Category Archives: Middle Eastern food

GUDetroit really gets my goat… (kebabs, that is)

June 11 (only 10 days ago… it seems like months already!) was the second Gourmet Underground Detroit potluck picnic on Belle Isle. I won’t call it the second annual picnic, because I’m secretly hoping we’ll have another one before the year is out. Nomenclature aside, it was a grand old time- you can read my post about it and see some of Marvin’s photos on the GUDetroit website. Some of the highlights were: tree climbing, willow swinging, mint spanking, cornholing (ahem), hula hooping, river gazing, and getting to finally meet Warda (who I wrote about here) and her beautiful family.

My contribution to the gluttony was a platter of kebabs and kefta, with some raita and a sort of tomato-cucumber-herb relish/chutney on the side. I’ve been eating a fair amount of goat meat lately, for a few reasons: first, I just wanted something other than the “big three” of chicken, beef and pork (we’ve run out of venison); second, because goats aren’t a large scale factory farmed animal; and third, because they have a flavor similar to lamb (which I love) but are milder and less fatty (not to mention cheaper). I will say that goat leg meat is a huge pain in the ass to cut up, unless you’re ok with a lot of sinew; I tend to get obsessive and remove as much of it as I possibly can, which explains why my prep time was three times as long as it should have been. But while goat can sometimes be a little tough, mine was pretty tender as a result of the extra trimming. If you’re using it in a long-cooked dish, you wouldn’t need to go to that trouble.

I also made kebabs from ground lamb with a little beef mixed in, and tons of spices and vegetables blended in for flavor. I’m used to anything with ground meat being called kefta rather than kebab, but the name of the recipe was “chapli kebab” or “slipper kebab”, because the patties are in the shape of a chappal, or sandal. The recipe originates from Peshawar in India, not the Middle East or North Africa, but you’d never know it from eating it- the flavors are quite similar to kefta I’ve had in Middle Eastern restaurants but with a little less onion/garlic flavor and more herbs and spices.

Recipes are below for both items, but first, here are some photos from the picnic. Although I’m not the photographer of the family, I think these capture the spirit of the day.

Tikka Kebabs (adapted from Mangoes & Curry Leaves by Jeffrey Alford & Naomi Duguid)
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This kebab can be made either with lamb or goat. The yogurt marinade adds moisture and its acidity tenderizes the meat, giving even a lean meat like goat a succulent texture. The original recipe did not call for any herbs or chilies, but I had them on hand and I love the way the little green flecks look in the marinade as well as the fresh taste they impart.

2 lbs boneless goat or lamb
½ cup plain yogurt
2 large cloves garlic, smashed
juice of half a lemon
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 serrano chilies or one jalapeño, de-seeded and roughly chopped
large handful fresh cilantro leaves
optional: 6-8 mint leaves
2 teaspoons kosher or sea salt
a few turns of black pepper

Cut the meat- if using goat, I’d aim for about ¾-inch pieces; if using lamb, you could go a little larger so the insides will stay pink.

Combine all other ingredients in a blender and pulse until the solids are blended. Combine the meat and marinade in a bowl, stirring to coat all of the meat. Cover and refrigerate for at least 2 hours and up to 12 hours.

Skewer the meat about 4 or 5 pieces to a skewer. It’s OK if it touches, but you don’t want it squeezed one piece against another.  Grill over moderate heat until the outside is nicely browned and the meat is cooked through but still tender (if using lamb, cook to your preferred doneness; we cooked the goat to medium well).

This is traditionally served with flatbread such as naan, but you could serve it over rice as well. I made a cucumber raita (yogurt, shredded cucumber, salt, mint) and a finely chopped salad of tomato, chilies, scallion, cucumber, cilantro and mint to accompany the kebabs.

Peshawari Slipper Kebabs (adapted from Mangoes & Curry Leaves by Jeffrey Alford & Naomi Duguid)
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Because ground lamb can be very fatty and therefore cook down quite a bit, I like to mix ½ lb lean ground beef in with my lamb to stretch out the recipe a bit. If you choose this option, just adjust the other ingredients upward slightly.

