I suppose that I am ultimately to blame for the great wheat-berry debacle, though I defy any of you to resist a cheesecake recipe that contains the words rich , luscious , plump and tender . The Pastiera di Grana in Sheryl and Mel London's ambitious new cookbook, "The Versatile Grain and the Elegant Bean," sounded like a heavenly way to wreck my family's fat intake for the week--a ricotta-based cake studded with bits of orange and lemon peel and wheat berries that had been cooked in a mixture of milk, cinnamon, butter, sugar and more lemon peel.
Cheesecake with Vitamin C and whole-grain goodness? I hunted down some fresh ricotta, bought what I was told were whole peeled wheat berries at my local health food outlet, soaked them overnight as instructed, and went to work.
Three weeks, four cups of milk and a quartet of bald lemons later, I was a woman obsessed. The first batch of wheat berries came out the consistency of buckshot.
I consulted Carol Field's "The Italian Baker," which offered a similar recipe but insisted that the wheat berries be soaked for four days. I did. The second batch tasted like undercooked risotto.
I tried a different store, convinced myself that their wheat berries looked fresher, and waited four days to be disappointed again. I interrogated a clerk at a third store across town, bought another sample and threw out a fourth batch of delightfully scented concrete.
I turned back from the recipe to the explanatory section at the beginning of the chapter on wheat and studied it for a clue about what I was doing wrong. Whole peeled wheat berries were also called \o7 grano \f7 or \o7 frumento \f7 by Italians. I decided to call two ethnic markets and then give up. The first one stocked \o7 grano, \f7 but only at Easter. The second, Sorrento Italian Market in Culver City, sold me a bag of something labeled "bulghur," which the clerk swore was what I was looking for.
It was. The grains lived up to their plump and tender billing, bore a strange resemblance to puffed wheat cereal and contributed to a subtle, dense dessert that was absolutely worth the mental torment.
The moral of this story? If you delve into the Londons' book--a worthwhile endeavor in terms of flavor and health--be careful. Many of their ingredients are unfamiliar not only to the home cook but to the people who sell them to you.
What you will get for your effort, if and when you get past the unfortunate incident stage, is a whole new array of tastes, all of which will contribute not only to your good health but to your sense of smug self-righteousness.
This is not old-fashioned health food--loaves of bread you could build condominiums on, broken overcooked beans the consistency of yesterday's lava. The Londons take each of their grains and beans quite seriously, combining them with foods that enhance their flavor and complement their texture.
The warm quinoa salad with fennel, chicken, prosciutto and tangerines may sound like just another composed salad, but the grain at the center of the recipe, a protein-packed, slightly chewy one, is the perfect companion for tart tangerines--and a splendid distraction from yet another piece of skinless white meat of chicken.
There are grain-based salads, stuffings, vegetable dishes and, of course, desserts, not all of which are as mysterious as the ricotta cake. In fact, it takes a while to pick the first thing to make, since so much of what the Londons offer is new.
Only one warning, and one wish: The so-healthy grains are often combined with ingredients that do not make the cholesterol- and fat-buster's list, from the aforementioned prosciutto (we left it out) to butter and cream, so the health nut will have to eliminate or adapt some of the recipes.
And the more surprising offerings cry out for the kind of cook's aid that made Marcella Hazan's "The Classic Italian Cookbook" and "More Classic Italian Cooking" so valuable--menu suggestions to help the novice incorporate a dish into a complete meal.
The bean recipes are a bit trickier because of the grand tradition of cooking beans with meat. Luckily, the Londons worked hard to live up to their subtitle ("A Celebration of the World's Most Healthful Foods") and have provided plenty of non-meat recipes. Even the simplest, such as \o7 Fagioli all'Uccelletto \f7 (\o7 cannellini\f7 beans with sage, garlic and tomato), with just a bit of allspice to contrast the creamy white beans, makes a great alternative to yet another plate of pasta.
Skeptics are always impatient with beans, having encountered too many servings of ugly, mushy little beans whose sides have split, their skins just the right tissue consistency to get stuck between the front teeth in the middle of a business lunch. Or they grouse about the unpleasant digestive aftereffects. The Londons know how to improve both style and content, and they provide information on soaking and cooking every variety of bean they mention.
The best thing about meeting new foods, of course, is that once you understand how they work and how they taste, you can embark on an adventure of your own and create your own recipes. I bestowed the remnants of four bags of inappropriate wheat berries on my 2 1/2-year-old daughter, who is always trolling for supplies for her toy kitchen. She sauteed them in a plastic pan, she baked them for hours, she cooked them with juice, she served them to her dolls and called them birthday cake. A few days ago I found her lugging our little hand-crank ice cream machine toward her kitchen.
"I'm going to make wheat-berry ice cream," she said.
I'm not about to get in her way.