Just when we'd got our mouths around quinoa – pronounced "keen-wah" in case you're not in the know – a new grain is quietly stealing the limelight. Like quinoa it's chock-full of protein, slightly nutty, and dead easy to cook. It also has a magical smokiness that's sending chefs into culinary raptures. Meet freekeh, green Middle Eastern-grown wheat that's picked unripe then roasted over wood fires to burn off the husks giving it a wonderful smoky flavour.
Middle Eastern people, of course, have been eating freekeh for millennia. Egyptians stuff pigeons with it, the Turkish use it for pilaf, and Palestinians simmer it in chicken stock to make a wholesome soup. The story goes that in 2300 BC the inhabitants of a nation in the eastern Mediterranean were expecting an attack on their city. Worried about losing their crops and starving, they picked the early green heads of wheat. Unfortunately, the city came under fire and their green wheat was burnt. The people, not ready to throw out their food supply, rubbed the wheat heads and found the milky grassy grains not only edible, but delicious. They named their miraculous new grain "freekeh", meaning "rubbed".
In Britain, alternatives to white rice or pasta have been largely limited to couscous, bulgur wheat, and more recently, quinoa. Now, however, chefs such as Israeli-born Yotam Ottolenghi and consumer ranges such as Merchant Gourmet are showing us that there are a lot more exciting – and healthy – gourmet grains out there.
The list makes exotic reading. As well as Palestinian freekeh there's maftoul (bulgur that's sun-dried then hand-rolled to look like a larger, wholegrain version of couscous) and Middle Eastern mograbieh (giant couscous). From other parts of the globe there's amaranth, black and purple barley, wheatberries, kamut, Camargue red rice and many more.
Freekeh, though, is the grain that Ottolenghi and other chefs are really freaking out about – in a good way. He tells me that when he gets home to his parents in the hills around Jerusalem, the first thing he does is rush to his local Arab grocer to buy a bag of the aromatic grain. "'Depth' and 'earthy' are words bandied about liberally in the world of food, but freekeh is the real deal," he says. "I'm addicted to it."
One can see why. There's little not to love about this ancient grain, from its texture to its taste, nutrition and pocket-friendly price. If, like me, you've been to too many bring-a-dish parties where the collective table is littered with bowls of tasteless overcooked couscous passed off as salad, freekeh seems a welcome alternative. If you need inspiration for how to prepare freekeh, catch up with the second episode of Ottolenghi's Mediterranean Feast on Channel Four, and you'll see the chef in Istanbul marrying the grain with globe artichokes. Incidentally, this salad appeared on the very first menus at Ottolenghi's smart Soho restaurant, Nopi, when it opened in 2011.
Television series such as Mediterranean Feast and books such as Plenty and Jerusalem prompted numerous calls from the public to Ottolenghi stores asking where to buy the specialist products mentioned. So last year the chef set up an online store, selling ingredients that are sourced as directly as possible from small producers. The freekeh comes from a dynamic young British company called Moon Valley that, in the words of the Ottolenghi website, buys directly from Palestinian farmers to "develop sustainable agricultural businesses in a region that is strangled economically". The freekeh, sold as whole-grain or cracked, is produced using traditional artisan methods. Myles Broscoe, Ottolenghi purchasing manager, says he expects online sales of freekeh and other grains to at least triple in 2013. "The figures suggest freekeh has huge potential," he says.
To explore that potential for myself I joined Ramael Scully, Nopi's dauntingly creative Malaysian-Australian head chef. "Freekeh is lovely with lamb, chicken or vegetables," he tells me. "Like couscous or bulgur it's easy to cook, but unlike them, it has really complex flavours."
When cooking freekeh you need to decide whether to use wholegrain or cracked (which looks like bulgur but green). "I usually recommend wholegrain for salads or pilafs as there's less chance of overcooking it – you want it to retain a bit of crunch," says Scully. "Cracked freekeh is great in stuffings and in soups. At Nopi we sometimes stuff squid with it."