1 lb ground lamb (+ ½ lb ground beef, if desired)
1 medium yellow onion, grated
1/2 cup finely chopped tomatoes
2 teaspoons grated or minced ginger
2 green cayenne chilies, minced
1 ½ teaspoons salt
½ teaspoon cayenne
1 teaspoon garam masala
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1 Tablespoon rice vinegar or cider vinegar
½ cup chopped cilantro
¼ cup chickpea flour (besan)
lemon or lime wedges

Place all of the dry ingredients (salt, spices, flour) in a small bowl and stir to combine.  Put the tomatoes and onions in a bowl and remove any excess liquid by pressing them with a spoon or spatula and pouring off the watery  juices.

Place the meat in a large bowl or the bowl of a stand mixer.  Knead or mix in the vinegar, tomato, onion, peppers, ginger and cilantro; then add the dry ingredients. Mix for a couple minutes or until the meat becomes smooth and almost paste-like. Fry up a tablespoon or so in a skillet to check for salt and seasonings, adjusting as needed.

Let the meat rest in the refrigerator for at least an hour to blend the flavors. When ready to cook, form into either small patties and pan-fry or broil, as in the photo at the beginning of the recipe, or form onto skewers in short cigar shapes (2 per skewer) for the grill. The mixture could also be formed into smaller meatball shapes and served as a cocktail appetizer. Whatever your method of cooking, use moderate heat and cook until the surface is well browned and a little crunchy. Serve with lemon or lime wedges.

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les makrouds, les amies

A couple of years ago, shortly after starting this blog, I did an online search for other Michigan food bloggers, with the idea of doing a little networking. At the time, I found only one in Detroit proper, a vegan blogger to whom I reached out but was ignored (oh well). However, I did come across a few bloggers in the Ann Arbor area as well as a couple in the far Detroit suburbs. Several of them had been in contact with each other for a year or so and had formed a small (back then- now over 100 members!) Google group called the Michigan Lady Food Bloggers. This was used for support and networking, linking to each other’s pages, asking each other food-related questions, sharing articles, and occasionally hosting potluck gatherings. Not knowing any other food bloggers “IRL”, I was really excited to connect with these ladies, some of whom had already been blogging for two or three years. Cynthia (aka Mom), Shayne, Alex, Patti and Maggie were just a few of the members who participated regularly in the mailing list and who helped bolster my confidence and enthusiasm for blogging in that first year.

There was another person on the list whose blog drew me in instantly, with its evocative photography and memoir-like stories of her family and childhood in Algeria. We shared the small bond of speaking French, exchanging the occasional email or blog comment en français. And although her life as a married, Muslim mother and homemaker (not to mention recently arrived U.S. resident) was worlds apart from my own, we hit it off, and I came to think of her as a friend.

Although we still haven’t met in person, both of us missing MLFB gatherings the other was attending, we have kept in touch over email and Facebook. When a freelance writing opportunity came my way that I was unable to pursue, I immediately thought of Warda- not only was it for a publication in her neck of the woods, but I knew that her beautiful writing style would be an asset to any editor.

Imagine my delight when, a couple of weeks later, I came home from work to find a package with a carefully wrapped box inside and a postcard thank-you. Inside the box were eight makrouds, golden, buttery diamonds of semolina, each soaked with a honey syrup and filled with date paste (two were, irresistably,  enjoyed upon opening, which is why the photos show only six). The pastries  were lightly scented with orange flower water, which reminded Marvin of desserts his Iraqi grandmother used to make. Although I had no such taste memory to transport me back to childhood, I savored every crumb, nibbling slowly to draw out the sweet pleasure.

