Get Your Freekeh On

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How is it that certain foods pop up on the horizon and go on to become the rage of the moment, while others never quite make it? Or die a quick death. Or creep in so quietly that you don’t even know they’re there until … they’re there. And then they’re not. Take fennel pollen, for instance — jars of the stuff are not exactly lining the shelves of your local supermarket, but no one had heard of it 10 years ago and now, among fashionista food-lovers, it’s definitely the flavor of the year, if not the decade, but who can predict for how long?

And cupcakes? Where did they come from? Where have they gone?

What about sun-dried tomatoes, pasta salads, tiramisu, raspberry vinaigrette?

Food trends — what’s hot, what’s not — are a vast mystery and, as the folks in the product development department are fond of repeating: If anyone could just figure it all out, they could make a million bucks. Or two.

Freekeh or farik — even faraykee, in one publication — might be about to join the list. Suddenly the subtly smoky, nutty wheat is popping up on restaurant menus, especially those of hiply trendy (or trendily hip) restaurants like Northern Spy Food Company in New York’s East Village where the frika (pronounced somewhere between freekie and freekah) cooked with zucchini, squash, arugula and mascarpone, has become a much talked about item.

I first encountered freekeh in Lebanon many years ago. Basically it’s hard durum wheat (ideally a local landrace species such as Hourani from Lebanon or Syria), harvested when the kernels are still green and immature — if you crack one with your thumbnail a milky liquid, wheat juice, oozes out. The kernels are parched before they’re ready to cook and eat. Traditionally, harvested stalks, bound in sheaves, are set on fire right out in the fields, roasting the kernels and divesting them of the hard outside pellicle.

The kernels of parched wheat, blackened with smoke, are then rubbed until clean and further dried in the sun. The freekeh can then be stored in whole grain form or cracked like bulgur.

Who knows when or why this process began. I suspect it may have originated millennia ago when weather or warfare threatened the harvest so the wheat had to be gathered early and processed for storing. Burning the grain was also a simple way to remove the indigestible pellicle that surrounds each kernel in these antique wheat varieties. Of course, as with most traditional products, there are romantic and utterly improbable tales connected to it.

The cracked grains, like bulgur, can be used in a salad after soaking in hot water for 30 minutes or more. Or they can be cooked like rice pilaf or couscous for a comforting and tasty side with lamb or bean dishes to which freekeh lends a delicious, nutty, smoky-sweet flavor. It can also be used as a stuffing, maybe mixed with chopped pine nuts and/or raisins, for chicken or lamb. Tabbouleh made with cracked freekeh is fully as delicious as the more typical bulgur tabbouleh, and whole grain freekeh is a great addition to a spicy bean and vegetable soup. The whole grains should be cooked — but not for long if you’ve soaked them for 30 minutes in hot water. The cracked grains, as I noted, can be used as is, after soaking, in a tabbouleh-like salad.

You can usually find freekeh in Middle Eastern markets. The grains have to be picked over laboriously to rid them of small stones, twigs and other undesirable detritus. “Greenwheat Freekeh” is the trademark of an Australian company that produces freekeh by thoroughly modern methods. No more smoky fires out in the fields, but the result is a much cleaner product that can be used straight from the box. I’ve tried it in many dishes with outstanding results.

Since many people have gluten allergies, the question of freekeh’s gluten content is pertinent. The jury is out on that. If I had celiac disease or suffered from an aversion to gluten, I wouldn’t eat freekeh — it is wheat, after all, although harvested at an early stage.

The following recipe is adapted from one called “Soupe au Blé Vert” in Joan Nathan’s delightful and engaging new book, “Quiches, Kugels, and Couscous: My Search for Jewish Cooking in France” (Knopf, $39.95).

I’ve made the soup with both chickpeas, according to the original, and with dried yellow-eye beans — each worked well. Nathan suggested green wheat (blé vert) for the soup, but she also said that parched wheat, which is another term for freekeh, would work just as well. And indeed it makes a delicious and filling soup, perfect for a winter evening.

Bean and Freekeh Soup

2 hearty servings (the recipe can easily be doubled or tripled)

Ingredients

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
6 small cipolline onions, peeled and cut in half (or use 1 medium yellow onion, chopped)
1 green celery stalk, chopped
1 carrot, peeled and chopped
¾ cup dried chickpeas or beans, soaked several hours or overnight
2 tablespoons minced flat-leaf parsley, plus a little more for garnish
1 bay leaf, broken in two
½ tablespoon tomato paste or extract
1 teaspoon harissa or other hot pepper sauce
Pinch of crushed hot chili pepper, more or less as you wish
½ cup whole freekeh, soaked at least 30 minutes in hot water
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Directions

  1. Combine the oil and onions in a heavy-duty soup kettle and set over medium heat. Cook the onions until they just begin to brown a little along the edges, then add the chopped celery and carrot, stir, and continue cooking until the vegetables are beginning to soften.
  2. In a separate pot, bring about 4 cups of water to a boil.
  3. Add the drained beans to the soup kettle along with the parsley, bay leaf, boiling water, tomato paste, harissa and crushed chili. Lower the heat.
  4. When the liquid is simmering, cover the pot and simmer the beans until they’re soft enough to eat. This can take 40 minutes to an hour, depending on the age of the dried beans.
  5. When the beans are soft, tip in the drained freekeh, add salt and pepper, and cook another 20 to 30 minutes, or until the grains are soft enough to eat. (The phrase means different things to different people — I like freekeh when the grains still have a little bite; others prefer them really soft and almost exploding in the soup.)
  6. Taste and adjust the seasoning, then serve, garnished with more minced parsley. Nathan suggests squeezing lemon juice over the soup as an additional garnish. You might also consider a combination of grated lemon zest and finely minced fresh green chili pepper.

Nancy Harmon Jenkins is the author of several books, the latest of which is her newly revised “The New Mediterranean Diet Cookbook.”  Her other food books include, “Cucina del Sole: A Celebration of the Cuisines of Southern Italy” and “The Essential Mediterranean,” which looks at a dozen foods key to understanding Mediterranean cuisines.  She also wrote “Flavors of Tuscany,” “Flavors of Puglia” and “The Mediterranean Diet Cookbook.”  She is working on a book on Atlantic salmon.  A former staff writer with The New York Times, Nancy continues to contribute to the Times in addition to writing for The Washington Post, Saveur, Food & Wine and other national publications.  She currently divides her time between a Tuscan farmhouse and a home on the coast of Maine where she was born and raised.  She has lived and worked throughout the countries of the Mediterranean, at various times making a home in Spain, France, Italy, Lebanon, and Cyprus as well as in Hong Kong and England. You can read more of her food writing on her site, NancyHarmonJenkins.com.

Photo: Freekeh, whole (left) and cracked. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins

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