Category Archives: Rice and Grains

Shove Over Quinoa. There’s a Freakin’ Awesome New Grain in Town!

ready to eat 4 625 sqLast month, while travelling in Israel, I was served a mixed grains risotto. When I asked the chef what assortment of grains he used, he listed spelt, bulgur and freekeh. Because of his Israeli accent I thought I misheard the last grain and asked him to repeat it. It sounded like he was saying freaking. Finally, he wrote it down for me. FREEKEH.boxHe explained that Freekeh is made from young durum wheat. The wheat is harvested while the grains are still young and soft and green. Next, the grains are piled up into big hills and allowed to dry out in the sun. Now, here’s where it gets bizarre. After they are dried, they set fire to the piles and actually burn them! In the burning process they are careful to only let the straw and chaff burn but not the seeds. The high moisture content of the seeds prevents them from burning. Finally, the burned wheat kernels are rubbed to remove the charred bits and ensure that the flavour, texture and colour are perfect.

It turns out that freekeh is nothing new. Its roots can be traced back over 2000 years, to Biblical times. Just like chocolate chip cookies, champagne, potato chips and popsicles, freekeh was also born serendipitously.

Once upon a time, some 2000 years ago, unrest in the Middle East was still brewing. A tiny Middle-East village was attacked and their field of green wheat was set on fire. These villagers were quite resourceful, and rather than chuck the whole lot, they rubbed off the burnt chaff to see if they could salvage the inner seed. They cooked it up and were thrilled to discover that the charred grain was good. In fact, it was delicious! They called it “farikeh” (from the root work farik) which means rubbing in Arabic. Slightly smoky, earthy and nutty in flavour with a firm chewy texture, they were instantly smitten.

Freekeh has been a mainstay in Middle Eastern cuisines ever since. North Americans are just now discovering and loving it. Aside from the great taste and texture, freekeh is a nutritional powerhouse. It has 4 times the fibre of brown rice, more protein than mature wheat and is an excellent source of probiotics. Rich in iron, zinc, potassium and calcium, I am predicting that freekeh will soon dethrone quinoa and become the new “it” super-grain. Well, I am hoping it will! My feelings about quinoa are no secret.

I was very excited to start creating with freekeh once I got home from my trip. I was sure I was going to have to order freekeh on-line, since I was convinced that it had not made its way to Ottawa yet. But I was pleasantly surprised to find boxes of it on the shelf of Bulk Barn. I also noticed that Wal-Mart is carrying it as well!

With the markets overflowing with gorgeous tomatoes and corn, I got to work. 1 cup of freekeh will absorb about 2 ½ cups of liquid. I added about ½ teaspoon of salt to the water. The firm texture and nutty, slightly smoky flavour of freekeh was a perfect compliment to the sweet corn, tart tomatoes and salty olives and feta.corntomatoesThe firm texture and nutty, slightly smoky flavour of freekeh was a perfect compliment to the sweet corn, tart tomatoes and salty olives and feta.

pitting olives 1pitting olives 2

I made a lemon-garlic vinaigrette to dress the salad with. I am thrilled with my new Mason jar lids. I discovered them lids on delish general store, a Vancouver web site. Made of plastic, they allow you to shake and pour the dressing without getting that gunky residue and rusting that ultimately occurs with metal Mason jar lids. I always found it irritating that when you screwed the lid back on, the dressing leaked down the sides of the jar. (Note to my husband: add that one to my long list of things that irritate me!) No leaking and dripping. Sometimes it’s the little things that make you so happy.jarsFor photographing, I sliced up the feta, but feel free to crumble it into your salad. I took a small bite to taste for seasoning. The balance of texture and flavours was in perfect harmony. Chewy, nutty, and slightly smoky freekeh, sweet crunchy corn, creamy salty feta, briny olives, fresh sweet-tart tomatoes and a bite of heat from some diced jalapeno and a fresh note with some basil from the garden. The whole thing was topped off with a lemon garlic dressing. It was freaking perfection.ready to eat 3 625 sqYou could add a can of white beans or chickpeas for extra protein. My sister says that chickpeas make everything better. Toasted pine nuts added just before serving would also add a great little crunch. This fall I am going to make it with diced roasted squash, cauliflower and raisins and a pinch of cumin.

