Freekeh: Underage and Smoking

by Caroline Hatchett
Caroline Hatchett, Antoinette Bruno

A steaming bowl of freekeh is the rare (perhaps singular) instance where health and underage smoking converge. Part of traditional Middle Eastern cuisine, freekeh starts life as green durum wheat, still milky with moisture. Instead of allowing the grains to harden on the stalks, farmers harvest and pile the immature wheat to dry in the sun. In the most important step, farmers set the piles ablaze. Because the young grains are still moist, only the stalks and chaff burn. After a quick cracking and polishing job, only smokey freekeh remains, ready for use.

Immature freekeh not only has built-in fire resistance, it also has higher nutritional value than mature wheat. Loaded with protein, vitamins, minerals, and a low glycemic index to boot, freekeh’s granola factor compares to that of superfoods like quinoa and amaranth. But what chefs love most about freekeh is its firm, chewy texture and toasty, nutty flavor.

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Freaky Tabouli: Freekeh Salad, Roasted Acorn Squash, and Avjar from Chris Debarr of Green Goddess – New Orleans, LA Grilled Lamb Chops, Pomegranate Molasses, Freekeh Salad, Grilled Curry Eggplant, and Mint Jus from Chef Peter Abarcar Jr. of Hapuna Beach Prince Hotel – Kohala Coast, HI Crème Frâiche Panna Cotta, Roasted Carrots, Freekeh from Chef Greg Perrault of June – Portland, OR

At New Orleans’s Green Goddess, freekeh is the base of Chef Chris Debarr’s Freaky Tabouli, a cool salad with a tumble of Mediterranean and Middle Eastern ingredients. Debarr tosses freekeh with herbs, olives, green onions, olive oil, and tart Persian barberries that he sources “as part of our contraband dedication to putting the essential, perfect ingredient in our food.” Debarr also plates a swipe of ajvar, a spicy red pepper spread from the Caucasian Mountain region that happens to have a “particular New Orleans vibe.” Wedges of roasted acorn squash and local lettuces finish the dish, each bite revealing different layers of flavor—a modern plate built on the backs of ancient flavor profiles.

The chef at Hapuna Beach Prince Hotel on the Kohala Coast of Hawaii’s Big Island, Peter Abarcar has to balance the tourist desire to indulge and look good in a bathing suit. Sampling from a global pantry (and his home-town Hawaiian palate), Abarcar meets this challenge with Grilled Lamb Chops, Pomegranate Molasses, Freekeh Salad, Grilled Curry Eggplant, and Mint Jus, in which he pairs two succulent lamb chops with a festival of vegetables and whole grains. “The natural earthiness of the freekeh works well with sweet local corn and raisins and plays off lamb’s gamey tendencies,” he says. The smokiness of the grain also reinforces the grilling technique.

2011 Portland Rising Star Chef Greg Perrault’s Crème Frâiche Panna Cotta, Roasted Carrots, Freekeh, and Calabrian Chili Oil pulls the grain out of its Middle Eastern context and squarely into to the realm of elegant, Portland locavore. “I was initially drawn to vegetarian base of freekeh,” says the June chef. “I had beautiful carrots and thought they would make a great salad.” He added richness and acidity to the dish with a savory panna cotta and a hint of fire with Calabrian chilies. Perrault, who hadn’t heard of freekeh until last year, sources the grain (made with a soft red wheat, rather than durum) from Ayers Creek farm in nearby Gaston, where freekeh is fired as in Biblical times, to satisfy the dual, and often opposing, interests of serving international flavors with local provenance. “I can’t see why [freekeh] isn’t not going to gain momentum,” says Perrault.

As the saying goes, where there’s smoke…