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Great Grains Grown Here: Freekeh

Libby Wiersema Libby Wiersema
Libby Wiersema lived in California and Alabama before settling in South Carolina 35 years ago, where she's covered the state's best culinary offerings and tells the stories behind the food.
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First things first: What in the world is “freekeh?”

We are glad you asked. While the name (pronounced “FREE-kah”) seems to lean more toward the offbeat than the food beat, this is far from the case. In fact, do not be surprised if “freekeh” becomes part of your regular culinary lexicon.

Simply put, freekeh is roasted young wheat with origins dating back to pre-biblical times—all the way back to ancient Egypt and Lebanon, Jordan and Syria. According to the Oldways Whole Grain Council, it is thought that people living in an Eastern Mediterranean city in 2300 B.C. feared they were about to be attacked. Though they took measures to save their underripe wheat crop by harvesting it early, the city was fired upon, and the stored crop was burned. Much to the people’s surprise, however, the results were delicious.

“Freekeh” comes from an Arabic word meaning “to rub,” as the chaff of the parched and roasted grain is rubbed off. The name refers to a process rather than the grain itself: wheat. Once the chaff is rubbed away, the wheat heads or “berries” are revealed. They are brown with a tinge of green and make for a delicious hot cereal as well as a foundation for vegetable salads, an addition to soups and casseroles, or as a pilaf to which you can add whatever suits. Because the wheat is harvested while young, its nutritional integrity is maintained. It is high in protein and fiber, and low in carbohydrates with a low glycemic index, too. Because it is wheat, it is not gluten free—something to keep in mind for those with gluten issues.

In the Mediterranean crescent, this grain is so beloved that its harvest symbolizes a new season of abundance that is joyfully celebrated. Freekeh’s smoky, nutty, chewy profile delivers notable taste and texture satisfaction. One bite and you, too, might be moved to carry on the ritual of giving thanks for this ancient, nourishing food.

South Carolinians, in particular, may feel like the grain gods are smiling upon them as locally grown freekeh is a reality thanks to Marsh Hen Mill. The Johnsman family includes it among the heirloom crops they grow on Edisto Island. Stop by their roadside market at the farm (or shop online) and snag a bag or two along with some of the best grits, peas, farro and meal you’ll find anywhere.

While whole freekeh takes about 45 to 50 minutes to cook, cracked varieties like the one from Marsh Hen Mill take half the time. Prepare it just as you would rice—about 1 cup of freekeh to 2 ½ cups of water. Bring the water to a boil, add the grain, reduce heat, cover and simmer for about 20 minutes. Fluff with a fork, season and serve or add to your favorite recipe.

Get Marsh Hen Mill’s Butternut Freekeh recipe, a warm and vibrant dish that sets off all the best aspects of this truly great grain grown right here.

Libby Wiersema
Libby Wiersema lived in California and Alabama before settling in South Carolina 35 years ago, where she's covered the state's best culinary offerings and tells the stories behind the food.