Click here to print recipe for Freekeh Salad with Lemon Garlic Vinaigrette.

I think freekeh would be a wonderful substitute for barley in mushroom barley soup. It would be yummy stuffed into peppers or squash, or cooked pilaf style with dried cherries and pistachios! The possibilities are endless. Let me know what you create with it.

Springtime Farro Salad and Delusion

625 sqI wish this was the blog post that told you how much I have always hated quinoa, that is until I tried “this” salad. Then I would go on to swear that even if you too are a quinoa hater, this one recipe will change all that and you may now join the righteous and good quinoa lovers of the world. But sadly, this is not the case. I have tried this salad, this one, and that one too. I have not tried it all these ways, but I do believe I have given it a fair shake, and I just don’t like it. It tastes like like a toxic combination of sand and gravel to me. I can’t deal with those tiny grains. They just mush all together in my mouth. There is no chew to them.

The first time I tried quinoa, no one told me that Mother Nature, in all her infinite wisdom, created a bitter coating of saponins over each grain so that the birds would not eat it all up. It needs to be rinsed before cooking. Apparently I am not on Mother Nature’s mailing list so we ended up having to throw dinner in the garbage that night.

I really do want to like quinoa. It has been given the prestigious title of “Superfood”, given it’s incredibly high nutritional value. It is a source of complete protein, a good source of fibre, phosphorous, magnesium, iron and calcium. I just can’t stand it, so I do the next best thing to eating it. I choose a different grain to substitute in all those salads and delude myself into thinking that it has just as much nutritional value as quinoa. Hey, it works for me. I am excellent at deluding myself about all kinds of things.

Lately my grain of choice has been farro. I have written about farro here and here.

I know it’s almost summer, but the Farmer’s Market, where I live, has not gotten the memo yet. Radishes, spring onions and mint are about the only local veggies to have bravely popped their heads out of the recently frozen earth. So a Springtime Salad it is. This gorgeous salad is the creation of Eric Vellend, food editor at Canadian House and Home magazine. You could substitute barley, wheat berries or even, dare I say it, quinoa. Hey I won’t judge.radishes

green onionsI adore the hefty chew that farro brings to this dish. The sugar snap peas, barely blanched add sweetness and crunch. The radishes and green onion add a balancing bitterness and sharp bite to the nutty farro. Mint and lemon add the final notes of freshness.sugar snaps

spooning saladClick here to print recipe for Springtime Farro Salad.

 

 

Tuxedo Orzo Salad

This is a cautionary tale told to warn you about the dangers of shopping without your reading glasses. It is dark and scary! (Not really!) If you are blessed with 20/20 vision or are under the age of 40, you may just want to skip the first part of this post. Otherwise, you will be shaking your head and wondering what this crazy old lady is rambling on about.

Growing up, I had always had perfect vision. My dad was an optometrist and of course, I always wanted to wear glasses. I would go to his office and try on different frames, imagining the various personalities that went with each pair. When I turned 40, I noticed that I could no longer read the directions on the back of over-the-counter medicines. Just a word to the wise, do not assume that the package says Tylenol nighttime when your kids wake up sick in the middle of the night. Without my glasses on I was never quite sure if I was giving them nighttime or daytime. If I accidentally gave them the daytime, it became quite obvious within 20 minutes of swallowing the medicine, and I would pay the price for my deteriorating vision.

