Go with the grain: Mark Hix cooks with freekeh

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The healthy, hearty and versatile wheat is turning into a real cereal thriller

I was recently given a bag of the rather strange-sounding freekeh by Alannah Weston, the creative director at Selfridges. I've seen it before but never cooked with it, so it was the perfect opportunity to try it in some recipes. Freekeh, or farik as it's sometimes known, is a cereal made from freshly harvested green wheat that goes through a roasting process over straw and chaff which gives the grains a slightly smoky flavour. It then gets sun-dried and rubbed to achieve its unique texture, flavour and colour. You hardly ever see it here, but it's really popular in Levantine and Egyptian cooking and has all the flexibility of grains such as bulgur and rice or barley.

Our nearest equivalent is spelt, an ancient grain that has been grown down in my part of the world since the start of the Iron Age. It's a cross between emmer wheat and goat's grass, but it's a lot more digestible than the usual stuff and perfect for people with wheat intolerance.

In the winter, when you get bored of cooking root vegetables, you can have lots of fun with hearty staples such as freekeh and spelt. You can use them in anything from a healthy salad to soups and they're also great as an alternative to rice in a risotto-type dish.

Spelt cooked in ink with squid and herbs

Serves 4

This isn't a risotto in the true sense of the word but more a sort of British version of Spanish arroz negro. You can use cuttlefish or squid for this dish and you will need to order the little sachets of ink from your fishmonger in advance.

2tbsp rapeseed oil
50g (6 sachets) squid ink (available to order from good fishmonger's)
200g spelt, soaked in cold water for 3-4 hours
1ltr fish stock
120g butter
150g cleaned squid, cut into small, rough 2-3cm squares
1tbsp chopped hedgerow or three-cornered garlic or garlic chives
1tbsp chopped parsley
1tbsp chopped chervil

Heat the rapeseed oil in a heavy-bottomed saucepan, add the drained spelt and stir on a low heat for a minute or so, without allowing it to colour.

Add the squid ink, stir well, then slowly add the stock, a ladle or two at a time, ensuring that all the liquid has been absorbed before adding more, stirring constantly.

When the spelt is tender and cooked, stir in two-thirds of the butter and a little more of the stock if the risotto seems a bit too dry; the consistency should be wet but not runny. Meanwhile, heat a heavy frying pan with the rest of the butter and cook the squid on a high heat for a minute or so, then stir in the herbs.

To serve, spoon the spelt on to warmed serving plates and scatter the squid over.

Game and spelt broth

Serves 4

Game carcasses are perfect for making a hearty soup – if you're lucky you might have a couple already stored in the freezer.

The carcasses from 4 game birds or a frozen game bird or two, chopped into 4 or 5 pieces

1 small onion, peeled, halved and roughly chopped
1 medium carrot, peeled and roughly chopped
2 cloves of garlic, peeled and crushed
A couple of sprigs of thyme
4 juniper berries
1 tbsp vegetable oil
A good knob of butter
1tbsp flour
1tsp tomato purée
2 litres chicken stock
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

To serve

60g spelt, soaked for a couple hours in cold water
1 small leek, trimmed, cut into rough 1cm squares and washed
1 small carrot, peeled and cut into rough cm dice
1 stick of celery, peeled if necessary and cut into cm dice

To make the stock, heat the vegetable oil in a large, heavy-based saucepan and fry the game carcasses, onion, carrot and garlic on a high heat for 3-4 minutes, stirring every so often until lightly coloured. Add the thyme, juniper, butter and flour; stir well for a minute; add the tomato purée. Stir in the chicken stock, bring to the boil and simmer for an hour. Strain the soup through a fine-meshed sieve into a clean saucepan, reserving the bits of meat from the carcass. Add the spelt and simmer for about 20 minutes, add the other veg; simmer for 10 minutes. Remove as many bits of meat from the game carcass as possible and add to the soup. Simmer for a few minutes, re-season and serve.

Griddled chicken livers with freekeh salad

Serves 4

120g freekeh, soaked for 4 hours
1 medium red onion, finely chopped
2tbsp olive oil
1tsp cumin seeds
¼tsp ground cinnamon
¼tsp ground allspice
2tbsp raisins, soaked in boiling waterfor 1 hour
250ml vegetable or chicken stock
2tbsp chopped parsley
2tbsp chopped coriander
2tbsp flaked almonds, lightly toasted
250g fresh chicken livers, cleaned
4 wooden or metal skewers
A little vegetable oil for brushing
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1tsp sumac

Gently cook the red onion in the olive oil with the spices for about 2-3 minutes, stirring every so often until soft. Add the drained freekeh, raisins and vegetable stock, season, cover with a lid and simmer for 15 minutes on a very low heat (a simmer plate helps), giving the occasional stir.

The stock should all be absorbed by now and the freekeh tender; if not, leave it on the heat for a few more minutes. Remove from the heat and leave to cool. Once cool, stir in the herbs and almonds and re-season if necessary.

Meanwhile, cut the chicken livers into even-sized chunks and thread them on to skewers. Preheat a ribbed griddle pan or heavy-based frying pan and lightly oil it. Season the chicken livers and dust with sumac then grill for a couple of minutes on each side, keeping them pink. To serve, just spoon the freekeh on to serving plates and serve the livers on top, either on or off the skewers.

Freekeh and honey slices

Makes about 15-20

250g rolled oats
200g freekeh, cooked until tender, drained and chopped
175g wholemeal self-raising flour
100g brown sugar
125g dessicated coconut
200g butter
80g clear honey

Preheat the oven to 180C/gas mark 5. Mix the oats, freekeh, flour, sugar and coconut in a bowl.

Melt the butter in a pan or microwave and add the honey, then mix into the dry ingredients until the mixture is a smooth dough.

Grease a 28cm x 18cm x 2-3cm deep baking tin and press the mixture evenly into the tin.

Bake for 15-20 minutes or until golden. Leave to cool a little in the tin, then turn out and cut into squares or rectangles.

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