Spelt pilaf

There’s been a lot written recently about ultra-processed foods (UPFs) and the negative effect they are having on human (and planetary) health. And rightly so. Until 80 years or so ago, they didn’t exist. But the increase in consumption of ultra-processed and food-like substances seems to have a direct relationship with the upwards trajectory of chronic health problems. UPFs looks like food, smells like food, often tastes delectable, but it’s not what our bodies really need.

On average, UPF’s now make up over 50% of the UK daily diet. It’s even more for youngsters, those on a low income and/or living in disadvantaged areas; up to 80% of food consumed is ultra-processed. A review published in the British Medical Journal recently found that UPFs are connected to 32 different negative health outcomes including heart disease, type 2 diabetes, cancer, poor mental health and early death. It’s not a pretty picture.

What are ultra-processed foods?

UFPs are foods that are ready made and ready to eat with little or no extra input required. They are usually very different to their original form. Think of a tomato vs tomato ketchup. They’re two very different things.

Shop-bought cakes, pastries, biscuits, ready meals, savoury snacks are all ultra-processed. Ambient foods – products stored at room temperature with a long shelf life – are also UPFs.  Even ready made cooking sauces and ‘healthy’ desserts – find themselves on the list. They’re foods that have gone through a highly industrial process of refining that removes most or all of the beneficial fibre and micronutrients. Extra fat, sugar and salt are added to make them palatable. These all ping the pleasure receptors in the brain making us want to eat more. These foods are addictive.

They also contain chemicals like emulsifiers, colourings and preservatives that the body doesn’t recognise. It’s bad for the gut, doesn’t provide the essential nutrients the body needs to function properly and send hormones haywire so our messaging system goes wrong. This all makes the body work over time trying to function effectively on minimal supplies. It goes on major alert and becomes inflammed. And inflammation underlies all chronic health problems.

You may wonder how this is allowed to happen. UPFs are cheap. They feed more people for less. On the surface they might be seen as a good thing – quick, tasty, stop people from doing without. After the second world war, there was a big push for Western countries not to end up being short of food ever again. These cheap, processed foods were welcomed. Especially by working women short on time. On the face of it, these convenience foods made life easier and affordable for everyone. In reality, they’ve created a life of dis-ease instead. And made some large corporations a lot of money.

There’s much I could write about UPFs, but I want to turn to more healthful foods – whole grains. I will come back to this subject, but if you want to learn more now, I highly recommend Dr Christian van Tulleken’s book ‘Ultra-processed People: The Science Behind Food That Isn’t Food’. Or check out my book Eat Well Live Well with The Sensitive Foodie where I talk a bit about food and how our brains are programmed.

What are whole grains?

Whole grains are the exact opposite to UPFs. Minimally processed (as you can’t generally just eat a sheaf of wheat for dinner!), they retain most of the nutrients found in a plant. That includes all the gut loving fibre, minerals, vitamins and healthy essential fatty acids. Whole grains are filling, nutritious and taste delicious. Whole grain rice, wheat (including ancient wheats), and barley are common examples. Psuedo grains like amaranth, quinoa, millet and teff can also be whole grains. They are also gluten free and are much quicker to cook.

If you want to learn more about whole grains, have a listen to the great and super short podcast from the ‘In A Nutshell’ duo Daisy and Claire. Find out more here or wherever you get your podcasts from.

So why don’t we eat more of them? I think a lot of it is we’ve forgotten how to. And they’re often not that readily available. Plus, because there’s less demand, the price tends to be higher than cheap, highly processed foods. Even though you end up eating less of them as they’re so filling, compared to processed foods that fill you up in the short term but leave you having a sugar low just a couple of hours later. But the biggest problem is probably that they take longer to cook. And in a world where time is precious, speed often wins over health.

How to save time cooking whole grains

There are things you can do to reduce whole grain cooking time:

  1. Soak the whole grain before cooking. This can be done for as little as half an hour (with boiling water), or up to 12 hours over night if needed. If you’re off to work for the day, just pop the whole grain in a bowl of water and leave it to soak until you get home. Then drain and cook in fresh boiling water. It will save a good 15-20 minutes, depending on which grain you’re cooking. Soaking can also make the fibre in whole grains more tolerable if you have a sensitive gut.
  2. Use a pressure cooker. These went out of fashion for a while. Many old designs were dangerous and could explode without much warning. However, new designs are safer and more efficient. Some air fryers come with a pressure cooking function like my Ninja Foodi 7-in-1. Whole grains cook in about half the time.
  3. Bulk cook. If you know you’re going to be eating a whole grain more than once in the week, cook a larger amount so you have leftovers in the fridge. If you’re cooking rice though, make sure you store it correctly, reheat it properly and only once. Rice can be a source of food poisoning, something I’m sure you’re keen to avoid!

