Food

What to cook in January: Whole grains, fermented foods, and of course, soups!

Jumpstart your best year in the kitchen yet with these easy and healthful ideas.

Jumpstart your best year in the kitchen yet with these easy and healthful ideas

This article was originally published January 4, 2019 and was updated January 14, 2020.

January is one of those months where what you're craving and what you should be eating actually lineup; healthy, nutrient-rich foods to restore yourself post-holidays and help keep those winter colds at bay make the most sense. Think nutrient-rich whole grains and fermented foods with their probiotic properties.

While you're at it, add more vegetable-laden soups to the menu this month. They'll warm you up and give you a seasonally appropriate way to consume more roughage. Plus they're a one pot meal that can easily be doubled to make enough for family and friends — bring a mason jar over to a loved one feeling under the weather or invite everyone to your house for a winter's night in. And if you are going to make a salad, do it with napa cabbage, a vegetable still in its prime over winter.

This is the way to cook this month. We've got lots of ideas below for getting started.

Whole grains

Most of us are used to working with shelf-stable, all-purpose flour, or "serving with" white rice because that's just what the recipe says. It's becoming increasingly common to see whole grains featured in your favourite recipes and it's a trend you'd be better off not to ignore.

When something is called a whole grain, it simply means that the outer layers of the grain are still intact, so you get more food value in every bite. Whole grains tend to be nuttier and more complex in favour than something more refined (think brown rice over white rice). Start experimenting and you'll soon discover they each have something unique to offer in terms of taste. From elegant farro with its mild flavour to subtly bitter buckwheat that will remind you of toasted bread when roasted, the opportunities to play around and swap in for your usual staples are endless.

Just keep in mind that whole grains have their germ intact and go rancid quicker, so store whole wheat flour in the fridge or your freezer if you won't be making batches of these incredibly addictive brownies on repeat this month. Here are more ways to eat more whole grains.

Swap whole grains for white pasta in salads. Farro, spelt, or kamut are all great options. Cook them like pasta in a pot of water and drain them in a colander when they're al dente or softened to your liking. For added flavour, use unsweetened apple cider (the non-alcohol kind) for a third or up to one half of the cooking water. It infuses the grains with a tangy, sweet flavour, making them a perfect pairing for roasted winter vegetables like squash.

Sprout whole grains to increase their nutrient value even more. Wheat berries are a good thing to start with. Look up the process online and once you get the hang of it, try sprouting other things too like oat groats and rye berries. Use them up in homemade breads and cereals, or a sprouted grain salad your inner hippie will love.

Toss a handful of cooked whole grains into soups. Pot barley — less refined than pearl barley — is a great addition to minestrone. When you're just winging it, cook the whole grain separately and add it to the soup at the last minute so the grain doesn't get too soft. You can speed up their cooking time by soaking the grains first.

Start your day with whole grain pancakes. They may be denser than you're used to, so begin by replacing a third of the all-purpose flour with whole grain flour until you get used to it. Being able to order whole grain flour (like red fife) online now makes it easier than ever to get it into your diet. For a lighter texture in whole grain pancakes and delicate baked goods, look for whole grain pastry flour.

Fermented foods

There's a Canadian researcher who wants fermented foods to be included in our county's food guide. You've probably heard of sourdough, kimchi, and sauerkraut; they're all deemed 'living foods' and their brimming with good bacteria that help keep your gut healthy. Here's a few ways to get more fermented foods into your diet.

Make your own fermented dairy products like yogurt and creme fraiche. It's both cost effective and easy. And before you freak out about leaving milk out at room temperature, it's important to understand how fermentation works: the good bacteria grows and wards off the evil stuff. Look up a recipe online and follow the instructions for adding a starter culture taken from that yogurt or in your fridge right now and use it to make your own.

Ferment your own hot sauce from supermarket chilis. Here's a recipe to get you started, along with more ideas for adding fermented food to your diet too. Or check out this recipe which calls for a bag of wood chips to steep in the fermenting sauce. Pro tip: wear gloves when you're cutting the chilis, because hot pepper hands burn fierce.

Go halfway homemade with hot pink sauerkraut. Simply chop up a small purple cabbage and mix it with four cups of unpasteurized (raw) white sauerkraut. Leave it on your counter for two days, stirring it daily, then transfer it to the fridge where it will keep for a good long while. Use it up on everything from sandwiches to salads, or serve it alongside a sizzling sausage.

