A celebration of wheat for Shavuot


Wheat field

Margi Lenga Kahn, Special to the Jewish Light

Shavuot commemorates the giving of the Torah to our people. It also celebrates the beginning of the wheat harvest. So what makes wheat worthy of a holiday?  Plenty. To begin with, wheat is a great source of vitamins, minerals, fiber, and protein. When served in combination with legumes, wheat becomes a complete protein that can feed the world for a pittance. Moreover, it has a delicious sweet nutty flavor, is inexpensive, and is easy to find and easy to prepare. In short, wheat is something to celebrate.

The wheat harvest is actually the harvest of wheat berries, which are the kernels of the wheat plant. The berries, which may be eaten whole, can also be processed into bulgur, cracked wheat, wheat germ, wheat bran, and a variety of flours.

Whole-wheat flour contains the bran, germ, and endosperm of those berries. Thus, whole-wheat flour is high in fiber and nutrients.  Because it is an unrefined carbohydrate, whole wheat keeps us feeling full longer and, as part of a daily diet, can help prevent blood sugar problems associated with refined carbohydrates in food such as sugar, white rice, and white flour.

To create white flour (often known as “all purpose” flour), the mills remove the bran and germ before grinding the remainder of the berries. Thus foods made from white flour are significantly less nutritious and provide little in the way of fiber.

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Another wheat product (and a favorite of mine) is bulgur, which is ground from the wheat berry in three different sizes: fine, medium and coarse. Classified as a cereal, bulgur is quick to prepare, easy to digest and delicious. The process for turning wheat berries into bulgur—a process that includes parboiling the ground berries—dates back 4,000 years to the ancient Jews, who referred to it as degan. Its most familiar incarnation is as tabouli salad, where fine or medium-ground bulgur is soaked in hot water, drained, tossed with chopped tomato, cucumber, onion and parsley, and dressed with lemon and olive oil. I find it absolutely addictive.

Bulgur takes as little time to prepare as white rice though it is a much healthier alternative. Indeed, bulgur can be a delicious stand-in for rice when making a pilaf. Simply sauté some minced garlic, onions, and herbs, add the bulgur and twice as much water or broth, bring to a boil, cover, and simmer for 12 to 15 minutes. Remove from the heat and let stand, covered for five minutes. Fluff with a fork and serve.

Bulgur also works great as a breakfast alternative to oatmeal. Bring one cup of water to a boil, add a half-cup of bulgur, and simmer covered for 12 to 15 minutes. Serve with warm milk or cream, a drizzle of honey or maple syrup, and fresh berries.

Cracked wheat, which looks a lot like bulgur but is not parboiled, is equally nutritious. As its name indicates, cracking or crushing raw wheat berries is the process used to make this wheat product. Like brown rice, cracked wheat takes longer to prepare but provides two to three times more fiber than brown rice. It is also rich in folate, which aids in cell formation and growth.

The germ of the wheat berry contains vitamin-rich oil. The oil can be used for cooking, and is often used in combination with other ingredients as a skin moisturizer. Because the oil in wheat germ will turn rancid if stored too long at room temperature, all whole-wheat products are best stored in a sealed bag in the refrigerator or freezer. (White flour, because it lacks the wheat germ, can be stored at room temperature for longer periods.)

The unprocessed wheat berries can also be a culinary delight. Although they require a longer cooking period, they can be prepared 5 to 7 days in advance and stored in the refrigerator. Before using, simply add a teaspoon or two of water, warm the berries in a pan on the stove or in a bowl in the microwave, and use them just as you would freshly cooked ones.

Explore other types of wheat, as well. Grains such as kamut, farro, and spelt are easy to prepare, and boast unique flavors and similar nutrition profiles.  You can find all of these grains, and their derivatives, at some grocery stores and in the bulk bins at Whole Foods Markets.

In this era of heightened attention to digestive issues related to gluten, wheat can get a bad rap. While it is true that the gluten in wheat can be a trigger for Celiac disease, only a tiny percentage of the population has an adverse reaction to wheat.

The recipes below honor the tradition of eating dairy foods on Shavuot. Make your Shavout a delicious and nutritious one by celebrating Chag Ha-Katzir, the beginning of the wheat harvest.

Margi Lenga Kahn is the mother of five and grandmother of four. A cooking instructor at the Kitchen Conservatory, she is currently working on a project to preserve the stories and recipes of heritage cooks. She welcomes your comments and suggestions at [email protected].