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Confession time here: For years I avoided cooking with whole grains. There was just such a tinge of sacrifice I associated with them. They seemed like food for penance, not pleasure. "Eat them, they're good for you."

Sure, I'd occasionally add some pearl barley to a mushroom soup, and last year I found a delicious Greek dessert made from wheat berries, but that bit of dabbling was pretty much the extent of it. No longer. After spending a couple of weeks playing with various whole grains, cooking them this way and that and turning them into salads, I'm ready to say: "Eat them, you'll like them."

Though most grains can be used interchangeably, that does not mean they are all the same. Flavorwise, they may all be variations on "nutty," but with specifics ranging from earthy (barley, wheat berry and farro) to more vegetablelike (quinoa, bulgur and millet).

But perhaps the biggest difference among the grains, and the biggest opportunity for exploration, is in texture.

Some grains -- barley, wheat berry, farro and bulgur -- are downright chewy. Even when they're completely cooked, they don't get soft, keeping a pleasant meaty texture. Others, such as quinoa and millet, are so tender they need to be handled carefully to avoid turning them to mush.

This process of exploration and experimentation is part of the fun of discovering grains. Indeed, prowling the grain section at your health food store can be a dazzling experience. No longer are they earnest collections of stodge.

Like most everything else in the food world, even the bulk bins have gone exotic. There, along with nutritional yeast and granola, you'll find grains of every type and hue. Quinoa, certainly -- but not just plain old. You can also find it in beet red and in black (and yes, the colors remain after cooking).

While you're shopping, it's also worth checking out the prepared salad section -- often you'll find already cooked grains that you need only to dress to make ready.

>How to cook, what to expect

Here are some favorite grains for salads, along with their cooking proportions and some tasting notes.

*Bulgur: 1 cup to 1 1/2 cups water (soak only). Chewy, slightly vegetal.

*Couscous (quick cooking): 1 cup to 1 1/4 cups boiling water (soak). Tender, wheaty.

*Pearl barley, farro: 1 cup to 3 cups water. Chewy, earthy.

*Millet: 1 cup to 2 1/2 cups water. Slightly chewy, slightly vegetal.

*Quinoa: 1 cup to 1 3/4 cups water. Tender, vegetal.

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>Bulgur Salad with Arugula, Zucchini and Pine Nuts

1 cup fine bulgur wheat

1 1/2 cups water

3/4 pound zucchini

Salt

1/4 cup minced red onion

2 tablespoons lemon juice

1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil

Freshly ground black pepper

1 1/2 cups torn arugula leaves

1/4 cup toasted pine nuts

Toast the bulgur in a skillet over medium-high heat until it smells nutty, about 5 minutes. Remove from the heat, add the water and let stand for 1 hour to soften, stirring occasionally. (The dish can be prepared to this point a day ahead and refrigerated tightly covered; bring to cool room temperature before serving.)

Cut the zucchini in quarters lengthwise and then in half-inch cross-wise pieces. Place them in a strainer or colander and sprinkle generously with salt. Toss to distribute the salt and set aside for 30 minutes, placing the strainer over a bowl to collect the water that is drawn out.

Fluff the bulgur with a fork and place it in a large mixing bowl along with the red onion. Rinse the zucchini well, pat dry with a kitchen towel and add it to the red onion and the bulgur. (The dish can be prepared to this point up to 4 hours in advance and refrigerated tightly covered.)

When ready to serve, stir in the lemon juice and olive oil and season to taste with salt, more lemon juice or olive oil, and black pepper as needed. Fold in the arugula leaves and transfer the mixture to a serving bowl. Sprinkle the toasted pine nuts over top and serve. This makes about 6 cups salad. Serves 6 to 8.

Each of 8 servings: 114 calories; 3g protein; 16g carbohydrates; 4g fiber; 5g fat; 1g saturated fat; no cholesterol; 2g sugar; 8mg sodium.