Over the next few days, every time I ate one of the makrouds, I thought how I was lucky to have encountered (even if only virtually) this talented woman, whose skills in the kitchen are apparently equal to her (trilingual!) skills with the written word.  One of these days we might meet for tea or a trip to a specialty market, and chat in franglais. But even if our busy schedules don’t permit that any time soon, I will still consider her une amie.  Do yourself a favor and check out her lovely words and photographs on her blog, the 64 Sq. Foot Kitchen.

honey, cumin & lime grilled chicken for the gudetroit picnic

In my last post I alluded to a picnic with some fellow Detroit gourmands, some of whom I introduced to you in this post.  We’re a growing group, and we decided to have a potluck picnic on Belle Isle as an excuse to eat, drink and get to know each other a little better. Molly and Todd scoped out the perfect spot under some willow trees, on the banks of the Detroit river with a view of the city.

Knowing this group, I had high expectations, but wow… I have to say I was pretty blown away by how much everyone put into it.  Dave (aka Captain McBoozy), James and Evan ruled the drinks department- Dave made a Rhubarb Rum Punch and some Prescription Juleps, Evan brought a chartreuse-and-pineapple juice concoction,  and James (our resident coffee-roaster and token Romanian-American) made a fabulous cocktail with cold-brewed coffee, vodka, passionfruit syrup and Romanian mountain mint.

The food was no less spectacular… I displayed an incredible amount of willpower and paced myself perfectly so that I was able to nibble and sip on and off all day while never feeling uncomfortably full or overly tipsy.  This was no small feat, since it was pretty much a spread to end all spreads. My contributions were a big bowl of chlodnik and a mess of honey, cumin & lime-marinated grilled chicken (grilling courtesy of Todd, thanks dude!).  The rest of the food I almost hesitate to list for fear of inadvertently leaving someone out, but there were homemade sausages, pizza on the grill (organic dough courtesy of Strawberry Moon in Ferndale), Vietnamese fresh rolls, an Israeli couscous salad with shrimp (don’t tell the rabbi!), bruschetta, gazpacho, Korean beef tartare lettuce wraps, grilled steak with arugula, a huge bowl of guac, and an assortment of gourmet ice cream courtesy of Jeni’s Ice Creams in Columbus.  Jarred also brought an assortment of wines provided by Western Market– score!

We whiled away the afternoon until it slipped into evening, and somehow managed to dispatch almost all of the food.  We were even making ham sandwiches towards the end of the day, with leftover marble rye, mustard, and some J&M German bacon (not really “bacon”; more like the best ham you’ve ever had).  As the sun set over the city, we packed up our belongings and mused about how perfect the day had been, and wondered aloud how soon we could do another picnic.

Back to the chicken- this isn’t the first time I’ve made this chicken, but I usually make it with wings for a better meat-to-marinade ratio.  The drumsticks weren’t bad, but I think I’ll revert to using wings from now on.   It was hard to “name” this recipe because all of the marinade ingredients are bold and prominent- the sweet-tart punch of honey and lime, the toasty warmth of the cumin and cayenne, and the savory hit of garlic all contribute to a sauce that sings with flavor.  The elements are inspired by Middle Eastern cuisine, but I’ve never had anything like it in a restaurant or come across any similar recipes in any cookbooks or blogs, so for now I’ll claim it as my own.  We couldn’t do this at the picnic, but if you’re near a stove, the leftover marinade (boiled and reduced) makes a killer dipping sauce.

To see the full set of photos from the picnic, check out my flickr set.

Honey, Cumin & Lime Grilled Chicken
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4-5 lbs chicken wings (or drumsticks), preferably free-range or organic
1 cup freshly squeezed lime juice (4 large limes should yield this, unless they are particularly dry)
2 Tbs honey
1 Tbs ground cumin (seeds toasted & freshly ground if possible)
½ tsp cayenne or 1 tsp Harissa paste (or more if you like it spicy)
¼ tsp ground cinnamon
1 packed Tbs minced garlic (a couple cloves depending on size)
1 tsp kosher salt
2 Tbs olive oil

Combine marinade ingredients in a small bowl or glass measuring cup, stirring to dissolve the honey.  Taste to see that the sweet/sour flavors are balanced.  It should taste pretty pucker-inducing, but the heat will tame some of the acidity.  Taste for spiciness as well, adding cayenne as you see fit.

Wash and pat the chicken dry.  Place in a sturdy Ziploc-type bag with the marinade and seal, expelling as much air as possible.  Marinate for at least an hour, longer if possible.