Eventually, I did go see an optometrist. The beginning of my failing eyesight coincided with my dad’s death. It felt so disloyal to visit another optometrist, that I put it off for as long as I could. When I finally went, I was prescribed mild reading glasses and he told me I could just get by with a drugstore pair. Not a chance! I spent the better part of the afternoon at his office, trying on almost every pair of frames in his office, driving the poor assistant there crazy, I’m sure. I chose a racy red pair of reading glasses that I was convinced portrayed me as intelligent, creative, slightly quirky and someone with who is comfortable in her own skin and does not worry about what others think. A lot to ask from one pair of glasses, to be sure! I really only needed them for very small print, but I pulled them on at every opportunity.

Fast forward several years and with each passing year, my vision has continued to spiral downward. My optometrist has assured me that it’s a normal part of aging. However, I now need my glasses to read everything. I have my Blackberry set at the biggest font size, and I still need my glasses to read e-mails and texts. Yes, I still have a Blackberry! I like to think that it was Blackberry that taught the world to type with their thumbs. Way to go Canadian innovators. I have tried the iPhone but I can not seem to get the hang of that touch screen. I am all thumbs when it comes to using it. Yet, I digress, sorry about that!

I now have about 12 pairs of reading glasses scattered throughout the house, in my car and in my purse. I find it such a pain to have to put them on to read a recipe, take them off to cook or take pictures of what I am cooking. I am forever lamenting that I can’t find my glasses. My daughter really wants me to buy one of those chains you put around your neck to hold the glasses, so you don’t lose them. I have managed to hold off so far, because, really, they just announce that you are a woman of a certain age, and I’m just not ready to be that woman yet. So until Marni or Miu Miu come up with a chain that conveys to everyone that I am intelligent, creative and slightly quirky, I will pass.

Last week I was at the supermarket, wandering up the grains and rice aisle, when I spotted a beautiful box. I picked it up and the bright yellow large font announced itself to be Tuxedo Orzo. Pretty little grains of black and white orzo. I had to buy a box and make something fantastic with it. I never read the fine print on the box because I couldn’t be bothered to take out my glasses.

When I got home I rummaged through the fridge and pantry and began creating a Tuxedo Orzo Salad.

The contrasting textures and tastes in this salad are fantastic. The grains of orzo are slightly chewy, the pine nuts are crunchy and the buffalo mozzarella is creamy. The sweetness of the corn and peas play off so well against the bitter arugula. Bathed in a fresh lemon-garlic olive oil dressing, this salad is addictive. I made it for my family and the huge bowl disappeared very quickly.

The following week, my girlfriends were visiting at the cottage and I made the salad a second time for them for lunch. As we were inhaling the salad and oohing and aahing over the pretty black and white grains of orzo, one friend asked how they made the orzo black. I pulled out the box and slipped on my reading glasses and was horrified to discover that it was dyed with cuttlefish ink. We keep a kosher home and cuttlefish is a member of the squid family and is definitely not kosher. Oops!

I will certainly be making this salad again, but with white orzo only! It is a great salad to use up all the little odds and ends you have in the fridge and pantry. I think it would be wonderful with almonds, asparagus and parmesan in the spring or cooked butternut squash, hazelnuts and diced apples in the fall.

Click here to print the recipe for Tuxedo Orzo Salad.

The Best Thing I Ate Today in Umbria Day 8

This morning, after breakfast, we headed out in the mini-bus and were dropped off about an hour’s hike away from the town of Pitigliano. This little hillside town, south of Florence, on the Tuscan border, has a fascinating Jewish history. Our guide for the day was a young woman named Elisabetta. She grew up in Pitigliano as a history and archaeology scholar. She also runs the local library in Pitigliano. As we hiked into town, she gave us a brief history of Pitigliano.

