Tag Archives: Trader Joe’s

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.

mediterranean chickpea salad (aka balela, my way)

med chickpea saladThe other day I was catching up a little on my blog reading, and came across something on a very well-known food blog that kind of blew me away.  It was a recipe for a pepper salad, and was basically just red & yellow peppers, red onion, feta and cucumber.  The kind of thing that I throw together without thinking twice; not the kind of dish I would deem “blog-worthy”.  There was no cute story with it; just the recipe and a bit about how the author had stopped eating salads with lettuce.  But there, underneath the post, were close to 150 comments saying how great it was, and how people were dropping everything to rush to the store to make this salad.  I have to say, I was flabbergasted.  Really?!?

Reading this person’s post, it jolted me back to the reality that many people (possibly even the majority?) who regularly read food blogs and watch the Food Network rarely cook! All those commenters that said stuff like “Wow, that looks so delicious”…?  I would bet money that less than 5% of them go on to actually prepare the recipe.  (I guess this isn’t so strange if you think about, for example,  all the people who read fashion magazines but don’t dress fashionably.)

So what does this have to do with balela? (Huh?  Remember that… the title of this post? Oh yeah…)  Well, I made some a few weeks ago (or rather, my interpretation of it), and even took a couple photos, but never posted it because I didn’t think it was “fancy” enough or something.  Clearly, I am out of touch with what the blog-reading public wants!   I guess the moral of the story is that  instead of trying to second-guess what people may want to read about, I should just post whatever I feel like?

Trader Joe’s sells balela in little plastic tubs, but the portion they sell amounts to about one whole serving, and it’s easy and much cheaper to make yourself.  As I’ve mentioned before, I’m a big fan of making big batches of grain or legume-based salads to take in my lunch.  They’re also good potluck fare- this one was for the Memorial Day BBQ I went to (the one with the grilled pizza).  My version isn’t “authentic” balela in any way, as I added some extra veggies (peppers, cucumbers), but I like the extra crunch they add.  The dressing is inspired by the dressing for fattoush and can be used in any salad where you want Middle Eastern flavors.

Mediterranean Chickpea Salad (aka Balela, my way) (printer-friendly version)

1 can chickpeas & 1 can black beans (or two cans chickpeas), drained & rinsed
1 pint grape or cherry tomatoes, halved or quartered
1/2 an English cucumber, peeled, seeds removed and diced
1/2 a small red onion, diced, or 3-5 scallions, thinly sliced
1/2 red or green bell pepper, diced
1 good handful flat-leaf parsley leaves, minced

salad dressing shakenDressing:
1/4 cup olive oil
2 tbs fresh lemon juice
1 large clove garlic
1 tsp za’atar
1/2 tsp sumac
1/2 tsp salt
several grinds black pepper

Notes: I use grape tomatoes because they’re more reliable year-round, but if you have good-quality regular tomatoes, go ahead and use them.  This salad is excellent with a bit of feta crumbled into it- I don’t believe it’s traditional, but it makes it a little more substantial and adds a welcome texture and richness to the austerity of raw vegetables.  If you can’t be bothered with the za’atar and sumac, the salad will still be good without them- I threw them in because I happened to have some handy. And if you’re inclined to use a whole lemon, just sick with a 1:2 ratio of lemon to oil and up the seasonings a bit; if you have leftover dressing it’ll keep indefinitely in the fridge, and is great on green salad too.

Directions: Combine all of the vegetables in a large bowl.  Smash the garlic clove with the flat side of a chef’s knife.  Place in a small screw-top jar with the other dressing ingredients and shake well.  Let the garlic clove marinate in the dressing for 5-10 minutes and then fish it out and discard. Pour the dressing over the salad and stir well to combine.  Taste and adjust for salt and pepper, or for more oil or lemon juice according to your taste.  (It will almost definitely need more salt, but I’d rather err on the side of you having to add some.) Let the salad sit for at least 15-20 minutes to let the vegetables marinate and release some of their juices. Taste again and add more salt or dressing if needed.  If not serving immediately, wait until serving to add the parsley. For best flavor, serve at room temp or only slightly chilled.

veggie masala patties with indian goddess dressing


Sometimes I have this conversation with myself while pushing my cart down the frozen foods aisle at Trader Joe’s that goes something like this: “I should grab just a couple things for the nights I have rehearsal, or to take in my lunch…”  “But if I buy this stuff, I’ll be less motivated to make food from scratch…”  “But then I might just get lazy anyway and get carry-out, which is worse and more expensive…” I usually end up compromising and buying a couple items but promising myself I’ll only use them for “emergencies”.  As much as I would love to be virtuous and cook fresh food every day, with a full time job as well as band practice and other obligations, it just ain’t gonna happen. However, when I do have to rely on shortcuts such as frozen food, I try to incorporate some other element to snazz it up a bit and make it my own.


Case in point: I recently discovered these really yummy vegetable patties from Trader Joe’s called Veggie Masala Burgers. The flavor of the patties is somewhat like vegetable samosa filling. They’re not really quite “veggie burgers” in my book; they don’t have the same texture (potatoes being the main ingredient, they’re too soft and mushy for my taste to eat between a bun). However, I do love to fry them up and then either eat them as an open-faced sandwich on well-toasted wheat bread, or cut them into small pieces and put them in a salad. My favorite veggies to go with this would be shredded carrot, cucumber, and cherry or grape tomatoes.

To drizzle over it all, I make a homemade salad dressing out of yogurt, olive oil, lemon, herbs and spices. This dressing is delicious AND has the added benefit of being healthier than most. I’m calling it Indian Goddess Dressing because the color reminds me of Green Goddess but the flavors are straight from India. I realize I may be leaving some people out in the cold here who don’t have a Trader Joe’s near them (or who aren’t into buying frozen prepared food), but the dressing alone is worth trying, especially to go on a green salad if you’re having other Indian food for supper.

Indian Goddess Dressing

(printer-friendly version)

This dressing takes its inspiration from the wonderful green cilantro chutney served at many Indian restaurants.


1/4 cup plain yogurt
2 tbs olive oil
1 cup loosely packed cilantro leaves (tender stems are ok too if you’re using the food processor)
optional if you have any: 5-10 mint leaves
optional: 1 clove garlic
1/2 tsp curry powder
generous pinch of coarse salt
a few grinds of black pepper
1 tbs lemon juice
a pinch of sugar

If you are using the garlic, smash it with the flat part of a knife and put it in the olive oil for 5-10 minutes to infuse its flavor while you’re getting the cilantro ready. Remove the garlic and discard before proceeding. (I do enjoy garlic, but I feel that leaving it in would overpower the more delicate flavor of the herbs here.)

Place all ingredients in a blender or food processor and process until the herbs are reduced to flecks. Alternately, if you don’t have a processor, whisk together everything but the herbs in a bowl. Mince the herbs as finely as possible and stir them into the dressing. Taste for seasoning and adjust as necessary by adding more salt, sugar or lemon. Makes enough for two large dinner salads.

Simple Indian Dressing (for when you don’t have any fresh herbs in the house): Whisk together yogurt, oil, lemon juice and seasonings. You may want to slightly reduce the quantity of curry powder in this version.