Dried, roasted and toasted….Freekeh is the hot new grain!
At first glance, it might look like wheat berries or barley. But get closer and take a whiff. You might smell toasted nuts, or even the faint remnants of a campfire. This is freekeh, the latest in ancient grains. The aroma is not surprising, considering that after being harvested, freekeh is dried in the sun and then set on fire, burning the straw and chaff.
Freekeh is native to Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt and Syria, but it’s becoming increasingly popular in the U.S., especially among health-conscious consumers. Freekeh retains more of the protein, vitamins and minerals than other grains, because the wheat is harvested while it is still green and immature. Freekeh is low on the GI index, and contains up to four times the fiber of brown rice. But it’s not only health food freaks who are flocking to freekeh. Chefs at top restaurants are also adding it to their menus. John Adler, a chef at Franny’s in Brooklyn, sings the praises of freekeh: “We add roasted and raw vegetables, nuts, cheese, herbs, and a good amount of oil and vinegar. Yet despite all that, you can still taste the grain. It has a really good integrity.”
Even though freekeh is already roasted, Franny’s chefs give the grain a second toasting in their wood-fired oven before cooking it. “It has almost a coffee-like flavor at that point,” says Adler. The restaurant’s staff has been known to nibble on freekeh right from the oven after it’s toasted. Home cooks can give it the same toasty treatment by briefly putting it under the broiler.
Across the globe, Kamal Mouzawak , founder of Souk al Tayeb – Beirut’s first farmer’s market – also sings the praises of freekeh, calling it a “a real delicacy.” At Tawlet, the market’s “farmer’s kitchen,” individual producers whip up buffets of dishes typical of their village or region. Mouzawak explains that the grain has only recently become well known outside of southern Lebanon, adding that “freekeh is always on our menus for southern villages.”
While Mouzawak prefers his freekeh cooked as a plain grain and served with vegetables, American cooks tend to favor using it in salads with Middle Eastern flavors. Here’s a delicious salad recipe that takes freekeh in yet another direction. Southwestern Freekeh? Why not.
Freekeh Salad with Beets, Cilantro and Lime
- 3 cups cooked freekeh (1 cup raw freekeh, cooked according to package directions)
- 1 cup diced cooked beets
- ¼ cup minced red onion
- 1 serrano or jalapeño pepper, minced
- 1/2 cup sliced almonds, lightly toasted
- 3 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro
- 1 clove garlic, minced
- ½ teaspoon agave nectar
- 2 tablespoons lime juice
- ½ teaspoon grated lime zest
- ¼ teaspoon ground cumin (preferably freshly ground from toasted cumin seeds)
- ¼ cup olive oil
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
- Combine the freekeh, beets, onion, hot pepper, almonds and cilantro.
- Whisk together the remaining ingredients and toss with the freekeh.
- Add salt and pepper to taste.
- Serve at room temperature.