Jews began settling in Pitigliano in the 15th Century. The Jewish population continued to grow as more Jews were forced out of Rome because of Pope Paul IV’s segregation policies, requiring Jews to live in ghettos. Pitigliano was an attractive place to settle for many Jews because it was not part of the papal state and was an independent province, ruled at the time by the Orsini family. The Orsini’s social policy was quite laissez-faire and the Jews were permitted to live a freer lifestyle. A synagogue was built in 1598, followed by the construction of a school. Jews were permitted to set up their own businesses as carpenters, tailors, weavers, shoemakers and moneylenders. The city soon became known as La Piccola Gerusalemme or “Little Jerusalem.”

Over the next several hundred years, depending on who was in power, the fortunes of the Jews of Pitigliano either waxed or waned. However, despite restrictions during various periods, the Jewish community continued to grow and prosper.  In the mid 1800’s the Jewish population of Pitigliano reached almost 400 people, which represented over 10% of the total population.

After the unification of Italy in 1861, the Jewish population of Pitigliano began to decline. Many Jews moved to larger cities nearby for economic reasons.  By 1931, there were only 70 Jews left living there.  Anti-Semitism was rampant by 1936 and then in 1938 racial laws were instituted. During the Holocaust, the brave Christian people of Pitigliano risked their lives to hide and save Jews that were escaping from the Nazi terror. They hid them on farms in the valleys and in caves up in the hills.

After the war, only 30 Jews returned to Pitigliano. The synagogue had been damaged during the war. Today despite the fact that there are only 3 Jews left in Pitigliano, the Jewish cultural heritage has been preserved. The synagogue was rebuilt in 1995. One of those Jews is Elena Servi.  She is president of Associazione La Piccola Gerusalemme (The Association of Little Jerusalem), an organization made up of both Catholics and Jews. Elena and her nephew have made it their life’s mission to tell the story of the history of Pitigliano so that future generations can learn from it.

It is a beautiful story of cultural and religious co-existence, tolerance, compassion, respect, friendship and affection between Christians and Jews. The association has raised funds to restore and preserve all the Jewish monuments in the town, including the Synagogue, the “Forno di Asimo” (the Kosher oven) and the Jewish Cemetery. The citizens of this town honour the memory of the Jewish citizens that once thrived in this place. They feel strongly that it is important to remember and preserve the history and maintain these sites so that it will never be forgotten. It is a very moving tribute.

A beautiful web site, devoted to Pitigliano has been created by one very special man. Click HERE to check it out!

We went to see the Kosher oven where matzoh for Passover was baked so many years ago.

We had the privilege of meeting Signora Servi and she spoke to us about her experiences during the Holocaust. She and several members of her family left the town in November 1943 and were hidden away by farmers and peasants, outside of town, moving from one small farm to another, until June 1944. The last 3 months of hiding were spent in a cave under the protection and support of a local Christian farmer.

After meeting with Elena, Elisabetta took us over to an old wine cellar (Cantina Sociale) where we were served an incredible lunch.

Platters of food kept arriving at the table. Of course the requisite Pecorino cheese made an appearance. We had a 2-month old one which tasted very fresh and nutty and a 1-year-old one which was drier and had some straw undertones. Then they brought Stracchino, a mild soft white cow’s milk cheese to the table with 3 sauces (cactus, acacia honey and pear and pepper) to accompany it. The name of the cheese derives from the Italian word “stracca”, meaning “tired. It is said that the milk from tired cows coming down from the alpine pastures in the fall, is richer in fats and more acidic. These qualities were discovered, according to legend, in the milk of cows who were moved seasonally, up and down the Alps to different pastures. The milk of such cows gives the cheese its characteristic flavors. It has a mild milky flavour, similar to cream cheese but a bit more acidic, with just a hint of tartness. It just melts in your mouth. When paired with the sauces it became something different all together. I loved it best with the pear and pepper sauce.

The crostini with olive oil was unbelievable. I have never had an olive oil this fruity. The olive oil soaked into the toasted bread and softened it ever so slightly. There were two kinds of farro salads, both with chickpeas. The first had thinly sliced purple onion and was dressed simply with olive oil and sea salt. The second had tomatoes and basil and was also dressed with olive oil and sea salt. I could not get enough of these farro salads. My favourite eat of the day! The chewy nutty farro contrasting with the creamy chickpeas was an unbeatable combination. When I came home I created my own version of this, adding pickled shallots.

