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Recipe: Ancient grain delivers smoky deliciousness

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    Freekeh, long popular in the Middle East and North Africa, adds a smoky note to dinner. Here, it is served with chicken topped with almonds and yogurt.

I first learned about freekeh from American food writer Paula Wolfert. She had encountered it over the years while traveling around the Eastern Mediterranean and was gung-ho about spreading the word. Wolfert, never shy about proclaiming the virtues of a beloved ingredient, made the Western food world sit up and listen.

Freekeh, long in use throughout the Middle East and North Africa, was relatively unknown in the United States; now it is widely available and prized as a high-protein “supergrain.”

I bought a package recently and fell in love again. Somehow I had forgotten its allure — the pale greenish tint of the grain, the smoky aroma, the nutty flavor and pleasantly chewy texture.

Freekeh is made from wheat that is harvested when the berries are still green and then burned to remove the chaff. It is often described as roasted, but when I say smoky, it really is. I contacted Anissa Helou, the Lebanese food writer, who has a recipe for freekeh in her latest book, “Feast.”

She directed me to her website, where a post depicts Syrian farmers setting piles of green wheat stalks on fire. The blackened grain is then tossed in the air to let the wind help winnow it. Afterward, the fire-roasted grains are dried.

The technique varies regionally. Not all freekeh is fire-roasted and some is picked less green. But Helou likes hers very green and burned; she also prefers cracked freekeh over whole grain. I cooked freekeh every day for a week while testing this recipe and came to the same conclusion.

Freekeh is cooked in a pot on the stove like rice. It can be prepared with water, but tastes best cooked in broth, seasoned with allspice and cinnamon. Though some prepare it as a salad, Helou and I agreed that it really shines served warm.

Freekeh is unbelievably delicious. Just a bowl of it with a dab of yogurt would suffice, but for the full effect it should be topped with a savory stew of chicken or lamb.

I asked if Helou considered it comfort food. “Totally!” she said. “It’s my favorite grain.”


By David Tanis

  • >> For the freekeh:
  • 2 cups cracked freekehw
  • 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1/2 cup blanched almonds
  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 1/4 teaspoon allspice
  • 1 (1-inch) stick of cinnamon
  • 1/4 teaspoon black pepper
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 5 cups unsalted chicken broth or water
  • >> For the chicken:
  • 6 large chicken thighs, whole legs or a cut-up bird, about 3 pounds
  • Salt and pepper
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1/2 teaspoon allspice
  • 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 4 cups unsalted chicken broth or water
  • A few sprigs flat leaf parsley
  • 2 cups plain yogurt, for serving

>> Make the freekeh: Pick over freekeh and rinse in cold water until water looks clear. Soak grain in cold water for 30 minutes, then drain well.

Over medium-high, heat oil in a heavy-bottomed large saucepan or Dutch oven. Add almonds and fry, stirring, until golden, 3 to 4 minutes. Remove almonds and set aside.

Add butter to oil. When hot, add freekeh and stir to coat. Add allspice, cinnamon stick, pepper and salt.

Add broth, turn heat to high and bring to a boil. Cover and turn heat to low. Cook 20 to 25 minutes, until tender. (Whole-grain freekeh will take 40 to 45 minutes.) From time to time, give freekeh a stir and make sure it isn’t sticking. All liquid should be absorbed, as it would in cooking rice, and freekeh should be tender. If not, add a little water and cook for a few minutes longer. Taste for salt and adjust. Turn off heat.

Meanwhile, prepare the chicken: Season the meat on both sides generously with salt and pepper. Sprinkle with cinnamon and allspice and rub over chicken.

Heat olive oil and butter in a large deep skillet over medium-high. Gently fry chicken on both sides until nicely browned. Add broth and bring to a boil. Cover, turn heat to low and simmer 35 to 40 minutes, until chicken is tender. Turn off heat and keep warm.

To serve, spoon freekeh onto a warm platter. Lay chicken on top and ladle remaining cooking liquid over it. Top with reserved fried almonds. Garnish with parsley sprigs. Pass a bowl of yogurt. Serves 6.

Nutritional information unavailable.


The combination of smoky freekeh with chicken makes me think immediately of the red wines of the northern Rhone Valley, made with the syrah grape. These can range from serious wines from Hermitage or Cote-Rotie that need many years of age, to easier-going bottles from Crozes-Hermitage or St.-Joseph in which the savory, meaty, peppery flavors are immediately accessible. One of these more casual wines would be ideal with this dish.

Other options? A regional Burgundy or simple pinot noir would be delicious. So would a Beaujolais, or any number of soft, refreshing reds from the Loire Valley. A California carignan would go well. You could easily drink a late-summer dry rosé, and if you wanted a white, I’d opt for a chenin blanc from the Anjou region of the Loire.

— David Tanis, New York Times

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