I never really got my head round quinoa and then the ‘healthy grain excitement’ moved on to freekeh and this ancient Middle Eastern grain became a favourite of the foodie world last year, 2014. Ottolenghi was ahead of the pack, of course, writing about it in his book Plenty in 2010. The excitement remains strong and freekeh was mentioned once again as one of the grains we should be looking to use in 2015. Therefore, when I happened to see a pack at my local Revital – a health-food store – I thought I just had to buy a packet.
Despite being a regular to Revital and buying quite a few ‘healthy’ foods and some supplements, I don’t really consider myself to be someone who is ‘in’ to healthy food, or the kind usually associated with health-food stores. I eat a diet rich in fresh – and mostly organic – fruit and vegetables and I steer away from processed or ready-prepared; I look after myself. But my love affair with food is more about taste, about good food in the sense of wonderful recipes and dishes made from the best ingredients. I always use good Italian white risotto rice; you wouldn’t catch me buying brown whole food – it just wouldn’t give the right effect. I most certainly eat butter rather than margarine and consume huge quantities of extra virgin olive oil because not only is it the right oil for much of what I cook, but it tastes fantastic! Therefore my interest in freekeh was of a gourmet kind … it came from my interest in food. If it was similar to bulgur wheat in what way was it different? Was I going to think it as special as all those enthusiastic chefs?
Wheat has been cultivated for about 6,000 years, going back to the times of the ancient civilisations of Mesopotamia, Syria, Palestine and Asia Minor. Freekeh are whole, immature wheat grains that are still green. Picked unripe, it’s traditionally roasted over wood fires to burn off the husks, giving it a lovely smoky flavour.
Uncooked, I thought it looked a little more like rice than bulgur but cooked, I found, it lies somewhere in-between in texture, a little like overcooked rice, perhaps. Brown rice that still has the husky texture. That sounds a little bad, I suppose, but believe me, it wasn’t.
Freekeh is used a lot in pilafs, particularly in Turkey; in Egypt it’s used in a stuffing for pigeon; the Palestinians make a chicken soup with it. It is a very healthy grain. You could easily use it instead of couscous, which so often is over processed and therefore lacking in nutrients. Freekeh is high in protein and fibre and has a low glycaemic index making it better suited to diabetics than other grains.
I wanted to make something a bit different to the pilaf I made a couple of days ago, although I was inevitably going to take a similar route, and thought I’d go for something a little fresher tasting, using herbs rather than spices. I bought some nice courgettes and decided to make that the ‘main’ ingredient with the freekeh, adding to the fresh taste with lots of fresh herbs: mint, basil and flat-leafed parsley. I’d top it with the same yoghurt dressing I used the other night and a good sprinkling of toasted pine nuts. It looked as if I’d be eating a very healthy supper even though my focus was on taste!
The first thing I did was to finely slice 2 shallots and fry them gently in some olive oil. I then added ½ cup of washed and drained freekeh and stirred well to coat the grains.
I then added 1 cup of stock (I used light chicken but you could use vegetable if you want this to be a vegetarian dish). I brought it to the boil, then turned right down and simmered with a lid on – cooking much in the same way as rice – until the liquid had been absorbed. While the freekeh was cooking, I prepared the courgettes. I cut 2 medium-sized courgettes into chunks and gently fried until starting to brown nicely.
I chopped a good amount of fresh flat-leaf parsley, basil and mint. When the freekeh was ready and the courgettes cooked, I tipped the courgettes into the freekeh with the herbs and mixed together.
Meanwhile, I’d put a couple of dessertspoons of plain yoghurt in a small bowl, crushed ½ small clove of garlic with some sea salt and added that to the yoghurt with a squeeze of lemon juice. I’d also pan-roasted a handful of pine nuts until brown. Now I tipped the freekeh and courgette mixture into a bowl, spooned over some of the yoghurt and sprinkled over the roasted pine nuts.
I thought it looked fantastic. As for the taste – it was wonderful. I was slightly surprised. I’d had a feeling while I was cooking my supper that in the end, after my efforts, I wasn’t going to be hugely impressed. After all, it was just a grain. I hadn’t been especially impressed by quinoa when I tried it. But wow! Freekeh really is different; it really is an amazing taste: slightly smoky, slightly nutty, a certain freshness to it and a full flavour that makes this more than some kind of background grain to a meal. It had deserved to be pretty much the main event of my supper. I’m so glad I tried it and I’m most certainly going to be eating a lot of it. Simply as tonight; as an accompaniment to meat or fish like a pilaf; or as a base for a Middle Eastern style salad. All those chefs were right: freekeh is something to get excited about.