Friday, May 3, 2013

Learning about a "New" Grain: Freekeh Pilaf with Swiss Chard, Spring Onions & Goat Cheese

Last summer a woman who takes my classes at The Merc in Lawrence left a note on my Facebook page asking if I had ever cooked with freekeh. At the time I had not. I was peripherally aware of it because I had seen it mentioned in a couple of favorite cookbooks—but had never made the leap to seeking it out and cooking with it. Soon after our Facebook conversation, I picked up a bag of Freekeh at the Merc—fully intending to cook some right away. As often happens, it fell off of my radar. Last week (almost a year later!) while looking for something a bit different to do with some Swiss Chard I purchased at the Farmers' market, I remembered my bag of freekeh.

For those who are wondering what in the world I am talking about, freekeh is wheat—or more specifically, freekeh is a method for processing wheat (a process that can be applied to other grains as well.....most notably, barley). To produce Freekeh, the wheat is harvested while it is still a bit green. It is then laid out to dry and then finally, it is roasted or charred. The resulting wheat kernels have a faintly smoky aroma and taste. It is my suspicion that the level of smokiness will vary from processor to processor. As a bonus, since it is made with an unripe grain, freekeh is very nutritious—apparently on a par with quinoa.

Freekeh is truly an ancient grain—the "parched corn" mentioned in the Old Testament is generally thought to be freekeh. Most sources agree that the freekeh process was discovered by accident about four thousand years ago in the Middle East. In an attempt to save their wheat crop from an impending enemy attack, a group of villagers harvested the unripe grain and stacked it inside their village walls. Sources disagree on whether the wheat combusted on its own or was actually set on fire by the enemy. When the fire was finally out, it was discovered that the wheat itself had not burned—possibly due to the moisture inherent in the still green kernels—only the husks were charred. The husks were easily removed by rubbing the grains together. The crop had been saved after all. Freekeh—meaning "rubbed" or "to rub"—was born.

notice the faint green cast to the grain....

Freekeh is easy to cook and may be prepared as you would prepare any whole grain. It may be simply boiled and drained (and rinsed if destined for a salad). Or it may be prepared according to the standard pilaf method. It comes in a whole and a cracked form—the whole taking slightly longer (maybe 10 to 15 minutes longer) to cook. Some sources recommend soaking freekeh in cold water for 5 to 10 minutes before cooking. I'm guessing the brief soak gives the cooked grains a more uniform texture—but I really don't know. I simply rinsed mine and drained it well before I cooked it (just as I would quinoa, farro or bulgur). The finished texture was tender and pleasantly chewy.

Because bulgur is commonly recommended as a substitute for freekeh (it is apparently only recently that freekeh has become widely available in this country), I decided for my first foray into the world of freekeh that I would prepare a dish based on a favorite bulgur preparation—a pilaf with Swiss Chard, dried fruit and nuts. The results were delicious. The freekeh does indeed have a smokiness to it—but it is fairly subtle. The flavor is difficult to describe. Bulgur has a prominent sweetness to it that freekeh lacks. Yotam Ottolenghi uses the word "earthy" to describe it. I found one source that described freekeh as having a tangy quality and I think this is an accurate description. I particularly liked the sweetness of the currants and pine nuts against the backdrop of the freekeh.

If you choose to cook your freekeh according to the pilaf method you will find recipes with liquid to grain ratios ranging from 3:1 to 1 1/4:1. This latter very low ratio I found in Yotam Ottolenghi's book Plenty. It was the only place I found it, but it was the one I settled on. This is the ratio I always use when I cook bulgur. Furthermore, I think the chefs at Ottolenghi do amazing things with grains...their books and other published recipes (magazines...on line...) are the first place I check when I'm experimenting with grains and I am never disappointed. At this ratio, the grain was still nice and moist, but not swimming in excess liquid that had to be drained away.

I'm so pleased that someone asked me about freekeh (Thanks Lisa!)....I'm not sure I would have tried it otherwise. And I'm so glad I did. It has earned a permanent place in the selection of grains in my pantry and I'm looking forward to experimenting further with it in the months to come.

Freekeh Pilaf with Swiss Chard,
Spring Onions & Goat Cheese

1 small to medium bunch Swiss Chard, stems removed and the leaves cut cross-wise into 1-inch wide ribbons
1 T. olive oil
1 small clove of garlic, minced
pinch hot pepper flakes
1 to 2 T. olive oil
2 medium spring onions, trimmed, well-rinsed and thinly sliced (white plus a few inches of the green)
kosher salt
1/2 c. cracked freekeh, rinsed and drained
a scant 2/3 c. chicken stock
2 heaping T. dried currants
2 1/2 to 3 T. toasted pine nuts
2 to 3 T. finely chiffonade mint (or minced flat leaf parsley)
1/2 T. lemon juice (or to taste)
2 oz. soft goat cheese

Wash the chard in several changes of water in order to remove all dirt and grit. Set aside to drain (it is not necessary to spin dry unless you will be storing it after washing it). Place the olive oil, garlic and pepper flakes in a sauté pan set over moderate heat. When the garlic begins to sizzle and is fragrant, add the chard a handful at a time, turning to coat each handful in the oil as you do. After all of the chard has been added to the pan, reduce the heat and cook, stirring occasionally, until the chard is just tender (not mushy). If the chard is not young and tender, it may be necessary to reduce the heat and cover the pan to help the chard cook. It should take 10 to 20 minutes to cook. Set aside.

Warm one or two tablespoons of olive oil in a medium saucepan with a tight fitting lid over moderate heat. Add the onions along with a pinch of salt and sweat until tender and translucent. Increase the heat to medium high and add the drained freekeh along with a generous pinch of salt. Continue to cook for a minute until the grains are coated in the oil and sizzling in the hot oil. Add the stock

and bring to a full boil. Reduce the heat to low and cook, covered until the freekeh is tender—20 to 25 minutes. Remove from the heat and scatter the currants over the surface of the freekeh.

Cover and let stand for 5 minutes.

If the chard has become cold, warm briefly. Add the chard to the rested freekeh along with the mint and pine nuts. Toss to combine and season to taste with salt, pepper and lemon juice. Divide the freekeh among two plates. Crumble some goat cheese over each along with a few more pine nuts and more mint.

• The quantities in this recipe made a satisfying entrée for two light appetites. It would also make a delicious side dish (for chicken or fish) for three or four.
• The recipe may be multiplied without difficulty—just use 1 1/4 c. of stock (or water) for every cup of freekeh.
• This pilaf is excellent hot—but it is also delicious at room temperature.  It would be wonderful to take to work or school for lunch.

Printable Recipe

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