Do more with miso, a versatile fermented product. Pair it with fat-rich ingredients which tame its saltiness. Miso and tahini is a classic, or try this miso and sesame oil dressing: mix 2 parts white miso with 1 part sesame oil and 1 part grapeseed or other vegetable oil. Add 1 part of each: water, soy sauce, rice wine vinegar, and mirin. Drizzle the dressing on a greenhouse-grown green salad with roasted beets and shelled edamame, steamed from frozen, and you're set.

Soups

Solve the absence of local market veggies with one-pot soups to warm your soul. Get into the habit of making vegetable or chicken stock every month or so because the homemade flavour is worth it — if you've got an Instant Pot you can get this done pretty quick. Freeze it in 4-cup portions to use up in a clean-out-the-fridge soup every Sunday (it's a thing!), or in one of these ideas below.

Simmer up a pot of callaloo, the national dish of Trinidad and Tobago. While it's basically stewed greens made many different ways across the Caribbean, we suggest you opt for the soupier kind this month. Callaloo leaves traditionally star in this dish, but spinach is a fine sub. Look up a recipe online, and make it vegan if you so desire.

Serve tortilla soup with all the fixings. Use passata (jarred pureed tomatoes) and thinly sliced chicken breast or even shredded roast chicken for an easy, quick version. Serve with bowls of diced avocado, shredded cheese, sour cream, broken tortilla chip and cilantro, so diners can each make it their own perfect bowl.

Throw a whole chicken in a pot and make chicken soup. Cover the whole chicken with water so it's submerged by an inch or so, bring it to a boil, then simmer gently for 3 hours as you would chicken stock. Use a meat thermometer to make sure the chicken is cooked, and about an hour before it seems like it may be done, throw in a few large chunks of aromatics like celery, onions and carrots. When the chicken's done and the broth is flavourful, remove the chicken and vegetables and shred them. Add them back to the stock along with salt, pepper, fresh lemon juice, and dill if you like. A few splashes of fish sauce at the end adds a little magic and will keep your guests guessing the secret ingredient.

About that napa cabbage...

Milder and sweeter-tasting than green cabbage, look for napa cabbage in any Asian grocery store or well-stocked supermarket near you. While any type of cabbage is a terrific winter vegetable to be cooking with this month, we're especially fond of napa cabbages because of its crinkly leaves and the texture they add to dishes. Here are some ways to start working with it.

Pickle it to make kimchi, the national dish of Korea. Look up a recipe online and swap in red chili flakes if you can't find gochugaru, the traditional Korean chili blend. To stem napa cabbage easily, lay it on your cutting board with the leaves pointing away from you. Cut an inverted V into the core where the stem and the leaves meet. (Save the stalk you've cut away for stir fries!) And once your kimchi is ready, be sure to add it to your next grilled cheese. You're welcome.

Make a crispy and quick cabbage slaw. To do this, chiffonade ½ a napa cabbage (about 1 ½ pounds) and toss with the zest of one lemon. Massage 1 ½ tablespoons of salt into the leaves to release some liquid. Stuff the cabbage into a container without much extra air space and let it chill in the fridge for about 15 minutes. Transfer the cabbage to a colander and squeeze out any remaining liquid. Taste and add more salt if you need, then serve garnished with a few thinly sliced rings of fresh red chili if you like.

Stuff the leaves and make a cabbage roll. The leaves may be smaller than green cabbage, but their interesting texture and subtle sweetness offers a refreshing change. You can make the filling a day ahead if you're strapped for time.

Now that you're armed with lots of cooking ideas for the month, you're well on your way to a healthier and more delicious 2019. Want more specific recipes? Start with these below.

Carrot Cake Pancakes

(Credit: Greta Podleski)

Ployes

(Photography by Perry Jackson)

Farro and Mushroom Salad

(CBC Life)

Warm Winter Salad

Buckwheat Noodles and Assorted Vegetables with Gochujang Vinaigrette

(Photography by Leela Ceed)

Greenhouse Juice Co.'s Juice Pulp Burger

Rye Sourdough

(Photography by Ben Dearnley)

Paul Sun Hyung Lee's Kimchi Soup

Miso Soup with Root Vegetables

(Credit: Meg Tanaka and Zenta Tanaka)

Chicken and Lentil Soup

Drake Devonshire's Cream of Tomato Soup

Sweet Potato, Coconut and Ginger Soup

Roasted Chicken Noodle Soup with Fresh Herbs

(Photo: David Bagosy, Styling: Melissa Direnzo)

Chicken and Bean Soup

feasTO's Pho Beef Dumplings Recipe

(Source: Instagram, @feastoronto)

Jessica Brooks is a digital producer and pro-trained cook and baker. Follow her food stories on Instagram @brooks_cooks.

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