Get Your Freekeh On!
What’s all this talk about trendy grains lately? Over the last couple of years, we’ve seen a surge in the popularity of quinoa, a nutty, protein-rich grain indigenous to South and Central America. Foodies and non-foodies alike have embraced this grain into their homes and bellies. But nowadays, quinoa is old news. There are other grains in town, ready to take over your supermarkets and dinner tables…and judging by the healthy punch these little guys are packing, you should definitely welcome them with open arms.
First up on the list of suspects is bulgur. Bulgur, a Middle Eastern grain that is high in fiber and protein, is the result of steaming, drying, and crushing wheat kernels. It is available as a coarse, medium, or fine grind and, depending on the grind chosen, is often used as replacement for rice, meat, or corn. Its popularity derives from the fact that it takes mere minutes to cook and offers up a plethora of health benefits without the high calorie and fat content of more typical protein sources like meat, making it a great staple in a vegan or vegetarian diet as well.
In addition to fiber and protein, bulgur is also packed with b-vitamin and iron and has very minimal processing, making it an attractive grain for those who still want to enjoy the pleasures of pilafs, stuffings, and burgers, but without the guilt. Registered Dietitian and nutritionist Wendy Jo Peterson says she regularly recommends her clients use these grains, stating “I often encourage clients to mix their grain and seed choices up to reap the benefits of the variety versus more typical starches like rice, potatoes, bread, and pasta,” reiterating that bulgur is a good substitute for these starches because it provides a healthier source of fiber and protein.
Another new grain to begin hitting the markets is freekeh! Despite how it sounds, that is not an insult. Freekeh is wheat that has been harvested while the grains are still young and green, and are then roasted and rubbed together. Popular in Middle Eastern cuisine, freekeh has been called a “superfood” because, in addition to its high protein and fiber content (boasting 3 times more fiber than brown rice and twice more than quinoa), it has a low reading on the glycemic index, making it a food that is useful in the prevention and management of type 2 diabetes, as noted by the findings of CSIRO (Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization) in their Greenwheat Freekeh report of 2003. Research further shows that, unlike other wheats that are harvested when they are mature, freekeh is harvested young, allowing the grain to retain more of its nutrients.
Peterson, co-author of Mediterranean Diet Cookbook for Dummies, says that freekeh is newer to the markets than bulgur and not quite as mainstream, but because she often eats and shops in Mediterranean/Middle Eastern markets, she herself uses and sees these grains often and recommends them when she can.
Personally being of Palestinian descent, both bulgur and freekeh were staples in my household. I grew up on cuisines like tabbouleh, (a salad made with bulgur, fresh lime juice, cucumbers, tomatoes, and onions), freekeh soup (a soup consisting of freekeh and chicken broth), and kanabeet (collard greens stuffed with bulgur and chickpeas). Having eaten these grains my whole life, it is exciting to see them gaining mass appeal and slowly becoming more readily available in mainstream markets. These new grains, dubbed by Peterson as the “new quinoa of 2014,” offer fulfilling and healthy substitutes for typical starches and proteins, without a side of fat and guilt. So go ahead, get your freekeh on! Your body will thank you for it.
Ronia Abdelrahman loves trying new restaurants around Chicago. She is a big fan of coffee, T-shirts with witty sayings, and sad songs. She also falls down a lot. It’s best to pretend you didn’t notice.