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RECIPES: Multi-purpose sorghum plays tasty role in sweet, spicy dishes

Sorghum surprise by Sean Clancy | October 6, 2021 at 1:58 a.m.
Sorghum grains before cooking are about half as big a whole black peppercorns. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Kelly Brant)

If things are getting a little sticky around here it's because this is sorghum harvesting time in Arkansas.

On Saturday, the Heritage House Museum in Mount Ida will celebrate all things rich, gooey and sweet during its 12th annual Sorghum Festival. There will be a working gristmill, sorghum tasting, fresh-baked sorghum goodies and other events during the free festival, which begins at 8 a.m. at the museum, 819 Luzerne St., Mount Ida.

In her 2017 book "An Ozark Culinary History: Northwest Arkansas Traditions From Corn Dodgers to Squirrel Meatloaf," author Erin Rowe writes about the fall tradition of making sorghum syrup, back when many farmers maintained a patch of sorghum stalks, which are similar to sugar cane, to provide an option to honey as a sweetener.

"People seemed to look forward to sorghum-making time of year, usually in September, as the fields were laid but the big crop harvest wasn't underway," Rowe writes. "Most people were also out of sorghum, also known as molasses, by this time of year and glad to have some more sweetener."

But sorghum is more than just the thick, liquid gold we slather over our hot, buttered biscuits and pancakes. Sorghum grain and flour are also used in vegetable dishes, gluten-free options, baking and more.

Sorghum grain, which can grow just about anywhere, has been a major food crop in Africa and other parts of the world for centuries, Rowe says.

In the United States, sorghum grain hasn't been a popular food choice until recently.

Sorghum syrup is made by boiling the juice of the sorghum plant on open vats. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Kelly Brant)
Sorghum syrup is made by boiling the juice of the sorghum plant on open vats. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Kelly Brant)

"A lot of people are gluten-free these days, so you're seeing more people looking for alternate grains," says Rowe, who leads culinary tours around the Ozarks.

"There are a lot of things you can do with sorghum. You can even pop it and add it to your trail mix as a crunchy treat."

Rowe shared a couple of sorghum grain-related recipes that are perfect for the autumn and winter. Despite both being meatless, her Spiced Butternut Squash and Sorghum Bowl With Pepitas and Spicy Sorghum Chili are hearty, filling and yummy.

My maiden foray into cooking with sorghum grain was the squash and sorghum bowl. A heads up: Though the recipe calls for boiling the grain for an hour until tender, mine never really got overly soft or mushy. There is still a bit of firmness to the grain and it has a pearly texture. I loved it, especially with the almost creamy squash, the crunch of the pepitas (don't skip those, by the way) and the sweet-and-tangy dressing.

The chili was a revelation. Top it with cheese, tortilla chips and cilantro and it's a satisfying, meat-free winter meal. It also lends itself to experimentation. I added a few healthy dashes of red pepper for heat; instead of Mexican seasoning blend, a package of chili seasoning might also work well.

Friend and colleague Mike Simmons came by the day after I made the chili and I sent a bowl home with him. He had it that night and texted me this:

"I thoroughly enjoyed my supper. Very tasty indeed. My compliments to the chef."

The two sweet recipes below call for good ol' sorghum syrup (also called sorghum molasses). The Sorghum Pecan Pie is not overpowered by sweetness and the Sorghum Molasses Cookies turned out nicely, with crisp edges and soft middles. Mine did spread a bit on the sheet and many of them melded together. They wouldn't have won me Star Baker on "The Great British Baking Show," but they were quite tasty.

Spiced Butternut Squash and Sorghum Bowl with Pepitas

  • 2 cups uncooked sorghum grains
  • 4 cups vegetable broth (Rowe uses low sodium)
  • ¾ cup pepitas (pumpkin seeds)
  • 1 medium butternut squash (about 2 pounds) halved lengthwise, and de-seeded
  • 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling
  • Salt and ground black pepper, to taste
  • 1 tablespoon sherry vinegar
  • 3 tablespoons orange juice
  • 2 teaspoons honey
  • 1 small shallot, finely minced
  • 1 ½ teaspoons ground cumin
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
  • ¾ cup chopped parsley

Heat oven to 350 degrees.

In a medium saucepan, combine the sorghum, vegetable broth and 2 cups water. Bring to boil, reduce heat, cover and simmer 60 minutes or until grains are tender and splayed open. Drain any remaining liquid.

While sorghum cooks, roast the pepitas and squash. Spread the pepitas in a single layer on a rimmed baking sheet. Roast until fragrant, 5 to 7 minutes. Set aside ½ cup of pepitas for the bowl and reserve the remaining ¼ cup for topping.

