Thanksgiving is a great time to try them out

For most Americans, Thanksgiving dinner is entirely predictable — turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes and a common vegetable such as string beans.

If you’d like to liven things up a bit this year — with some delicious and highly nutritious dishes — whole grains may be your best bet.

The whole grains described below are not widely used by Americans, but they should be. Readily available in health-food and specialty-food stores, these grains taste great and are very good for you — offering lots of fiber and important nutrients, such as magnesium and phosphorus.

BETTER THAN STUFFING

If you’re tired of the same old bread stuffing, try…

Barley. With its high fiber content (14 g per cup), barley has been associated with lower cholesterol levels. For a distinctive stuffing substitute, try the dish below with pearl barley, which is smaller than regular barley and cooks faster.

What to do: Sauté 1 diced yellow onion or a bunch of scallions (chopped) in about 1 tablespoon of olive oil until the onions or scallions are transparent. Stir in 2 cups of pearl barley. Add 4 cups of water or chicken broth and simmer, covered, over medium heat, until the liquid is absorbed and the barley is tender — about 40 minutes. Stir in 1 tablespoon of chopped fresh sage and 1 pound of cooked sweet Italian sausage.

Vegetarian option: Omit the sausage and add ¾ cup of toasted walnuts and 10 chopped, oil-packed sun-dried tomatoes.

Also delicious: Try barley as a substitute for rice in bean dishes — use black or small white beans plus sage, parsley and sautéed onions.

BETTER THAN MASHED POTATOES

Instead of the usual uninspired comfort food, try…

Cornmeal. Whole-grain cornmeal has a rich corn flavor and is excellent — though a bit decadent — in a cheesy spoonbread that is sure to upstage the mashed potatoes you’ve been serving year after year. Whole-grain cornmeal is a good source of magnesium, phosphorus, niacin and vitamin B-6.

Ingredients: 1 bunch of fresh broccoli, cut into 1½-inch pieces… a 16-ounce package of whole-grain cornbread mix… 4 eggs, lightly beaten (or the equivalent amount of egg substitute)… 3 cups milk (low-fat or nonfat)… 1½ cups grated Parmesan cheese… 4 tablespoons butter or margarine, melted.

What to do: Heat oven to 350°F. Lightly coat a 13″×9″ glass or ceramic baking dish with vegetable cooking spray. Drop broccoli into a pot of boiling water and cook, uncovered, for 5 minutes or until tender crisp. Drain and distribute evenly in the baking dish. Put cornbread mix, eggs, milk and 1 cup of the cheese in a mixing bowl and stir. Pour over the broccoli in the baking dish. Sprinkle the remaining ½ cup of Parmesan on top and drizzle with melted butter or margarine. Bake 40 to 45 minutes or until golden brown but still slightly loose in center. Remove and cool 10 minutes before serving.

Important: The cornbread mix found in most supermarkets is not whole grain — and provides few of the health benefits of whole-grain cornmeal.

Millet. Rich in the minerals magnesium, phosphorus and manganese, millet, which has a very mild, slightly sweet taste, also serves as a nice replacement for potatoes.

What to do: Combine 1 cup of hulled millet with 3 cups of water. Cover and simmer about 25 minutes, or until the liquid is absorbed. Add a few tablespoons of olive oil, a handful of chopped parsley and ½ cup of grated Parmesan cheese.

Bonus: If you must avoid gluten (a protein found in wheat, barley and rye), millet is an excellent substitute in any recipe that uses wheat-based couscous.

DELECTABLE LEFTOVERS

One of the best parts of Thanksgiving is eating leftovers.

For a healthful addition, try…

Quinoa. These tiny, pearl-like seeds from South America, which are gluten free, are fast and easy to cook. Quinoa (pronounced keen-wah) is less robust than other grains, so don’t overcook it or it will turn mushy.

Quinoa delivers several health benefits, including more protein than any other grain, averaging about 16% protein per serving.

For a tasty post-holiday side dish, combine quinoa with leftover vegetables.

What to do: Put 1 cup of quinoa and 1½ cups of water in a pot and bring to a boil. Reduce to a simmer, cover and cook until all the water is absorbed (about 15 minutes). Toss the cooked quinoa with leftover vegetables. Green beans and cubed sweet potatoes pair particularly well with quinoa.

Bonus: With its gentle nutty flavor, quinoa also serves as an adaptable base for many different dishes.

For a delicious salad: Mix 2 cups of cooked quinoa with ½ cup of chopped red or green bell pepper, 1 seeded and chopped jalapeno or serrano pepper and ¼ cup of chopped fresh cilantro. Drizzle with olive oil (3 to 4 tablespoons) and a splash of toasted sesame seed oil.

BEST WAYS TO STORE

When buying whole grains, choose a health-food store or specialty-food store that does a brisk business. In less busy markets, whole grains may sit for months and turn rancid because so few customers know how to use them.

If you are buying from a market that stores whole grains in open barrel-like containers, smell the grain. You will be able to detect rancidity by its acrid smell.

At home, always keep grains in tightly sealed plastic bags or containers and store them in the freezer. Since whole grains contain the germ of the seed, including its healthful oils, they can turn rancid within a couple of months if left in a cupboard.

Freezing also kills any bugs (such as moth larvae) that may be harvested with the grains. Because grains are an agricultural product, it is best to rinse them in a colander and pick out misshaped grains and any other natural debris (such as pebbles) that may be present.

Whether you prepare these whole-grain recipes at Thanksgiving or some other occasion, you’ll be glad you tried them.