Larger supermarkets stock wholegrain rice, pasta and wheat flour. But it can be hard to find other  alternatives; even health food shops may not stock them. However you can find a good variety online in stores like Buy Wholefoods Online (BWFO) or, my favourite, Hodmedods.

If you haven’t come across Hodmedod’s yet, do check them out. They grow and supply all sorts of grains, pulses and seeds grown in the UK, many that are normally imported from overseas, like chickpeas and quinoa. They are big supporters of ancient grains and they have a wide variety of flours to try out.

What is Spelt?

Spelt is an ancient grain that has been cultivated for over 5000 years. Often people with gluten intolerances don’t have a problem with spelt, especially if it’s organically grown (no pesticides added just before harvesting can only be a good thing!). I’ve only ever found it as flour in the shops. Hodmedods stock it in it’s whole grain form.

Spelt has a delicious, nutty flavour and a good ‘bite’ when cooked. Whole spelt grains are a surprisingly good source of plant protein (13g per 100g) as well as fibre (11g per 100g), and will have fat soluble vitamin E in the germ. It can be used in recipes instead of rice which is what prompted me to create this tasty spelt pilaf.

Vegetable-based pilaf is a dish of rice or wheat cooked in stock with vegetables, herbs or spices. I wanted to use very fresh summer vegetables so I cooked them separately to the spelt grains. This made sure they didn’t disintegrate into mush. I soaked the spelt grains for 6 hours then simmered them in stock for 40 minutes until they were cooked. I often find the cooking times on whole grain packets are rather optimistic – they usually take longer so soaking is always a good option.

Whilst I’ve used lovely early summer veggies like asparagus and broad beans, this recipe can still be made with whatever veggies are in season and to your taste. A base of some type of onion is good, peas can always be used instead of broad beans and then whatever else you choose.

This pilaf is great served hot either as a single dish or topped with cooked beans, tofu or other vegetable like crispy cauliflower (recipe to come soon). Leftovers can be served cold as a salad the next day with whatever other veggies you have to hand.

I hope you enjoy making this tasty textured spelt pilaf. Do let me know how you get on.

Spelt pilaf

A super tasty whole grain dish full of gut loving fibre. Great hot or cold.
Cook Time 45 minutes
spelt soaking time 6 hours
Servings 4 portions


  • 200 grams whole spelt grain
  • water for soaking
  • 800 mls vegetable stock or boiling water
  • 80 grams broad beans fresh or frozen (defrosted)
  • 4 medium spring onions trimmed and chopped
  • 4 medium asparagus stems trimmed
  • 1 medium clove of garlic finely chopped
  • 125 grams cooked Puy lentils eg Merchant Gourmet packet
  • handful fresh coriander or parsley leaves and stems separated
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • 2 tbsp lemon juice


  • Drain the soaked spelt grains and rinse well.
  • Heat the stock or water to the boil then add the spelt grains. Reduce the heat and simmer with the lid on for 40-45 minutes until the grain is cooked but retains a 'bite'. Once cooked, turn off the heat and drain well.
  • Prepare the asparagus by separating the tips and stem. Chop both into small pieces but keep separate. Chop the coriander or parsley leaves and stems, keeping them separate.
  • Whilst the spelt is cooking, blanche the broad beans by adding them to the pan for 1-2 minutes. Remove with a slotted spoon and rinse under a cold tap. Peel off the tough outer layer and put the vibrant green beans to one side.
  • When the spelt has been simmering for 30 minutes, start to cook the veggies. Heat 2 tablespoons of water in the base of a medium-sized pan. Add the chopped spring onions, asparagus stems, coriander/parsley stems and chopped garlic. Saute for 5 minutes, stirring regularly to make sure nothing sticks to the bottom of the pan.
  • Add the asparagus tips and saute for another 2 minutes. Turn off the heat.
  • Once the spelt is cooked and drained, stir the cooked veggies into the pan along with the cooked Puy lentils, blanched broad beans and chopped herb leaves. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Add the lemon juice and serve hot straight away or leave to cool and serve cold as a salad.
Keyword gut health, healthy vegan, OMS friendly, pilaf, whole grains






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