Getting Freekeh

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By Emily Paster

One of my culinary resolutions for 2013 was, after cooking with pearl barley and farro for the first time in 2012, to continue experimenting with different grains. The benefit of cooking with new and unfamiliar grains is, in part, to satisfy my unquenchable thirst for culinary novelty, but also as a way to cook more healthy and satisfying, vegetarian meals. I have no plans to give up meat any time soon, but I do strive to eat less meat both for health reasons and for reasons of sustainability. In many cultures all over the world, meat is a luxury item — something to be eaten sparingly. For those people, they derive much of the protein they need from plant sources. It is those plant-based forms of protein that I am interested in exploring.

My new favorite cookbook, Jerusalem, has induced me to cook with many new ingredients, from the spice mix Baharat to bulgur wheat to ground lamb. But one of the most exotic ingredients that I learned about in Jerusalem is freekeh (pronounced free-ka). Freekeh, which means "to rub" in Arabic, is a ancient form of green wheat high in fiber and protein. As the authors of Jerusalem explain, freekeh is wheat that is harvested while still green. It is then set on fire to get rid of the chaff and straw. What remains is beaten and the grains gathered to make freekeh. The result is a nutritious whole grain with a hint of smokiness.

Freekeh has a coarse, nutty texture, much like farro. It can be used like bulgur, which is resembles, to make pilafs and salads but it takes longer to cook. Freekeh also works well in soups and stews. Ottolenghi and Tamimi, the authors of Jerusalem, claim that freekeh works particularly well with sweet flavors because of its earthy, smoky flavor.

Freekeh has not quite hit the mainstream in America yet, but I believe it is on the verge of a breakthrough. Check out this article on freekeh from the LA Times earlier this year. It may not be easy for everyone to find freekeh…yet. I found freekeh at my local Whole Foods, which has a wide selection of grains and pulses. The brand I found is made by a company called Freekeh Foods. In addition to plain freekeh, they also sell Rosemary Sage and Tamari varieties. The Freekeh Foods website helpfully offers sample recipes and information on where to buy their products. I also found an Australian company that sells freekeh called Greenwheat Freekeh. That brand appears to be carried in some Whole Foods stores and other specialty food markets and is available on Amazon, but the shipping costs seem high — incidentally the same problem I have with buying fregola online.

Like many such grains, freekeh is cooked in boiling liquid, such as water or, for added flavor, broth. The basic method involves combining one cup of freekeh and two-and-a-half cups of liquid and bringing that to a boil. Cover, reduce the heat and simmer for 20-25 minutes, until the freekeh is tender. But don't expect it to be too tender. This is a chewy, crunchy grain, like most whole grains.

Jerusalem has two recipes for freekeh, one for a spicy freekeh soup with meatballs — haven't made this one yet but it sounds terrific — and one for poached chicken with sweet spiced freekeh. I made the second recipe, adding some of my own flourishes, such as the addition of dried fruit. There was just something about the recipe that seemed to cry out for fruit, so I threw in some prunes and dried apricots. The freekeh with dried fruit was good on its own, but when we topped it with a yogurt cucumber sauce, it was delicious. The cool tanginess of the yogurt balanced out the sweetness of the dried fruit and added smoothness to the chewy grain. I am looking forward to many more experiments with this ancient, but new-to-me super-food.

Freekeh with Dried Fruit and Almonds
Adapted from Jerusalem by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi

For the freekeh:
1 onion, sliced thinly
2 carrots, peeled and cut into bite-sized chunks
2 TB olive oil
1 cup freekeh
1/2 tsp. ground allspice
1/2 tsp. coriander
Salt and pepper to taste
1 cup mixed dried fruit such as prunes and dried apricots
2 1/2 cups chicken or vegetable broth
2 TB butter
2/3 cup sliced almonds
1/4 cup chopped flat-leaf parsley

Yogurt Sauce
2 cups plain Greek yogurt
1 clove garlic minced
Pinch of cayenne pepper
Zest and juice of half a lemon
Salt and pepper to taste

Heat olive oil in a large, deep skillet for which you have a tight-fitting lid. Add the onion and carrots and saute over medium-low heat for 12-15 minutes until the vegetables are soft and golden. Add the freekeh, allspice, coriander, salt and pepper and toss to coat the freekeh with oil. Pour in the broth and add the dried fruit. Raise the heat and bring the liquid to a boil. Cover the pan and reduce the heat. Simmer freekeh for 20 minutes. Then remove from heat, but leave pan covered for an additional 20 minutes.

While the freekeh is cooking, make the yogurt sauce by combining all of the ingredients in a large bowl. Chill until ready to serve.

A few minutes before the freekeh is finished, melt the butter in a small skillet and saute the almonds until golden and fragrant. Season well with salt. Fold the chopped parsley and toasted almonds into the freekeh. Adjust seasonings and serve. Pass the yogurt sauce on the side.

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