The reign of grain

Meet freekeh: an ancient grain on the cusp of going mainstream.

In food as it is in fashion, everything old is new again. Only in the case of the ancient middle eastern grain freekeh, we're talking centuries old, not seasons. The ingredient has been popular for several hundred years in Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Egypt, and is now cropping up in American health food stores and progressive menus around the country.

Picked while green to retain nutrients, then rubbed and roasted for a nutty, smoky flavor, freekeh has twice the fiber of quinoa and three times that of brown rice (however unlike those grains, freekeh is a type of wheat and therefore contains gluten). Additionally, it's rich in iron, calcium, B vitamins, and is a good source of protein. "It's definitely a super grain," says Keri Glassman, RD and author of The New You and Improved Diet,who notes that it also contains carotenoids which prevent vision loss. "For the calories you're consuming (155 per quarter cup serving), you're getting a lot."

Glassman suggests swapping freekeh for your morning oatmeal, or try a more refined version by in-the-know chefs like Jenn Louis, a Food & Wine Best New Chef of 2012, who regularly features it on her menus at Lincoln and Sunshine Tavern in Portland, OR. "I love the flavor of freekeh," she says. "The immature wheat lends a green profile to the flavor, while the burning technique adds toastiness."

Want to make it yourself? Louis recommends cooking it like pasta. "When it's a little toothy but not crunchy or raw, strain and season it with olive oil and lemon juice." Then pair it like a pro. "The two opposites in freekeh —toasty and immature — are a wonderful flavor combination to pair with bright flavors like mint, lemon, parsley, and olives."

Louis' favorite freekeh recipe:

Freekeh with Costata Romanesco Squash, Mint and Egg
Serves 4

6 tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
2 large shallots, sliced thinly
3 cloves garlic, sliced thinly
2 anchovy filets
1½ medium costata romanesco squash, sliced into ¼ inch rounds
2 squash blossoms, stamen and stem removed- sliced into strips
8 mint leaves, chiffonade
1½ c. freekeh, cooked
6 chicken eggs
½ c. chicken stock
piment d’ espelette
maldon salt, for seasoning
3 tbsp. feta cheese, crumbled
extra virgin olive oil, for finishing

In a large sauté pan, heat olive oil over medium heat. Add shallot, garlic and anchovies. Mash anchovies into paste. Add squash and cook just until tender. Add blossoms and mint; stir to combine. Add freekeh and stock and season with piment d’ espelette and maldon salt. Crack eggs over freekeh mixture and cover. Over medium-low to medium heat, cook just until whites of eggs are set. Garnish with additional maldon salt, finishing with oil and feta cheese.