegranate-glazed roasted aubergine with couscous, mint, feta cheese and pomegranate seeds. Obviously, couscous was out of the question, but then I had the brainwave of replacing it with buckwheat.
I think I actually prefer it. Buckwheat has a creaminess that you don't get with couscous, which can be quite dry if not drenched in oil. It also has that deliciously moreish risotto-like consistency, so can easily be voraciously ingested, mouthful by starchy mouthful.
To my base of cooked buckwheat, I added broad beans - I can't get enough of them at the moment, and wanted something green and something with a crunchier texture than the soft aubergine - chopped fresh mint (goes so well with aubergine), aubergines tossed in a mixture of olive oil, honey and pomegranate molasses then roasted until soft and squishy, crumbled feta, and fresh pomegranate seeds. I dressed the buckwheat with a little tahini paste, for added creaminess and because in my mind nothing works better with aubergine, and Dijon mustard, for a bit of a kick.
Basically this was a salad born of my cravings and of what I had in the fridge or just thought might work well if I chucked it into the mix. It ended up being utterly delicious, a simple meal with simple ingredients that tasted perfect and wonderful. It's super-healthy, but in an utterly satisfying, starchy way. You'd never believe something gluten-free could be so creamy and delicious. I'd highly encourage any gluten-free dieters out there, if they haven't already, to give buckwheat a go - it could be the answer to that empty, couscous-shaped hole in your life, and is the basis for so many wonderful and versatile recipes. If I can get my hands on some buckwheat flour, which I've totally failed to do so far, though I've been trying for months, I'd be really interested to experiment with some gluten-free baking.
Other than this pretty and perfect plateful, my gluten-free eating today has been as follows: porridge with grated apple, sultanas and blueberries for breakfast; more of yesterday's creamy smoked trout pasta salad for lunch, with a nectarine; a post-teaching snack of a mango and a banana. I've had a great day, feeling very energised throughout despite desperately not wanting to leave my bed when my alarm went off early this morning. I wouldn't say it's a hugely dramatic difference, but I definitely feel cleaner and healthier somehow. It might all be in my head, but it's still a pretty good feeling. I'm not even that happy it's the final day of my gluten-free challenge tomorrow; in truth, there's nothing I've really missed.
Apart from couscous.
But now I have buckwheat, so even that doesn't haunt my gastronomic dreams any more. Hurrah.
Buckwheat salad with pomegranate-glazed aubergine, feta, broad beans and mint (serves 3-4):
3 medium or 2 very large aubergines
4 tbsp olive oil
2 tbsp pomegranate molasses (or balsamic vinegar if you can't find this)
1 tbsp honey
Salt and pepper
180g buckwheat groats
Two large handfuls frozen broad beans
3 tsp tahini paste
1 tsp Dijon mustard
20g fresh mint, leaves shredded
100g feta cheese, crumbled
Half a pomegranate
Pre-heat the oven to 200C. Cut the aubergines into 1-inch cubes. Mix together the olive oil, molasses, honey and some seasoning, then toss the aubergine in this mixture and spread the pieces out on a baking tray. Season again and roast for 30-40 minutes until soft and sticky. Set aside.
Put the buckwheat in a pan, add 400ml water, bring to the boil and simmer, covered, for 10 mins. After this time, add the broad beans to the pan, cover, and cook for another 5 mins or so, until all the liquid has been absorbed and the buckwheat is tender (if there's any liquid remaining, drain it off). Mix the buckwheat and beans with the tahini and mustard, and season well.
Mix the buckwheat with the aubergine pieces and most of the mint. Crumble in the feta cheese. Using a rolling pin, bash the seeds out of the pomegranate over the bowl and combine gently. Serve garnished with the rest of the mint.