Grill the chicken over medium heat, turning frequently and basting often with the marinade (this should take about 15-20 minutes for wings; slightly longer for drumsticks.  If unsure, use a meat thermometer and cook to 160°).  If you like, boil down any remaining marinade on the stove until slightly thickened and use as a dipping sauce.

why i hate cookbooks.

“Why I hate cookbooks” may seem like an odd blog post title for someone who owns as many cookbooks as I do, and who regularly swoons over them.  But every so often, I have one of those frustrating cooking experiences that make me almost angry at the cookbook author for whatever flaw in their recipe that caused the demise of my dinner.

a half-baked chicken recipe

The primary problem with cookbooks is obviously that they’re not interactive.  Have a question or need something clarified? You’re outta luck.*  Unlike blogs, where you can usually get a question on a recipe answered via the comments or an email, cookbooks are static and unyielding, leaving many home cooks up in the air and having to guess at what was intended.

Part of this has to do with the fact that many cookbooks assume a level of knowledge or background that may or may not be there.  Many foodies probably scoff at cookbook authors such as Nigella Lawson, who is not a “real chef” but just a home cook like (most of) the rest of us.  But that’s exactly the thing I love about Nigella’s cookbooks (and blogs like the Amateur Gourmet)- they bother to describe mishaps or trouble spots they experienced while making the dish, in hopes of sparing you the same problems.  Details like “don’t worry if your dough appears clumpy” can be invaluable when making a recipe for the first time. (I try to include these types of details in the recipes I give here- it makes them longer, but I’d rather give too much info than not enough!)

rillettes rejects

Another pet peeve is cookbook authors who don’t seem to test their recipes with American ingredients, even though the U. S. is the primary market for their book sales (they should take a page from Julia Child- she specifically tested her French recipes in an American kitchen with American ingredients, to make sure they would work).  I frequently encounter this problem when cooking from ethnic cookbooks whose authors live abroad.  There are big differences in ingredients such as flour or even meat, and adjustments need to be made.  The person executing the recipe should not be expected to know to make these modifications.

you deserve to look at something prettier than my failed recipes…

So, what prompted this bout of cookbook disaffection?  Spending an entire afternoon and evening in the kitchen one Sunday, and having two different dishes not turn out as expected. The dishes attempted were pork rillettes (from Charcuterie) and a baked chicken and freekeh dish (from the The New Book of Middle Eastern Food). The rillettes, made with expensive pastured pork, turned out the consistency of chewed tuna fish. Note to self: next time, do NOT use the stand mixer as suggested in the book!  Next time I’ll use a fork to gently break apart the meat.  Another issue was that there was not even a ballpark indication of how much liquid to add, and I think I added too much, which also contributed to the “wet tuna” consistency.

pork that reminds you of tuna is just… wrong.

The baked chicken dish was rescued but turned into something completely different from what was intended.  I thought the instructions were a little wonky- boil the chicken for an hour, then cut it up and bake it for 30 minutes- but forged ahead, trusting the recipe. After 1 hour of simmering, however, my chicken was falling apart and unable to be cut up into pieces. What would the additional 30 minutes of baking have done anyway, besides drying out the meat?!  Bizarre. (Incidentally, this is not the first time I’ve had an issue with a recipe from this book.)  I ended up picking all of the meat from the carcass, putting it back in the broth with the freekeh,  and just calling it soup.  It tasted fine in the end, but what if I hadn’t been experienced enough to shift gears and transform the dish into something else?

I’ll never fully turn away from cookbooks, but right now, I’m more than a little disenchanted.  My resources (both time and money-wise) are limited, and I can’t afford to devote them to recipes that can’t deliver a reliable result.

6/4/10 UPDATE: I had houseguests from France to whom I hesitantly served the rillettes, explaining that it was my first effort, etc.  They both said that the rillettes were “tout à fait correct” (i.e. just fine), and judging by the quantity they consumed, I don’t think they were just being polite! They said rillettes can range from fine to coarse.  I still think I’ll hand-mix them next time, but it was good to know they weren’t the failure I thought they were. I do think a few weeks in the fridge improved the flavor & texture.