Click here to see the recipe for Farro and Chick Peas with Pickled Shallots.

Of course we were served kosher wine, produced by The Pitigliano Cooperative Cellars. It is sold in a winery just outside of town.

We finished with a wild cherry and sheep’s milk ricotta cheese pie.

After lunch we had a chance to tour the wine cellar.

Then it was time to visit the Synagogue.

Once inside the synagogue, one of our friends asked Elisabetta if it would be okay if he could lead our group in the mincha (afternoon prayer) service. To hear Hebrew being sung in this place was very emotional for all of us. This  town of mostly Christians wish to honour the memory of the Jewish citizens that once thrived in this place. They feel strongly that it is important to remember and preserve the history and maintain these sites so that it will never be forgotten. It is a very moving tribute that left me feeling very hopeful about a future when all religions can peacefully co-exist.

After we left the synagogue, we felt kind of drained of all our energy, but in a good way. We just wandered around the town, taking it all in. The buildings in this walled city are constructed out of the soft yellow volcanic rock, “tuff.” The cobblestone streets are narrow and the pride the residents take in their homes was beautiful to see.

We discovered that Italian cats like to dine on pasta,  elderly men in Pitigliano like to hang out in a group, outside on benches, just like elderly gentlemen all over the world and my friend Philip discovered that the women of Pitigliano are incredible flirts.

Stay tuned for Day 9 when we become totally shallow, abandon all interest in culture and history and visit the Italian outlet malls!

Wheat Berry Salad

 

 

Like most of you, I suspect, I sometimes fall into a rut and eat the same things over and over again. It’s just easier that way sometimes. But, this year I have decided to try cooking with a new grain every month. Sort of expand my culinary horizons. However, that goal kind of runs counter to a second goal of mine, to eat my way through my pantry, without buying any new staples.

I was inspired in this second goal by a good friend. Last time I visited her at the cottage she shared with me, that for the month of August, she was planning to empty out her pantry. On days when she had company, everyone usually gathered on the dock around 5 pm for drinks. Instead of agonizing over what to serve with drinks, she would just use whatever she found in her pantry cupboard. One day, she confessed, she opened up a can of chickpeas, rinsed and drained them and served them with a sprinkling of black pepper. Along side this she served some dried apricots she spied lounging at the back of the shelf in a plastic bag. Apparently these offerings were gobbled up quite happily with a glass of chilled Prosecco.

So here I was with the good angel on one shoulder, whispering in my ear, “Come on, clean out the pantry. You have 5 different kinds of grains here. Eat us!”. On the other shoulder I had the devil, tempting me to be wasteful and go out and seek a new grain.  Most of you know I have very little willpower, so it should come as no surprise to you that I went out and bought some wheat berries. I had never cooked with them before and a recipe by Globe and Mail nutrition reporter, Leslie Beck, caught my eye.

Wheat berries are essentially whole unprocessed wheat kernels, containing all three parts of the grain (germ, bran and endosperm). Only the hull is removed. They sort of look like barley but have 75% more protein and 40% more fibre than barley. All in all, a nutritional powerhouse.  Wheat berries need to be rinsed and then they are cooked in simmering water, about a 2:1 ratio, like rice. They take about 40 minutes to cook and have a wonderful nutty taste and chewy toothsome texture. I added some french green beans to the original recipe as I happened to have some wilting in my fridge!

The other ingredients are arugula, pomegranate seeds and diced red apples. The dressing is made from olive oil, cider vinegar, apple juice, maple syrup and grainy mustard.

Chewy, crunchy, tangy and sweet. And healthy too! Feel free to substitute whatever grain you have languishing on the shelf of your pantry. This would be great with Farro as well.

To print the recipe, click here.