Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Returning to Ancient Grains with Sorghum

I'm a SoCal gal. So, when I hear the word sorghum, my head immediately pulls up an image of Gone with the Wind. Isn't it some kind of Southern molasses?

Well, yes and no. One type, sweet sorghum, is a tall cereal grain that has, in fact, served as the source of an inexpensive syrup and as feed in the form of the whole plant for animals. But in the U.S. a second, shorter variety is grown for animal feed. And ethanol. And, get this, fencing, pet food, building material, and floral arrangements. Its great quality is that it's drought tolerant (anyone growing it in California?) and very hardy. In fact, it requires a third less water to grow than corn. And that's why, in thirsty parts of the U.S., sorghum is making a comeback. According to United Sorghum Checkoff, in 2013 8.06 million acres of sorghum were planted in the U.S.--primarily in Kansas, Texas, South Dakota, Oklahoma, and Colorado on dryland areas.

Originating from northeastern Africa, where it's been growing for at least 4,000 years, sorghum spread to the rest of Africa, as well as India and China. It's thought to have been introduced to North America in cargo ships that carried African slaves.

While corn is still king in the U.S., farmers are experiencing greater demand for sorghum and not just because of water scarcity. Because it's an ancient grain and a gluten-free grain, increasingly people are showing a culinary interest in it. It's ground into flour for baking but I have been enjoying the whole grains themselves--which look like pale little ballbearings with a black dot in center.

Sorghum is not difficult to find in San Diego. I found Bob's Red Mill packages of it at Whole Foods. Like any whole grain it's endlessly versatile. Boil it like rice and enjoy it as a side dish. Create risotto with it. Make a hot cereal with it. Or, you can even pop it like popcorn.

I kept it simple just to try it out. The water to grain ratio with sorghum is 3 to 1 and it takes close to an hour to cook. The grains plump up, but they still are small and have a chewy consistency.

I first ate the cooked sorghum with a tomato-based chicken stew. Then I turned the leftovers into a sorghum and cherry tomato salad, basically rummaging through my refrigerator to use ingredients like sliced kalamata olives, artichoke hearts, diced red onion, garbanzo beans, parsley from my garden, currants, and toasted pine nuts. I tossed all of it together in a light vinaigrette I made. Day one it was a solid B. The textures were good--some crunch, some chew. The flavors were, too--sweet, herbaceous, briny, salty, garlicky (from the vinaigrette). But day two it all came together. So, make this a day in advance so the flavors can really meld.

I also heard that sorghum can be popped and thought that sounded like a hoot. So, I pulled out a tall pot and gave it a try. I'd read instructions that you can put the grains in a pot and cover it, shaking the pot over high heat until all the kernels are transformed. But these little guys are so tiny I wasn't convinced I'd hear what was happening inside. They just didn't seem robust enough. And, based on that I also didn't think they jump too high. So, I just used an open pot that was very tall.

My first go round wasn't successful. I added too much olive oil in and they drowned. Just turned brown. So, I emptied the pot, used just the slightest amount of oil to a quarter cup of sorghum and tried again with higher heat. By now the pot was quite hot and the action started immediately. And stirring with a wooden spoon seemed more useful than shaking the pot. The grains won't all pop but even the orphans can be enjoyed without worry of cracking your teeth.

What to do with them? Other than snacking, of course. They make a great garnish. The popped kernels are petite and delicate looking. Use them to top a creamy soup or a platter of roasted vegetables. Add them to a salad. Make little sweet balls (a la popcorn balls) to garnish a dessert. They're just fun!

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