© Mouneh 2010
Freekeh can be cooked in many ways. As a substitute for burghul or rice, it accompanies recipes made with beef, chicken, lamb and lately even seafood. It can make flavorful stuffing for vegetables like zucchini, eggplant, and grape leaves. Freekeh can also be an interesting ingredient cooked in soups. Combined with fresh vegetables, it is often mixed in different types of salads. Experimentation with freekeh has also led to interesting and delicious breads. Roasted green wheat is certainly gaining recognition in homes around the country and from chefs worldwide. With the increase in the number of vegetarians, freekeh is popular among those who savor its roasted smoky flavor, suggesting the taste of smoked meats.
To make freekeh, the green wheat stalks are harvested when the wheat is between the milk and soft dough stage. With experience, the farmer knows exactly when to pick the wheat. If the wheat is picked too early, the grains collapse. If it is picked too late, the grains will not have their distinctive green color. The wheat is harvested by mowing the stand down with a sickle bar or a mower. It is then gathered into bunches in a big pile and tied into tight bundles. The wheat is dried for 2 to 4 hours before being roasted in the fields over an open wood or charcoal fire made with dry bunches of a thorny bush called ballan. Ballan is used to smoke the freekeh because it produces a small amount of ash when it burns, dying down after a few minutes. Its use is said to reduce contamination of the wheat. The burning lasts for 10 to 15 minutes, until a characteristic popping sound is made. Here again, the farmer’s experience is essential. Wind velocity and actual site position is taken into consideration to ensure uniform roasting.
When the wheat is finally roasted, a wire mesh frame is set up, usually made up of an old bedspring. The wheat is thrown in bunches on the bedspring and beaten with a small broom to rid it of impurities, debris, and undesirable black ash. The wheat bunches are gathered from the wire mesh and carefully stored to dry for a couple of days. The heads are collected in large bags and taken to a mill where the grain will be separated from the chaff. In the past, this was done by flailing the wheat with wooden poles. Today, the operation is done through a threshing machine. The threshed grains are later left to dry on clean dry surface in a shaded area for a couple of days or weeks depending on the weather. When the grains are completely dry, they are scrupulously checked for remaining debris; this is where you can differentiate the quality of the freekeh purchased from one producer to another. The grains are kept whole or coarsely ground to be packed into neat storage bags. Before freekeh is used for cooking, it is usually soaked overnight to reduce the amount of cooking time.