Freekeh out: the new ancient grain sprouting on menus

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Freekeh out: the new ancient grain sprouting on menus
Super grain: Pilaf made using freekeh. Image: Popina Foods

Just when we've gotten our mouths around quinoa, a new super ancient grain is steadily marching onto menus. 

Meet freekeh, the ancient  Eastern Meditteranean grain that's made from green wheat traditionally roasted over wood fires to burn off the husks giving it a wonderful smoky flavour.

It's the latest "new" grain on the block that's steadily being discovered by more and more chefs around Australia who are enjoying it as an ingredient for its texture and the flavour it can add to dishes from risottos to salads, as well as its health and nutritional value.  

Middle Eastern people have been eating freekeh for millenia, using it for a range of traditional dishes from stuffing pigeons and making pilafs, to simmering it in stock for soups.

The story goes that in 2300 BC the people of a nation in the Eastern Meditteranean picked the heads of their wheat havest while still young and green becasue they needed to store food to see them through an unexpected siege on their walled city. During the conquest the store of green wheat caught on fire and the outer grains were burned. In an effort to salvage their food store they rubbed the wheat heads and discovered it exposed the delicious toasted green grains. They called the new grain freekeh meaning "the rubbed one" in their Arameic language.

Whether freekeh will be able to upstage the very cool-right-now quinoa remains to be seen but the smoky robust grain has certainly got a few chefs singing its praises. They're also seeing it as a way for them to set themselves apart, with something new and interesing they can feature. Hey, quinoa is so mainstream now, right?

Morries' chef Carolyn Griffiths'  mushroom risotto featuring freekeh.

Head chef at the hot Margaret River restaurant Morries Anytime, Carolyn Griffiths, introduced freekeh onto the menu in a mushroom risotto-style dish that she says is now in the top three most popular on her  menu. "We put it on about a month ago and it's now our third biggest  seller," says Griffiths.

"I'd used quinoa a lot but never freekeh but I saw it in the local health food store and thought I'd try it. And it's been amazing the reaction to it. It's had a very good response."

Griffiths says freekeh's flavour marries especially well with mushrooms. "It's a little bit earthy and the flavour works well with the mushrooms," she says. "I use a mix of them, oyster mushrooms, enoki, shitaki, and button, with some mushroom stock. Then it's finished with some goats curd and truffle oil."

Griffiths says using freekeh also fits with the local customer base of Morries because of its recognition as a top food in the health stakes. "[Our customers]are pretty health conscious so this really suits them," she says.

"They are looking for food that is healthy, and that's something I keep in mind when I'm developing dishes for the menu.

"[The freekeh] is definitely a talking point. Not everyone has heard of it and at the start not everyone understood it but then the staff explain that it's cracked wheat and that it's a really nutritious grain and they're really interested and keen to try it."

The nutritional muscle of freekeh is also a big part of the reason chef John Ayala at Melbourne's Richmond Hill Larder and Café is drawn to it as an ingredient. He's been using it with lots of success as the basis of one of his line up of hearty and healthful salads.

Listed on his menu under the section headed "Grains, greens and things",  the freekeh salad combines the grain with toasted slivered almonds, shredded carrot and beetroot, Goji berries, spring onion, green beans and rocket served with a pomegranate molasses dressing.

"With our customers a lot of them are women and a lot of them are health conscious, they appreciate dishes that are really healthy," Ayala says. "And we also get a lot of people in from around the hospitals nearby so I was looking for something really nutritious. 

John Ayala's freekeh salad at Richmond Hill Cafe and Larder.

"A lot of my customers are vegetarian as well so I don't want to lose sight of those people and want to make sure they are well catered for on the menu. When I came up with this salad I was looking for a way to serve a really good vegan option.

"We had been using quinoa and we use a lot of seeds and grains. With the freekeh salad I was wondering how to make it a little bit different than the quinoa, and bring a little bit of refinement to it.

"I'm a big fan of salads. I like my food fresh and so I favour salads, even during winter, and always incorporate some kind of grain and seeds in any salad I make for texture, for crunch, for the mouthfeel."

Ayala says another plus with freekeh is how simple it is to prepare, although a bit of time is involved. "It's one of those things where you have to cook it a lot - it can be a little like wild rice - it's not really cooked enough until it almost looks like it's bloomed,  like if you have pearl barley," he says.

Morries' Griffiths also vouches for the ease of use. "It does take a bit of time to cook but there's not a lot of stirring compared to when you're make a risotto say with rice, so it saves on labour a bit there," says Griffiths who's now experimenting with other ways to add freekeh to her menu such as in soups and as an accompaniment to fish.

Nutritionist Dr Joanna McMillan is another passionate champion of freekeh and has been promoting its benefits to the Australian market as part of her work with Australian company Popina, which has just launched a South  Australian-grown freekeh into the market under the Goodness Superfoods brand. 

From a nutritional angle it's hard to beat, she says. "Nutritionally freekeh is far superior to many other grains and the more common carbohydrate rich foods we eat," Dr McMillan says.

"Freekeh has up to four times the fibre of brown rice, provides  more protein than mature wheat and most other grains and is rich in iron, zinc, potassium, and calcium. Unlike mature grains it's also rich in two carotenoids - lutein and zeaxanthin - that have been associated with reduced risk of age related macular degeneration.

"It's also high in resistant starch - this is a starch that can't be digested and absorbed in the small intestine and therefore it reaches the colon where it acts like dietaty fibre and contributes to bowel health.

 "Recent scientific thinking is that this type of fibre is particularly important for bowel cancer. It also means the total carbohydrate load of the freekeh is reduced. The CSIRO has also found both the cracked and whole grains are low GI."

Richmond Hill's Ayala says he believes chefs should be looking at ways to serve customers food that's good for them as well as tasty.

  "I think it's one of our responsibilities, to do food that is attractive and nutritious as well as delicious," he says. "That's one of my aims and goals here."


 

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