Against the grains

Boulder bakers, farmers, chefs reach back to the past for carbs of the future

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Andy Clark pours organic heirloom wheat through his hands.
Susan France

You could grow wheat in your backyard garden, but why would you bother if what you want is local wheat? Colorado has more than two million acres of wheat, an area larger than the state of Delaware. For Boulder County farmers, pricey land prompts the planting of corn, melons, peppers and other consumer crops that yield a higher return per acre.

Besides, isn’t wheat just another cheap commodity like soy beans, vegetable oil and frozen orange juice futures?

Not to a devoted band of Boulder County bakers, farmers and chefs who are promoting older heirloom grain varieties for reasons of flavor, health and sustainability. They want to change your attitude toward flour and encourage more farmers to start planting ancient grains.

At Louisville’s Moxie Bread Co., Andy Clark has committed to using only organic heirloom wheat in its artisan baked goods. The change of grains has come neither fast nor easy.

“Everything we do here is a pain in the ass. I want to know the wheat farmer just like I know the farmers who grow the vegetables. People think I’m nuts for using heirloom wheat and doing a long, slow fermentation,” Clark says.

Moxie’s first challenge was sourcing enough organic heirloom wheat that wasn’t also thousands of miles away. “There are a couple of farmers in southwest Kansas growing maybe 1,000 acres of wheat. That’s nothing, in terms of acreage” Clark says. While some wheat berries are milled at Moxie, he also had to locate mills to grind the high quality heirloom flour. These wheat varieties behave differently so the bakers have to tweak the process on a daily basis because the grains ferment faster or the humidity changes. This is frustrating for bakers who are into exact, reproducible formulas.

Clark’s conversion to using organic heirloom flour to make his loaves and pastries stems from his training. “I do it because I was taught to do it as a baker. Heirloom and organic grains taste better. The flavor is tremendous — malty, sweet and nutty, and they are more digestible. I can suggest to customers that avoid gluten that they might give it a try,” he says.

Wheat isn’t sexy like Colorado cherries and peaches, yet there it is on sale at the Boulder County Farmers Market. Chef Eric Skokan of Black Cat Bistro and Bramble & Hare grows farro, emer and wheat at his 130-acre farm in Niwot to use in baking and other menu items for the eateries. Skokan is so committed he even bought an antique 1958 combine for harvesting.

At Boulder’s Basta, the staff mills and grinds red wheat, einkorn and wheat berries daily for the eatery’s wood-fired pizza and piada flatbread. Chef Kelly Whitaker has also founded the nonprofit Noble Grain Alliance to foster the growing and distribution of locally grown ancient and heirloom grains between farmers, restaurateurs and bakers.

Farmers Market icon “Farmer” John Ellis has a 76-acre farm near Niwot where he grows wheat as well as vegetables. The freshly ground flour is on sale at his market stand and is used at several Boulder restaurants.

Hygiene’s Aspen Moon Farm has planted a field split between organic heritage turkey red hard winter wheat and red fife spring wheat it hopes to harvest in the fall.

Plan ahead: Mills for grinding grains into flour at home as needed for breads, etc. will be the hot home kitchen gift for the holidays.

By the numbers: 50 pounds

According to Mother Earth News, a 20-by-50-foot backyard garden planted with 6 pounds of wheat could potentially yield 50 pounds of grain. This yield is based on ideal soil, water and sun conditions, an absence of large grazing animals and minus floods and other acts by a vengeful deity. Fun fact: Growing wheat at home used to be illegal though rarely enforced because the crops might have destabilized national wheat prices.

Backpacking fare upgraded

Camping food has come a long way since I attempted to make dehydrated chicken à la king in a metal skillet over a fire that was either boiling over or simply smoldering at Boy Scout camp. While the range of choices has improved, the flavor of packaged dry meals hasn’t, according to Boulder’s Tania and Rob McCormack. They recently launched a new company, FishSki Provisions, to produce carbs with class for active foodies. The couple’s mutual love of Kraft Dinner and roasted green chilies inspired their first comfort dehydrated entrée: FishSki Provisions Macaroni and Cheese with Cheddar, green chilies and garlic.

I tested the product in my kitchen, and not a campsite. I boiled 2 cups of water, added pasta elbows and dehydrated roasted green chili strips and cooked until the pasta was done but not soggy. Without draining them, I added the envelope of Cheddar cheese powder and spices, stirred and let it simmer for a while. The result is a relatively thin cheese sauce à la Kraft but absent the garish orange hue and chemistry-set flavor enhancers. The finished al dente mac had a nice green chili and Cheddar flavor with a hint of heat. It’s not for me to say whether this is the “World’s Best Mac and Cheese,” but it’s certainly the best-tasting dry packaged mac-n-cheese I’ve ever tasted.

A six-ounce package yields an ample portion, especially if you add pepperoni, grated Parmesan and extra dried veggies. The mix includes GMO-free pasta and peppers in mostly recyclable packaging and is available at Lucky’s Markets locally and at Hazel’s Beverage World. fishskiprovisions.com

Local food news

Local grains are being brewed, distilled and served as rum and moonshine at Longtucky Spirits, the newly opened distillery at 350 Terry St. in Longmont. The tasting room’s next door neighbor is St. Vrain Cidery. … Coming soon: Emmerson will open at 1600 Pearl St., former home of LYFE Kitchen and the Gondolier. The name of the breakfast-to-dinner “neo-bistro” is a reference to the ancient grain “emer” and the menu will include breads, pastries, porridges and fresh pasta. … Lucky Pie Pizza and Tap House is open at 7916 Niwot Road in Niwot. … Eddie Ermoian, longtime sole proprietor of Fast Eddie’s World Famous Chicago Hot Dogs on the Pearl Street Mall, died recently in Arizona. Eddie ruled downtown Boulder from his cart on the 1300 block and never once put ketchup on a Chicago-style hot dog.

Words to chew on

“I’m in something of a crisis because I heard something about combining certain foods and their chemical reactions. Now I really don’t know what to eat anymore because everything I eat is wrong.’ — Film director David Lynch

John Lehndorff hosts Radio Nibbles at 8:25 a.m. Thursdays on KGNU, 88.5 FM. Podcasts: news.kgnu.org/category/radio-nibbles.