As aromatic dishes fly out of the kitchen to feed hungry West End diners, Scully and I make the braised artichokes with freekeh grains and herbs that featured in the TV show. Chef has already pre-cooked the freekeh in a vegetable stock, so all we need to do is blend it with artichoke hearts (also prepared and braised in advance, mercifully), peas and generous grinds of pink peppercorns. "Freekeh gives the salad texture, plus a lovely smoky flavour," Scully enthuses. "I love it."
Our second dish, equally simple and kind on the pocket, is a Freekeh pilaf, made the way Ottolenghi makes it in Jerusalem: caramelise plenty of onions, add a decent stock (home-made chicken stock is best), spices and wholegrain freekeh. Steam it, let it sit, and spoon on a dollop of creamy yoghurt to balance out the sweetness, and you have a tasty supper dish that's also nicely nutritious.
It's that nutritional value that people such as Stacy Meech, head of food at the Vital Ingredient salad-bar chain which has 11 branches across London, are so excited about. Just last month, the chain launched a range of Super Salads in which protein-rich freekeh is the star of the show – as the waitresses' T-shirts saying "Get Super Freekeh" testify.
"Consumers are no longer prepared to put up with sandwiches or dull couscous salads," says Meech. "Our customers want stuff that's really healthy, so we're giving them supergrains that are. We cook them every day on site so people know the salads are fresh and we publish the nutritional information on our website so they can check it out. A 100g portion of freekeh contains over 11g of protein – more than a quarter of an adult's recommended daily intake. It's low-fat and low-GI too. We believe we can make healthy eating cool rather than cranky."
It's just a matter of months before we'll find freekeh in the supermarkets. Several are planning to include it in pre-prepared salads or sell them as dry grains under their own brand. Merchant Gourmet, whose sales of ready-to-eat (ie pre-prepared) cereals and grains have more than doubled over the past 12 months, expects to add freekeh to its ready-to-eat range by the end of the year. "We believe freekeh will be as popular this year as quinoa was last year," says Clive Moxham, director at Leathams, which produces Merchant Gourmet products.
David Job, of Moon Valley, says: "Many Middle Eastern products that were seen as niche are now becoming mainstream. Middle Eastern foods are right 'on trend' at the moment, with freekeh top of the menu."
Whether freekeh will upstage can-do-no-wrong quinoa remains to be seen. But smoky, robust freekeh is certainly a gourmet grain to grab.
Braised artichokes with freekeh grains and herbs
By Yotam Ottolenghi
This artichoke concoction – very green and very fresh – makes springtime seem well worth waiting for, even from the thick of a gloomy and wintery distance. If you can’t get freekeh use bulgar wheat but cook it for only 5 minutes, before draining and refreshing.
4 large globe artichokes (2.5kg gross)
Juice of 3 medium lemons (120ml)
2 large sprigs of thyme
4 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
10 black peppercorns
60ml olive oil
½ a lemon, thinly sliced (40g)
200g green peas, fresh or frozen
100g freekeh, rinsed
15g mint leaves, roughly chopped
10g dill, roughly chopped
15g parsley, roughly chopped
1 tbsp pink peppercorns
10g purple basil, leaves picked
Salt and black pepper
To clean the artichokes, cut off most of the stalk and start removing the tough outer leaves by hand. Once you reach the softer leaves, take a sharp serrated knife and trim off 2–3 centimetres from the top. Cut the artichoke in half lengthways so you can reach the heart and scrape it clean with a small knife. Rub the clean heart with a teaspoon of lemon juice to stop it discolouring. Cut each artichoke half into slices, 5mm thick. Place in cold water and stir in half the remaining lemon juice, about 50ml.
Drain the artichokes and place in a sauté pan. Add the remaining lemon juice, thyme, garlic, black peppercorns, olive oil, lemon slices, 4 tablespoons of water and a pinch of salt. Cook on the stove on a medium heat for 20 to 25 minutes. By this time the artichokes should be soft and the sauce a thick consistency.