*A couple notable exceptions are Rick Bayless and Paula Wolfert, both of whom are great about answering questions via Twitter!

soup swap mach II: four soup recipes to see you through ’til spring

Last year I had the rather brilliant (if I do say so myself) idea to host a soup swap for myself and some girlfriends.  The concept was simple: do the work of cooking one soup, but wind up with a fridge full of 4 or 5 different soups.  This was mostly born from the fact that while I love to cook big batches of things to take in my lunch for the week, I don’t exactly want to eat the same thing 5 days in a row.  So, in what I hope will become an annual tradition, we got together and traded soups (and stories of youthful indiscretions, but that’s for another blog… or not!).

Once again I made two soups, this Cheese Soup with Caramelized Onions & Cumin (sooo good!!), and an “African-inspired” carrot soup from Moosewood Daily Special that had peanut butter, lime and chili sauce. The carrot soup sounded like a good idea at the time, but I had to majorly tweak it to get it to taste good to me.  I added a pretty significant amount of brown sugar, upped the peanut butter, and also added coconut milk.  It ended up tasting like peanut satay sauce, which I guess was not a bad thing, but the fact that I altered it so much makes it pretty impossible to give a recipe.  (But make the cheese soup- that turned out great!)

This year’s batch of soups were no less delicious and satisfying than last year’s. So without further ado, here are my “tasting notes”.  For the recipes, just follow the links.

French Lentil Soup
First of all, the “French” refers to the type of lentils used, not the style of the soup, so don’t worry- it’s not some heavy-cream-and-butter bomb!  French green (Puy) lentils are so great in soup; they are much firmer than regular brown lentils and have a nice chew to them.  This soup is seasoned with mint and cinnamon, among other things, which gives it a delightful Middle Eastern feel. There is an optional garnish of thick Greek yogurt.  I would up the suggested salt content a tiny bit, but other than that I found it to be just right as-is.  Oh, and there are greens in it too so it’s super healthy.  Thanks Kate, this is definitely going into the rotation!

Caldo Tlalpeño (Chicken, Chipotle & Chickpea Soup)
The soup for those who like to eat alliteratively! Amanda says she makes this for weeknight suppers on a pretty regular basis, and it seems pretty straightforward and simple.  The only thing that might throw you off is finding fresh epazote, but I believe she made this batch without and it was still delicious.  I tend to prefer dark meat so I would probably sub out an equal weight of bone-in, skinned chicken leg quarters, but that’s just a personal preference and it was certainly good (and probably a bit healthier) with the breast meat.  Although it’s not in the recipe, I couldn’t resist adding some chopped cilantro when I reheated mine.

Shrimp & Corn Chowder with Fennel
Shrimp, corn, fennel, bacon… what’s not to like about this soup?  Some of the commenters on the Real Simple site (where this was taken from) were pretty harsh, saying it was very bland.  I could definitely picture a dash or two of Tabasco, and just a wee bit more salt, but it was far from being as bland as they implied!  (You’re probably starting to think I’m a salt freak at this point, but a pinch of salt can be the difference between bland and just right.  Taste and add as you go… everyone’s taste buds are different!)  Michelle made this with the suggested (optional) bacon and I would too, but I would maybe crumble it in just before serving.  The only other tweak I would consider is adding a bit of cornstarch to give it a thicker, more “chowdery” feel (dissolve cornstarch in cold water before adding to the soup).

African Curried Coconut Soup
This vegan soup was delightful and looks really easy to make. The rice is listed as “optional” but I would definitely include it- not only does it make it a bit more filling, but it’s beneficial to eat rice and legumes together, especially for non-meat eaters.  Sarah added some spinach at the end of the cooking (not in the recipe) and it was a nice touch.

