Ask Peter: Popping sorghum
In Bite a few weeks back Jo Elwin talked about how she pops sorghum wheat in place of popcorn. I love the crispy, puffed grains you sometimes get as a garnish on a restaurant meal and would like to try that too — as well as finding a replacement for fatty potato chips! Would you please be able to advise me on what grains to use and how to go about it all? Rachael
There are many ways to create a crunchy bite — and as a chef I am truly thankful for them. With many people allergic to or avoiding nuts, it’s handy having a few “crunchy tricks” up your sleeve in order to be able to give a meal (especially salads) a textural crunch that will go so well with the leaves, fruit or cheese that make up the dish. Toasted pumpkin and sunflower seeds work well in salads as a replacement for nuts but, of course, their flavour is quite different. However, many grains and seeds can end up with a more nutty, toasted flavour depending how you deal with them.
In my book Savour, which I wrote about last week, I have a section called Adding Crunch, which includes making popcorn and various ways of dealing with nuts as well as seeds, croutons and crispy garlic and shallots. That section is really a brief insight into making texture play a pivotal role in your food, and for me texture is hugely important in a meal.
One of my favourite crunchies is made from buckwheat — and I use it a lot in various dishes as I find it irresistible. For that you need to soak uncooked whole buckwheat seeds (FYI, they’re not grains) for at least six hours before gently rinsing, draining and drying thoroughly. We use a fruit dehydrator but you can dry them successfully on a tray. Shallow fry ¼ cup at a time in 1 ½ cm sunflower or light olive oil until golden and crispy, then drain and sprinkle with sea salt while hot and store in an airtight container.
At The Sugar Club we make rice puffs following head chef Naga’s technique. Soak the rice (use jasmine or basmati for their delicate flavour) a few hours then cook in plenty of boiling water until barely cooked — it needs to hold its shape. Strain it then dry it completely as per the buckwheat. Fry 2 Tbsp a time in 1 ½ cm hot smoky oil (around 190C) until it puffs up. Season with salt. Naga has also been working on barley puffs — for which he soaks the grains overnight then cooks them in plenty of boiling water until almost overcooked. It does need to hold its shape though. Strain it, rinse gently in cold water then drain and dry as above. Fry in hot smoking oil and season with flaky salt.
You can also make crunchies from un-soaked wild rice — simply by frying it like you do popcorn, in a thin layer of oil over high heat. The moisture inside the grain expands as it’s heated (as it does in popcorn and as it does in your kettle when boiled) and this causes the grain to burst open like an exploding pressure cooker. The frying causes the outer “skin” to go crispy and that’s possibly why we like it so much — textured, crispy, fried foods: what’s not to like?
To be honest I’m not too familiar with making non-fried crispy things apart from nuts — which themselves contain so much oil that when heated they fry themselves internally. I’ve eaten oven baked oil-free crunchy fava (broad beans) but I have to say I’m not a fan, their pastiness feels like it needs a good lick of olive oil to make them vaguely appealing. Vege crisps when fried in a mixture of sunflower and olive oils are delicious — but I’ve had some that were dehydrated then baked and they weren’t really for me.
Like Jo’s sorghum wheat, you can also do the same with quinoa, but you’ll need to give it a good rinse in a fine sieve under hot, running water first as this supergrain has a natural bitter coating to make it unappealing to insects who might otherwise eat it. Rinse and drain it, then lay it out on a tray to dry completely — the hot water cupboard (if anyone still has one) overnight does the trick. Dry-fry the dried seeds in a medium-hot pan until the grains smell toasty. Like sesame seeds, they won’t pop or expand in size, but these lovely toasted seeds will add a good flavour and crunch to your next salad or bowl of cereal.
In our Ask Peter series, executive chef Peter Gordon answers your curly culinary questions. If you're stumped over something food-related, send your question to firstname.lastname@example.org and keep checking in for answers. You can read more on Peter on his website, have a read of his Ask Peter articles or check out his recipes on our site.