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>Farro Salad with Mushrooms, Dill and Feta

1 cup farro

3 cups water

Salt

8 ounces mushrooms

1 tablespoon oil

1 clove garlic, minced

3 tablespoons chopped dill, divided

1/2 cup chopped toasted walnuts

1/3 cup chopped green onions

1 teaspoon red wine vinegar

1/3 cup slivered bottled red bell peppers

1/4 cup crumbled feta

Toast the farro in a dry medium saucepan over medium heat until it smells nutty and turns golden, about 5 minutes. Add the water and bring to a simmer. Season with one-half teaspoon salt and cook until the farro is tender, about 45 minutes. Drain (there will probably still be some liquid left), rinse in cold running water and gently pat dry in a kitchen towel. Place in a mixing bowl, add more salt if necessary, and set aside. (The dish can be prepared to this point up to a day ahead and refrigerated tightly covered.)

Trim the dried ends of the mushroom stems and quarter the mushrooms lengthwise. Heat the oil in a medium skillet over medium-high heat, and when it's very hot, add the mushrooms and sprinkle with one-half teaspoon salt. Cook, tossing frequently, until the mushrooms give up their moisture, 3 to 4 minutes. Add the garlic and keep cooking, continuing to toss to prevent scorching, until the mushrooms are dry, another 3 to 4 minutes.

Add the mushrooms to the cooked farro, along with 2 tablespoons chopped dill, the walnuts and green onions. (The dish can be prepared to this point up to 4 hours in advance and refrigerated tightly covered; bring to cool room temperature before serving.)

When ready to serve, stir in the red wine vinegar and toss to combine. Adjust the seasoning, adding more salt and more vinegar as needed. Mound the grain mixture on a platter. Arrange the red pepper strips across the top. Sprinkle with the crumbled feta and then the remaining chopped dill and serve. This makes about 4 cups of salad. Serves 4 to 6.

Each of 6 servings: 227 calories; 8g protein; 26g carbohydrates; 5g fiber; 11g fat; 2gsaturated fat; 6mg cholesterol; 3g sugar; 74mg sodium.

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>Quinoa Salad with Grilled Corn, Tomatoes and Cilantro

1 cup quinoa

1 3/4 cups water

Salt

2 cups grilled corn (from about 2 ears, cut from the cobs)

2 cups chopped tomatoes, or cherry tomatoes cut in half

1 serrano chili, seeded and minced

3/4 cup chopped green onion

3 tablespoons lime juice

2 tablespoons oil

1 clove garlic, minced

1 3/4 teaspoons ground cumin

1 1/2 cups chopped cilantro

Place the quinoa in a strainer and rinse under running water until the water runs clear, 1 to 2 minutes. Turn the quinoa into a medium saucepan and cook over medium heat, stirring constantly. The quinoa will dry, then begin to stick a bit. Keep stirring and eventually it will begin to toast, smell nutty and turn a light golden color (about 5 minutes total). Add the water and one-fourth teaspoon salt, bring to a slow simmer, cover and cook until the quinoa is dry, about 30 minutes. Remove from the heat and set aside for 10 minutes before fluffing with a fork. (Dish can be prepared to this point up to a day in advance and refrigerated tightly covered; bring to cool room temperature before serving.)

When ready to serve, transfer the quinoa to a mixing bowl and gently stir in the corn, tomatoes, chili, green onions and 1 teaspoon salt. Combine the lime juice, oil, garlic and cumin in a blender and puree to a smooth dressing.

Pour about half of the dressing over the quinoa mixture and stir gently to combine. Add more dressing to taste. Gently fold in the cilantro. Correct the seasoning with more salt or lime juice, if needed, and serve immediately. This makes about 6 cups salad. Serves 6 to 8.

Each of 8 servings: 138 calories; 5g protein; 23g carbohydrates; 3g fiber; 4g fat; no saturated fat; no cholesterol; 5g sugar; 375mg sodium.