Author’s Corner – Interview with Maria Speck
Maria Speck is the author of Simply Ancient Grains and Ancient Grains for Modern Meals, both published by Ten Speed Press. Her work has received multiple awards, including a Julia Child award and an M.F.K. Fisher cookbook award. Raised in Germany and Greece, Maria is a veteran food writer with a lifelong passion for whole grains.
I checked in with Maria to learn more about her cooking philosophy, her favorite ingredients, and what she finds most exciting about New England’s current food scene.
I love your philosophy of cooking wholesome meals highlighting whole grains and your cookbooks, Simply Ancient Grains, and Ancient Grains for Modern Meals, showcase so many delicious recipes. What inspired your focus on whole grains?
I was very lucky. I was raised in Germany and Greece, two cultures with centuries-old whole grain traditions. But no one ever told me with a wagging finger that I’d better eat my “healthy whole grains.” Instead, whole grains were simply on our table as part of our delicious meals. I cherish whole grains because they bring rich textures, flavors, and colors to our table. Think naturally sweet oats, slightly tangy whole rye, earthy buckwheat, or nutty bulgur.
What recipes would you recommend to families who are looking to incorporate more whole grains into their meals?
I believe in nourishing breakfasts, and there are lots of easy recipes in my book Simply Ancient Grains. Many can be made ahead, and reheated if you are hard- pressed for time. There is a Coconut Buckwheat Porridge with Cinnamon and Buttered Dates, a Polentina with Strawberries, Poppy Seeds, and Lime (see image), or Cardamom-infused Black Rice Porridge with Blueberries and Pistachios (see image). Any of these will feed you well.
Are certain whole grains better suited for making ahead so they can be kept in the fridge for easy meals?
I recommend preparing “slow-cooking” grains such as wheat berries, rye, spelt, and Kamut ahead. I often cook a large pot on the weekend and use them throughout the week which speeds up dinner. Cooked whole grains last up to 7 days in the fridge. You can also freeze them portion-size to have on hand for later. I add them to soups and salads or make a nourishing breakfast. It’s so easy!
If you were to offer a piece of advice to someone who is new to cooking healthy meals, what would it be?
I always say, if you can only make one change, start the day with a mouth- watering nourishing breakfast. This will go a long way.
When you are looking for new recipe ideas, where do you find inspiration?
I’m an avid reader—you could say I eat culinary publications. I subscribe to lots of food magazines, and I regularly pick up magazines from Germany, France, Italy, Greece, and the UK. I even ask people to bring me Spanish, Portuguese, or Swedish ones—languages I don’t know at all—just to see what others are eating. It’s a bit of an obsession. But my best inspiration is an empty fridge. My most creative recipes are born when I have to improvise: I hate eating a bad dinner.
How has living in New England influenced your cooking philosophy?
There is so much to love about living here: the fresh seafood ranks high, reminding me of my mother’s Greece. I am especially fond of bluefish and mussels. Shopping at the many farmers markets is inspiring too, especially getting freshly harvested vegetables when they are in season. I follow a simple philosophy of cooking: if your ingredients are good, little can go wrong.
What are your favorite New England-grown foods to incorporate into your recipes?
I have always loved cranberries, but after moving here they have transformed my cooking and baking. During the holidays, I fill half my freezer with cranberries out of fear of running out! I am smitten by their tartness and try to let them shine in my recipes, sometimes without adding any sugar. One of my favorite grain dishes in Simply Ancient Grains is a super-fast and easy mussel dinner with bulgur that uses fresh and dried cranberries.
Is there anything you are particularly excited about that is taking place in the New England food community?
I’m thrilled about the return of grain farming to this part of the country. It is little known that the Northeast used to be the bread basket of the early settlers before grain growing moved west to the Great Plains of Kansas and North Dakota. Today, farmers, millers, and bakers are collaborating to rebuild the local grains economy. You can find locally grown buckwheat, rye, spelt, and aromatic heritage wheat varieties such as Red Lammas or Red Fife. If you see them, be sure to buy them—they are delicious and you will support the farmers who grow them.