Salads / Sides / Vegetarian

Great Grains: Butternut Squash & Spinach Pilaf

grains, millet

A common habit many people have, myself included, when sitting down to eat a meal is not having enough nutrition on our plates.  We all know we should eat more than just a piece of meat or some main dish with a few vegetables thrown in for good measure, but we often overlook something as simple as grains to help round out our meals.  For many, the thought of making one extra thing or waiting for something to boil and cook another 20 or 30 minutes is not always an option.  I get it.  I’m right there with you!

Grains, however, come in many wonderful varieties, with quick to moderate cooking times, and are an excellent and often inexpensive source of fiber and protein.  One of my first forays into eating grains was many years ago when I was first introduced to tabbouleh, a delicious Middle Eastern salad with bulgur, fresh herbs and tomatoes.  As I’ve mentioned in the past, I’m not a big fan of lettuce salads, but this simple tabbouleh, with a grain that took mere minutes to cook, convinced me I really had no more excuses for ignoring my unbalanced eating lifestyle.

These days when I cook for myself and others, I always try to find a way to incorporate some of my favorite grains. When adding them to things like salads, they not only have a way of adding more “bulk” to the dish but also do a great job of absorbing the flavors of other ingredients.  Grain salads taste better when they’ve had a few hours to marinate and make the perfect thing to pack for weekday lunches. Many grains, have a neutral taste so you can choose to use them in recipes that are sweet or savory.  Not a fan of oatmeal? Substitute barley.  The more you experiment, I guarantee you’ll find the perfect grains to suit your tastes and time.

Below are a few more tips on using grains and some of my personal favorites with small batch recipes to help you begin experimenting.  And be sure to check out the butternut squash and spinach pilaf recipe at the end of this post if you’ve ever been curious about cooking with millet.

  • In general, it is recommended that the average healthy adult consume between 5-8 ounces of grains per day. What does that look like?  Using this handy guide from the USDA, you can estimate that 1/2 cup of cooked grains is equal to 1 ounce.  Use this to determine, based on your age, gender and level of daily activity, how much is right for you.  It will work out to about 2.5 – 4 cups of cooked grains, depending on the listed factors.
  • You can add even more flavor to grains by toasting them prior to adding water or cooking them in liquids such as stock instead of water.  Just substitute equal amounts of stock in place of water.
  • A little oil (canola, olive, etc) can add some healthy fat to your grains and also keep them from sticking while cooking.
  • Cooking grains low and slow and covered helps keep them moist and fluffy.
  • Once cooked, grains can be kept refrigerated 3-5 days or frozen.  While it can often be worth making more than you’ll need to save time later, always check cooked grains to make sure they’re not sticky, slimy or off smelling.  They can go bad just like other things in your refrigerator if left unchecked.
  • Go easy with grains if you’ve never eaten any before.  Implementing foods into your diet that contain fiber may take a while for your digestive system to get used to.  They fill you up for a reason!
  • Leftover soups or taco and burrito fillings make great toppings for grains. A word of caution, barley is great in soups but is best added separately or it will absorb all the liquid.

A dried cracked wheat that comes in fine to medium course grinds
Can be toasted prior to cooking
1/4 cup contains 71 calories/4 g fiber/3 g protein

1 cup medium grind bulgur
2 cups water
1 teaspoon oil
Makes 3 cups

Combine everything in a small saucepan, covered with a lid and bring to a boil over high heat.
Reduce heat to medium low and simmer for 8-9 minutes. Bulgur will be soft and slightly chewy.


A small seed grain
Can be toasted prior to cooking
1/4 cup contains 200 calories/9 g fiber/7 g protein

1 cup millet*
2 cups water
1 teaspoon of oil
Makes 3 cups

Combine oil and millet in a small saucepan.  Toast millet for about 5-6 minutes or until grains start to pop and turn slightly golden.  Slowly pour in water and cover with a lid and bring to a boil over high heat.  Reduce heat to medium low and simmer for 24 minutes.  Millet will be soft but have a slightly grainy texture.

*I’ve had the best results cooking millet without rinsing it.  If you do this, just be sure to look for any small black stones and remove them prior to cooking.


A cereal grain that has its fibrous outer hull and bran removed to be more easily consumed, therefore not a whole grain but still a good source of nutrition
1/4 cup contains 100 calories/5 g fiber/3 g protein

1 cup barley
3 cups water
1 teaspoon oil
Makes 2 3/4 cups

Combine everything in a small saucepan, covered with a lid and bring to a boil over high heat.
Reduce heat to medium low and simmer for 32 minutes or until liquid is absorbed and barley is soft but slightly chewy.


brown rice

A whole grain rice that comes in a variety of sizes and textures
1/4 cup rice contains 160 calories/2 g fiber/4 g protein

1 cup long grain brown rice
2 cups water
1 teaspoon oil
Makes 2 1/4 cups

Combine everything in a small saucepan, covered with a lid and bring to a boil over high heat.
Reduce heat to medium low and simmer for 35 minutes.  Rice should be slightly moist, not dry or gummy.  Grains retain shape well after cooking.

grains, millet

Butternut Squash & Spinach Pilaf


1 1/2 pound butternut squash
1 1/2 Tablespoons canola oil, plus 1 teaspoon
1 cup millet
1/2 cup red onion, small dice (about 1/4 of an onion)
2 cups vegetable stock
1 cup spinach, chopped
Juice of 1 large orange
1 Tablespoon of honey
1 teaspoon ginger, grated
kosher salt to taste

Serves 3-5

grains, millet


Preheat oven to 400°.  Cut squash in half and season with 1 1/2 tablespoons canola oil and 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt. Place in the middle rack of the oven for about 30 minutes or until you can easily pierce with the tip of a paring knife. When done, set in refrigerator to cool, about 5-10 minutes.  Then remove skin and dice into small chunks.

In a stock pot, over medium high heat, toast millet with onion in 1 teaspoon of oil, about 3-5 minutes or until seeds begin to pop and turn slightly golden.  Stir to prevent sticking.  Slowly pour in vegetable stock and turn the heat to high.  Once boiling, turn heat to medium low, cover and simmer for about 24 minutes.

Meanwhile, prepare vinaigrette.  In a small bowl, whisk together orange juice, honey, ginger and pinch of salt.  Set aside.

Millet is done when it has absorbed all the cooking liquid, has expanded in size and has a slight grainy texture. Gently stir in spinach, squash and vinaigrette.  Season to taste with salt.  Can be served warm or room temperature.

grains, millet

16 thoughts on “Great Grains: Butternut Squash & Spinach Pilaf

  1. Love the smell of millet toasting. Lots of good info in this post! And love that first photo with the multicolored strands of the mat and the cool (monkeypod?) bowl for the millet!

  2. Oh I know about the struggle to eat healthier (ironically I decided to start a baking blog). Thanks for all the tips and this beautiful recipe! Our background is Filipino so we’re used to having grains in our diet and I’m sure we’ll enjoy this 🙂

    • Thanks, Sara! Cooking with grains has been a lifesaver for me, especially when I’m trying to stick to a budget and easily get tempted to just eat scrambled eggs for dinner every night😄 Glad you found it useful.

    • Thanks so much, Dan! This is a great one for Fall and all the great squashes we’ll soon be seeing. It’s not just all about the pumpkin, right?:)

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