Thanks again, ladies… Can’t wait for our next swap!

beef & freekeh soup (shorabat freka)

Sometimes you try a new recipe and it goes off without at hitch, seamlessly incorporating itself into your repertoire.  Other times, you beat it into submission, until it bends to your will…

A recipe for beef soup- what could be so hard about that, right?  Well, if you’ve never cooked with beef shanks before and you don’t realize just how long it takes for them to break down and be edible, you might think that the recipe’s 90-minute suggested cooking time was reasonable, and might try to attempt making it after work one night.  If you did, you would find that it actually required at least a few hours of simmering to reach the right consistency (this was discovered over the course of three days, in which I would cook it for a while each night and stick it back in the fridge before going to bed because it STILL wasn’t done).  It wasn’t a huge tragedy, and eventually I got my soup done and it was delicious, but if I ever cook with beef shanks again I think I would consider going the slow cooker route and putting them in before work.

But enough about the beef, some of you are probably saying “What is this ‘freekeh’ of which you speak?”  Long story short, it’s a form of wheat that has been roasted and has a wonderful smoky flavor.  (You can read more about it in this post.)  I had never cooked with it before and my blogger friend Warda had mentioned using it in soup, so when I saw this recipe, with its warming flavors of cardamom, cinnamon and allspice, I was attracted to it instantly.  However, if these flavors don’t appeal to you, I think freekeh would be excellent substituted for barley in any mushroom, beef, or lamb-barley soup.

In spite of my issues with the recipe (which I have modified slightly in hopes of sparing you the aggravation I experienced!) the soup turned out to be a winner.  Marvin, who isn’t the hugest soup fan, gave it two thumbs up.  If anyone has slow cooker experience and can suggest how to adapt it, let me know- I think it would work well.

Beef & Freekeh Soup (Shorabat Freka) adapted from The Arab Table
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2 cups freekeh (see notes)
1/4 cup olive or vegetable oil
1 large or 2 small onions, finely chopped
2 1/2 lbs beef shanks (2 large shanks should be approximately this weight)
1 tsp ground cardamom
5 cardamom pods (see notes)
2 bay leaves
1 tsp ground allspice
1 3-inch cinnamon stick
kosher or sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
10 cups boiling water

optional: 1 28-oz can peeled plum tomatoes, chopped

to serve: lemon wedges and fresh chopped flat-leaf parsley

Notes:

  • There are two types of freekeh, crushed and whole.  You can use either one; the whole freekeh will just take a little longer to cook.  The freekeh I bought came packaged and I did not see any stones, but if you buy it in bulk you should sort through it like you would with lentils.
  • The original recipe called for simmering the beef shanks for a total of about 1 1/2 hours.  I needed to simmer mine much longer before I was able to separate the meat into pieces, and even then, it was tough (har har).   I had never worked with beef shanks before and did not realize how cartilaginous they are! Just be patient, though, and you will be rewarded.
  • I’m not exactly sure why the recipe calls for ground cardamom AND cardamom pods.  If you only have it ground and don’t want to buy the pods, I would think you could just add an additional 1/4 tsp or so.
  • According to the author of The Arab Table, Jordanian cooks sometimes add tomato to this soup.  Although I love tomatoes, I preferred to try it first without, just to get the full impact of the aromatic spices.  I did end up adding some tomatoes in with the leftovers and liked it.  It’s easy to add the tomatoes at the end, so try it both ways and see which you prefer. (Use the tomatoes and the juice released when chopping them, but don’t add the thick purée they come in.)

Directions:

Put the 10 cups water on to boil while you gather the rest of your ingredients and chop your onions (if you have an electric tea kettle, this is a great use for it).  Wash and pat dry the beef shanks; give them a generous coat of salt and black pepper on both sides.  Set aside.

If you are using whole freekeh, fill two medium bowls with water.  Place the freekeh in one bowl, swirl it with your hands and transfer it by hand or with a slotted spoon to the second bowl.  Repeat, refilling the bowls with fresh water until there is no more debris.  Drain the freekeh and set aside.  (If you have crushed prepackaged freekeh there is no need to wash it.)