Fill a medium saucepan with plenty of cold water and bring to the boil. Add the peas and blanch for 30 seconds. Use a slotted spoon to immediately plunge them into cold water, then drain and leave to dry. Add the freekeh into the same pan and simmer gently until al dente, about 20 minutes. Drain, refresh under cold water and leave to dry.
Place the artichoke and their juices in a large mixing bowl. Add the peas, freekeh, herbs, ½ a teaspoon of salt and some black pepper and toss gently. Taste to see if more salt is needed and sprinkle with the pink peppercorns. Plate and finish with the purple basil.
By Yotam Ottolenghi (from the book Plenty (Ebury, £25)
2 medium onions, thinly sliced
1 tbsp olive oil, plus extra to finish
150g freekeh (or bulgur wheat)
1/4 tsp ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp ground allspice
270ml good-quality reduced vegetable stock
100g Greek yoghurt
1 1/2 tsp lemon juice
1/2 garlic clove, crushed
10g parsley, finely chopped, plus extra to garnish
10g mint, finely chopped
10g coriander, finely chopped
2 tbsp pine nuts, toasted and roughly broken
salt and black pepper
Place the onions, butter and olive oil in a large heavy-based pot and sauté on medium heat, stirring occasionally, for 15–20 minutes. or until the onion is soft and brown.
Meanwhile, soak the freekeh in cold water for 5 minutes. Drain in a sieve and rinse well under cold running water. Drain well.
Add the freekeh and spices to the onions, followed by the stock and some salt and pepper. Stir well. Bring to the boil, then cover, reduce the heat to a bare minimum and leave to simmer for 15 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat and leave it covered for 5 minutes. Finally, remove the lid and leave to pilaf to cool down a little, about another 5 minutes.
While you wait, mix the yoghurt with the lemon juice, garlic and some salt.
Stir the herbs into the warm (not hot) pilaf. Taste and adjust the seasoning. Spoon onto serving dishes and top each portion with a generous dollop of yoghurt. Sprinkle with pine nuts and parsley and finish with a trickle of olive oil.
Grain storm: Types to try
Similar in appearance to couscous, but grains are larger and rounder. The maftoul sold through Ottolenghi is made from bulgur wheat that's sun-dried then hand-rolled by women from a co-operative near the Palestinian city of Jenin. Use in any dish requiring couscous, rice or bulgur.
These are the whole grain of wheat so are wonderfully high in fibre and packed with protein. They have a creamy, nutty flavour. Serve as a side dish instead of rice, pasta or couscous, or add to soups, stir fries and casseroles.
Like quinoa and millet, amaranth is actually a seed not a grain. Part of the staple diet of the Inca and Aztec civilisations. The small yellow grains are gluten-free, rich in minerals, protein and fibre, and contain lysine (an important amino acid). Combine with other grains in a risotto or salad, or use to bulk out soups.
The most nutritious of all barleys. Unlike most grains it has no inedible hull, so when harvested the nutrition-packed hull remains intact. Rich in fibre and minerals. Its eye-catching colour, texture and flavour make it brilliant for salads and pilafs.
Kamut is the trademark name of khorasan wheat, named after a historical region in north-east Iran. Some believe this ancient nutty-tasting grain originated in the Fertile Crescent. Twice the size of modern-day wheat, it is high in protein and minerals. Soak grains and use in salads, or add grains to breads and biscuits.
Known as pearl or giant couscous, and made from semolina, Mograbieh is common throughout the Arab world. Use in recipes that call for couscous.
Camargue red rice
Camargue red rice's distinctive colour, nutty flavour, and firm texture will liven up any salad. It's grown in the Camargue region of southern France. The unusual colour comes from the rice not being polished and the outer bran layers are left intact. Use as a colourful and tasty accompaniment to roasted chicken thighs or smoked mackerel. Or combine with coconut milk, brown sugar and cinnamon for rice pudding.