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Once an ignored Southern food, sorghum - the syrup and the grain - suddenly getting hot

This April 21, 2014, photo shows blueberry sorghum spoon bread in Concord, N.H. (AP Photo/Matthew Mead)

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This April 21, 2014, photo shows blueberry sorghum spoon bread in Concord, N.H. (AP Photo/Matthew Mead)

When chef Josh Feathers was growing up in Tennessee, his grandmother always had a jar of sorghum syrup in the cupboard. But he never gave much thought to it, or its significance to Southern culture.

That didn't happen until he'd grown up, moved away, then returned home to work at Blackberry Farm in Walland, Tennessee. "My mentor, while we were creating desserts he said, 'This is one of the main ingredients you need to look at,'" recalls Feathers, now corporate chef at Blackberry Farm. "This is a truly Southern heritage ingredient we want to highlight."

Today, much of the country — even the South itself — is experiencing a similar delayed appreciation for sorghum.

Sorghum syrup — or "sorghum molasses" as it's sometimes called — has long been a staple of certain Southern cupboards. Pressed from the tough, grassy stalks of the sweet sorghum plant, then boiled down, it was seen as the province of grandmothers, a stodgy, household ingredient no one paid much mind.

No more. Sorghum syrup and even sorghum grain are being thrust into the limelight by a new generation of chefs in the South and beyond who appreciate its complexities and its provenance.

"Sorghum wasn't considered a noble ingredient 10 years ago," says Edward Lee, chef of two Louisville, Kentucky, restaurants and author of the cookbook "Smoke and Pickles." ''The first thing I get is this very rustic nuttiness, this umami nuttiness, then the grassiness. And then the sweetness unfolds around that. It's a unique flavour. And it adds a lot of depth to what you're cooking, more so than honey."

Lee is not alone. He uses sorghum as a glaze for foie gras and highlights its distinct flavour in sorghum-and-grits ice cream. Feathers calls it "an all-purpose item" that can be drizzled over biscuits, shines up breakfast sausage and enlivens vinaigrettes. Vivian Howard, chef and co-owner of The Chef and the Farmer in Kinston, North Carolina, has deployed sorghum in candied yams. Washington, D.C., chef and restaurateur Jeff Tunks uses sorghum on his "low-and-slow" roast duck. And in Philadelphia, chef Jeremy McMillan of Talula's Garden combines it with black garlic to glaze carrots.

Demand for sorghum syrup has doubled during the last five years, says James Baier, executive secretary of the National Sweet Sorghum Producers and Processors Association, rising so fast that some of his 300 members have begun running out before the new season starts.

Demand is being driven by the public's search for alternative sweeteners, Baier says, and also by the light shined on sorghum by chefs, restaurants, even cocktail mixologists. Distillers have begun producing a rum-like product from sorghum, Baier says, and others using it to make whiskey, beer and cocktail bitters. Soy sauce producers have also shown interest, he says.

Sorghum grain also is ambling to centre stage on many chefs' plates. Harvested from a short, stout version of the sorghum plant, the tiny grain has been used as food in Africa for thousands of years, but has been known in the United States mainly as biofuel or animal feed.

Today, the grain is being milled into flour and marketed to the gluten-free and whole-grain markets, and is being used by chefs in soups, stews and salads. Only 2 per cent of production currently goes to food, says Tim Lust, chief executive officer of the United Sorghum Checkoff Program, which markets the grain, but that figure is growing by 25 per cent a year.

Cookbook author Martha Rose Shulman has compared sorghum grain to Israeli couscous, and recommends it as a base for a black-bean stew as well as for a salad with cucumber, avocado and cherry tomato. At the Clifton Inn in Charlottesville, Virginia, chef Tucker Yoder combines the grain and the syrup in a quinoa and sorghum pudding. New York chef Marc Forgione has offered sorghum as a side to items such as arctic char.

"The closest possible thing you can compare it to is a real heirloom farro," says Forgione, who is working with Lust's group to cook a three-course sorghum lunch at a June trade show. "It tastes like the ancient grain that it is. It's got a great bite to it. It's very earthy. When we do it risotto style — I cook mine al dente anyway — it has a nice chew to it, a full texture."

So is sorghum the next quinoa? Forgione has one word: Sriracha.

"If someone had told us 10 years ago that this condiment you can't even pronounce was going to be the number one selling condiment, you wouldn't have believed it," he says. "You never know."

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BLUEBERRY SORGHUM SPOON BREAD

Start to finish: 1 1/2 hours (30 minutes active)

Servings: 8

3 cups milk

1/2 cup sorghum syrup

1 teaspoon kosher salt

1 1/4 cups cornmeal

3 eggs

1/4 cup (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, melted

1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder

2 cups blueberries

In a medium pan over medium-high heat, combine the milk, sorghum syrup and salt. Bring to a boil then, while whisking, pour in the cornmeal in a steady stream. Continue stirring and cooking for 2 minutes, or until the mixture thickens. Remove from the heat and cool to room temperature.

Heat the oven to 350 F. Coat a 9-by-9-inch baking pan or a 1 1/2-quart baking dish with baking spray.

Transfer the cornmeal mixture to the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a whisk. Add the eggs, melted butter and baking powder. Beat on medium to combine, then increase speed to high and beat for 6 to 8 minutes, or until the mixture is lighter in both colour and texture. Fold in the blueberries, then spoon into the prepared pan. Bake for 30 to 40 minutes, or until lightly browned. Serve warm.

Nutrition information per serving: 290 calories; 100 calories from fat (34 per cent of total calories); 11 g fat (6 g saturated; 0 g trans fats); 90 mg cholesterol; 41 g carbohydrate; 2 g fiber; 4 g sugar; 7 g protein; 420 mg sodium.

(Recipe from Alison Ladman)

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SWEET-AND-SPICY DOUBLE SORGHUM SALAD

Sorghum grains resemble couscous and taste like a cross between barley and rice. This hearty grain salad is delicious served over a bed of greens, such as arugula.

Start to finish: 2 hours (30 minutes active)

Servings: 8

2 cups sorghum grains

Kosher salt

3 tablespoons olive oil

1 tablespoon minced garlic

1 large sweet onion, chopped

1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes (more or less to taste)

3 tablespoons sorghum syrup

2 tablespoons lemon juice

2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar

1/2 teaspoon smoked paprika

1/2 teaspoon ground cumin

1/3 cup chopped golden raisins

1/3 cup toasted sunflower seeds

Hot sauce, to taste

In a medium pan over medium-high heat, combine the sorghum grains and enough water to cover them by 2 inches. Add a generous pinch of salt, then bring to a boil and cook for 1 hour to 1 hour and 15 minutes, or until the grains are tender. If needed, add water during cooking to maintain the level. Use a mesh strainer to drain, then set aside to cool.

Meanwhile, in a large skillet over medium, heat the olive oil. Add the garlic, onion and red pepper flakes and cook for 12 to 15 minutes, or until golden brown and very tender. Set aside to cool.

In a medium bowl, whisk together the sorghum syrup, lemon juice, vinegar, paprika and cumin. Add the onion mixture, and then stir in the sorghum, raisins and sunflower seeds. Season with additional salt and hot sauce.

Nutrition information per serving: 290 calories; 80 calories from fat (28 per cent of total calories); 9 g fat (1.5 g saturated; 0 g trans fats); 0 mg cholesterol; 52 g carbohydrate; 4 g fiber; 12 g sugar; 7 g protein; 125 mg sodium.

(Recipe from Alison Ladman)

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Michele Kayal is co-founder of the website American Food Roots, http://www.americanfoodroots.com/ . Follow her at @AmerFoodRoots

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