In a Dutch oven or other large, heavy-bottomed pot, heat the oil over medium heat.  Add the onion and sauté until it begins to soften.  Add the beef shanks and spices  and stir well to coat the beef, about 3 minutes.  Add the boiling water, cover the pot, and return to the boil.  Skim the foam from the surface of the soup.  Reduce heat and simmer gently, covered.

After 2 hours or so, you can check the meat every 30 minutes by poking it with a fork.  When it’s nearly falling apart, remove it from the soup.  Cover the soup and turn the burner off or on the lowest setting.  When the meat is cool enough to handle, pull it from the bone, tearing it into bite-sized chunks and discarding any gristly pieces.  (If the meat does not pull apart easily, return it to the soup and cook it longer.) Return the pieces of meat to the soup pot.

At this point, you can add the freekeh, or you can do what I did, which was to refrigerate the soup overnight so as to skim the fat from the surface.  Either way, return the soup to a simmer and add the freekeh along with 1 Tbs salt.  If using crushed freekeh it will cook almost instantly, like bulghur.  If using whole freekeh, simmer for 30-45 minutes.  The freekeh should retain a slight crunch when you bite into it, like biting into a kernel of corn.  If you are using tomatoes you can add them at this point.  Taste the soup for salt and pepper, adding more if needed.

Serve with wedges of lemon and fresh chopped parsley.

ingredient spotlight: freekeh

Things are crazy lately and I haven’t been able to post full-on recipes as regularly as I would like, so I had the idea to do some shorter posts focusing on single ingredients that you may or may not be familiar with.  First up: freekeh- also spelled farik, frik, freka, and probably a handful of other ways depending on who you ask.  The reason this ingredient doesn’t have an established anglicized spelling is because it is fairly uncommon in the U.S. (although a pre-cooked version has recently made an appearance on the shelves at Trader Joe’s).

freekeh in bag 2

So what exactly is freekeh? According to May S. Bsisu in her book The Arab Table, it is “…the roasted grains of green wheat stalks.  There are two types: whole green kernels and shelled kernels.  Whole green freka can be purchased in Middle Eastern stores… As with bulgur, freka should be soaked in cold water for 10 minutes before cooking…”  The Wikipedia entry on freekeh gives more detailed information as to how it’s produced. (Personally though, I love the succinct description on the package I bought: “Roasted Baby Wheat”- sounds a bit diabolical!)  The freekeh I purchased was the cracked or “shelled” variety, and it cooked up very quickly.  I think if you were using whole freekeh it would take 2-3 x as long.

Roasting gives freekeh a delightfully smoky flavor, which makes it really stand out in comparison to its cousin, bulghur.  If you enjoy smoked foods, you’ll really like freekeh- its scent reminds me of campfires and fall.  You can use it in soup, or cook it on its own as a side dish.  According to Bsisu, the finished texture should have a slight crunch or “pop” to it, like when you bite into sweet corn.  As you can see in the photo below, since it is not fully mature, freekeh has a slight greenish tint to it.

freekeh in dish 2

I first heard about this grain a few months ago from Warda of 64 Sq Ft Kitchen.  It’s a pretty obscure item, at least around here- I’ve shopped at several grocery stores specializing in Mid-East foods and had never seen or heard of it.  I finally came across some when the band took a trip out to Grand Rapids and we stopped to get sandwiches in a small Middle Eastern deli/grocery (The Pita House).  (Update: I have since found packaged whole freekeh at Gabriel Imports in the Eastern Market.) Once I found the freekeh, though, I still had trouble finding recipes- I looked in several Middle Eastern cookbooks and found only two or three mentions.*  I’m guessing this is because it’s more common in Palestine, Jordan and Syria, whereas many Middle Eastern cookbooks published for Westerners tend to focus on foods from Lebanon, Turkey, or Morocco.  I did find a recipe for Beef & Freekeh Soup (Shorbat Freka) in The Arab Table, which I will post about very soon posted about here!

*Note: I have since come across this website, which offers off-the-beaten-track recipes such as “Freekeh Yogurt and Zucchini Loaf” and “Crisp Freekeh Crab Cakes with Aioli”.  If anyone is brave, you can try them and let me know how they turn out.