Freekeh stuffing

Super grain: Recently, freekeh has enjoyed a bit of an uptick after being mentioned on various TV programs, including "The Dr. Oz Show," where it was lauded as a "superfood." (Bill Hogan/Chicago Tribune)

If you're among the folks trying to work more whole grains into your meals, your solution may be to go backward in time.

Way, way back — as in, pre-biblical back — in time. Try the ancient grain called, variously, freekeh, frikh, farik or freek. It's actually unripe durum wheat, harvested green and then burned to rid it of its husk. The burning imbues the grain with a slight smoky flavor.

The name comes from the Arabic word for "rubbed," because the burned grain is then threshed to rub away its chaff. Say "FREE-kah" and you'll be mighty close, although the pronunciation varies in different Arabic countries.

In the Mediterranean crescent, the beginning of freekeh season is still celebrated with joy. Traditionally, this early harvest — taking place around the same time that barley was gathered — marked the end of the long hungry season and the beginning of the new season's wealth.

Freekeh is more nutritious than rice, and because it's not ripe, the starchy layers have not yet filled in the wheat berries. It's high in protein — up to 12.6 grams per 100 grams cooked, or about a half cup — and fiber — up to 16.5 grams per half cup — and naturally has wheat's bounty of other nutrients.

The gluten-intolerant can't enjoy it, of course, but for the rest of us, it's a seasonal treat.

Recently, freekeh has enjoyed a bit of an uptick after being mentioned on various television shows, including "The Dr. Oz Show," where it was lauded as a "superfood."

"From June to December of 2012, we sold 12 pounds of freekeh," says Abbie Miller, wellness buyer at the People's Food Co-op in Kalamazoo, Mich. "In January 2013 alone, we sold 13 pounds. So there's definitely new interest. But it's less common and not nearly as well known as some of the other grains."

Miller says the co-op sells bulk freekeh for $4.19 pound. Middle Eastern markets often stock freekeh — although the name may be spelled differently on the label — and an Australian company has recently launched its freekeh under the Greenwheat Freekeh label, offering both whole-grain and cracked.

The relatively high price may be because preparing freekeh is fairly labor-intensive.

The young wheat is harvested by hand in a very small window of time when the wheat's leaves have yellowed but the grains are still milky, wrote Abbie Rosner in "Roasting Green Wheat in Galilee," published in Gastronomica 11:2.

The just-harvested grain is dried in the sun for a single day before burning, and the newly toasted grain is threshed before packaging or transport to the grain mill if it is to be cracked.

Preparing freekeh is very much like cooking rice: The ratio is 1 to 2.5 of freekeh to boiling water, cover and simmer over low heat for 15 to 20 minutes.

A cup of raw freekeh will yield a little over 2 cups when cooked.

What you do with the freekeh once it's cooked is limited only by your imagination. Here is a recipe to get you started.

Freekeh salad

Prep: 20 minutes
Cook: 15-20 minutes
Servings: 6 to 8 as a side dish, 3 to 4 as a main dish

Note: This easy, nourishing salad pairs freekeh with its natural Mediterranean companions: Kalamata olives, capers, feta, green onions, parsley and sun-dried tomatoes, all dressed with lemon juice and olive oil. A bit of smoked paprika in the dressing accentuates the freekeh's smoky overtones. Chilled, this is a fine lunch on a hot summer day.


1 cup freekeh, rinsed, drained