Meet my latest food crush. Crunchy and juicy, with a challenging but yielding texture interesting enough to make you want for more, but not actually get tired of it. A subtle whiff of smoke, the smell of a thousand and one nights, and its bronzed hue betray its Middle East origin, while a tiny hint of grass makes you dream of the wild outdoors. Like all love relationships, it wouldn’t work long-term, if it were not good for you.
Meet Freekeh, Green wheat. Think unripe grain, smoked to dryness. Better than it sounds. Easier than it sounds, too. I have never much liked simple whole wheat, but this is another story. This is up there with farro. This is marriage material.
I cooked it first using a recipe from Plenty. I was so unsure about it. A whole grain, and it required five minutes of soaking and 15 minutes of cooking? I get the unripe part, but I wouldn’t think it would be that quick. Of course it wasn’t: freekeh comes in two varieties (at least), one whole and one broken, a bit like wheat grains and bulgur. Well, if the recipe says ‘substitute with bulgur’, I should have had doubts before… Anyway, I just kept adding stock to my whole grains and I simmered until I liked the consistency. For a failed recipe, it was incredibly good, it did not taste like a failed recipe at all. The time after that I improvised, adding some lentils to make it a complete meal, and these oven dried tomatoes, that see me through more than a winter night.
I also used my new wealth. Didn’t I tell you I just found a treasure? A pack from Calabria. 5 liters of the best extra virgin, cold pressed, organically grown, tree harvested olive oil, with zero acidity and the flavour of pressed olives, nothing else, made by my partner’s father in the Garden of Eden. Some torroncini from Bagnara, like there is no equal anywhere else (we Italians all have our ideal torrone, and we never agree on which one is best. My friend’s torrone is never better than mine). And a kilo of sun-dried tomatoes. Red gold. The torroncini did not find place in the pilaf, but the oil and the tomatoes did. It did not need anything else.
Freekeh, brown lentils and tomatoes
Ingredients (makes about 4 portions as a side – it keeps very well, actually it is better the day after)
For the tomatoes:
300 gr cherry tomatoes, halved
1 tablespoon maple syrup
2 teaspoon olive oil
2 garlic cloves, sliced
pinch of chilli flakes
pinch of oregano or thyme
For the pilaf:
170 gr whole grain freekeh
300 ml water or vegetable stock (I used my home-made bouillon)
3-4 sun-dried tomatoes
150 gr small brown lentils that keep well their shapes, such as beluga or puy
Up to two days before, make the tomatoes. Halve them and toss them on a wide baking tray with all the other ingredients, making sure they are in a single layer. The theory is you should dry them for a long time in a low oven, but I’ve found this process is quite forgiving in terms of oven temperatures with what I’m cooking at the moment, so long as it is not blistering hot (no more than 200 Celsius): take the tomatoes off when they look a bit dried and slightly caramelized, but not burned. You don’t want them too dry for this recipe. Keep them and all of their juices aside.
Soak the freekeh for a couple of hours in cold water. When you are ready to cook it, heat a bit of olive oil in a pot, add the chopped sun-dried tomatoes to it, then the drained grains. Toss until all translucent, then add water or stock: the grains should be barely covered. Simmer for about 30-40 minutes, covered, then taste. If needed top up with water. The grain is ready when it is bouncy and chewy, but not hard. The liquid should be almost completely absorbed: if there is more than a slight moistness around the grains, turn up the heat and make it evaporate.
Meanwhile, bring a large pot of water to the boil. Add a bay leaf to it, then when it is boiling add the lentils. Cook until al dente, about 20 minutes, then drain.
Mix grain, lentils and dried tomatoes directly in the roasting tin of the tomatoes to pick up all the juices, if possible. Add a swirl of olive oil and let cool. Eat at room temperature. It keeps for a couple of days in the fridge, and it keeps getting better.