Increase oven temperature to 375 degrees. Lay squash on a large baking sheet and drizzle oil over flesh to cover and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Roast until tender, 35 to 40 minutes. Set aside to cool then gently slice away softened skin and cut squash into 1-inch cubes.

To make dressing whisk together 3 tablespoons olive oil, sherry vinegar, orange juice, honey and shallot in a small bowl.

Spoon warm sorghum into large serving bowl. Add cumin, cinnamon and 1 ½ teaspoons salt, stirring until spices are fully mixed. Spoon squash, ½ cup of pepitas and parsley over sorghum, stirring well to combine. Top with dressing and remaining pepitas.

Makes 8 servings.

Recipe from Erin Rowe

Spicy Sorghum Chili (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Kelly Brant)
Spicy Sorghum Chili (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Kelly Brant)

Spicy Sorghum Chili

  • 2 cups dried black beans
  • 1 ½ cups uncooked sorghum grains
  • 4 cups vegetable broth
  • 3 ribs celery, diced
  • 1 large red onion, diced
  • 4 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 bell pepper, diced
  • 1 cup yellow corn, frozen or canned, drained
  • 1 (14.5-ounce) can fire-roasted tomatoes, with juice
  • 2 tablespoons tomato paste
  • 3 tablespoons Mexican seasoning blend (can substitute chili seasoning)
  • Ground red pepper, to taste
  • Salt and pepper, to taste
  • Desired garnishes such as tortilla chips, avocado slices, minced cilantro or chopped tomatoes

Place beans in large pot, cover with water and soak 8 to 12 hours. Drain, discarding soaking water and return beans to pot; add the dried sorghum, 4 cups fresh water and 4 cups vegetable broth. Stir well, cover and simmer over medium heat, stirring occasionally, for about 30 minutes. Add celery, onion, garlic, bell pepper, corn, tomatoes, tomato paste and Mexican seasoning blend. Stir well, cover and simmer for an additional 45 minutes or until beans, sorghum and vegetables are tender. Add water as needed, should be a thick stew-like consistency. Season to taste with red pepper, salt and black pepper. Serve hot, garnished as desired.

Makes about 10 servings.

Recipe adapted from Erin Rowe

Sorghum Pecan Pie (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Sean Clancy)
Sorghum Pecan Pie (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Sean Clancy)

Sorghum Pecan Pie

  • 2 cups raw pecan halves, divided use
  • 1 pie shell crust
  • 1/3 cup packed dark brown sugar
  • ¼ teaspoon kosher salt
  • 3 eggs
  • ½ cup sorghum syrup
  • ½ cup light corn syrup
  • 8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, melted and cooled slightly

Scatter 1 cup pecans on a baking sheet and toast at 350 degrees for 8 minutes. Chop and put in pie shell. Reserve remaining pecans for decorating top of pie.

For filling, whisk together sugar, salt, eggs, sorghum and corn syrup. Whisk in melted butter and let filling rest for 20 minutes.

Reserve 1 cup of filling and pour the rest over the chopped pecans in shell. Toss remaining cup of pecans with reserved filling until coated, then arrange on top of pie.

Place on a baking sheet and bake at 350 degrees about 1 hour, until filling is set but a bit jiggly.

Adapted from "Mother Grains: Recipes for the Grain Revolution" by Roxana Jullapat

Sorghum Molasses Cookies (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Kelly Brant)
Sorghum Molasses Cookies (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Kelly Brant)

Sorghum Molasses Cookies

  • 8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened
  • 1 ¼ cups packed dark brown sugar
  • 1 egg
  • 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • ¼ cup sorghum syrup
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1 ½ teaspoons baking soda
  • ¾ teaspoon cream of tartar
  • 2 cups flour (see note)
  • ½ teaspoon ground cloves
  • ½ teaspoon ground ginger
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • Granulated sugar, for rolling

In a stand mixer with paddle attachment, cream the butter and brown sugar at medium speed for 2-3 minutes. Add egg and mix for 1 minute; add the oil and sorghum syrup and mix for 1 minute more and then add the salt, baking soda, cream of tartar, flour and spices. Mix until a uniform dough forms. Transfer dough to a sheet of parchment paper or plastic wrap. Flatten into a disk with your hands, then wrap tightly and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes (and up to 2 days).

Heat oven to 350 degrees. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper.

Divide dough into equal portions, up to 2 ounces each. Shape each into a ball, roll balls in granulated sugar and place on the baking sheets at least 3 inches apart.

Bake until edges are set and centers have cracked, 12 to 14 minutes, rotating baking sheets halfway through.

Makes 14 very large cookies.

Note: We made these using all-wheat flour and all sorghum flour. The sorghum-only batch spread a bit more than the wheat flour batch, but both were good. A combination of flours would work too.

Adapted from "Mother Grains: Recipes for the Grain Revolution, by Roxana Jullapat

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