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Food and Drinks

Super Freekeh

How a local foodie spurred a new grain craze

Photo: Courtesy Bonnie Matthews, License: N/A

Courtesy Bonnie Matthews

Bonnie matthews before (left) and after getting her freekeh on


Every few years, health-conscious foodies go giddy over a new grain—or rather, an old one. Farro, teff, kamut, amaranth, and that hippie potluck favorite, quinoa, have all had their day in the sun. The current candidate for stardom, still not quite an A-lister but perhaps on its way, is an ancient Middle Eastern grain known as freekeh.

The Atlantic, The Huffington Post, and The Wall Street Journal have all written about it. A number of famous chefs, including Jamie Oliver, have endorsed it. Yet until recently, Baltimoreans with a yen for freekeh had to scour small ethnic markets to find it. (We’ve seen it at Stolichny European Deli in Pikesville, for one.) But as of this past summer, due to the freekeh fixation of a former Baltimorean named Bonnie Matthews, the grain is now available locally and nationally in numerous chain groceries, including Wegmans, Mom’s Organic Market, and Whole Foods.

The term “freekeh” refers to a process. A grain—spelt, barley, or most often, durum wheat—is roasted while immature and green, when the seeds are still soft. Traditionally the wheat is dried in piles and then set ablaze; only the straw and chaff burn, as the seeds are still moist and young. The grain retains a smoky flavor from its fiery beginnings and has a chewy texture reminiscent of steel-cut oats. It is eaten throughout the Middle East as well as parts of North Africa. In Egypt, pigeons are stuffed with freekeh; in Turkey, freekeh pilafs are popular; in Tunisia, it is sometimes eaten with bone marrow.

In this country, freekeh is often used as a rice substitute, as it is equally easy to prepare and much higher in protein and fiber. It’s also pretty tasty. This writer recently downed a delicious batch for breakfast, cooked with almond milk, vanilla extract, cinnamon, and butter, and topped with dried fruit and yogurt. The recipe came from Matthews’ new down-home, spiral-bound cookbook, titled 30 Ways to Freekeh! (available at freekeh-foods.com).

Matthews first discovered freekeh after taking on a new job back in 2008. With the downturn in the economy, the bubbly 40-something children’s book illustrator needed to supplement her income. So she became a demo person at Trader Joe’s in Pikesville. At the time, she weighed 265 pounds. “Almost everyone in my family had either had a massive stroke, aneurysm, or heart attack,” she says. “So I decided, alright, I’m not going to tell anyone what I’m doing but I’m going to start eating a little better.” Matthews began cooking healthy food at her demo station, mostly so she could stick to her diet at work.

One day a vacuum bag of cooked freekeh, imported from Australia by Trader Joe’s, appeared on the shelves. “And I’m like, What is this? The name is so funny, you know?” Matthews says. She began experimenting with it and, because of its pleasing texture and health benefits, ended up making it a cornerstone of her diet, eating it on average four times a week. She eventually lost 130 pounds (with a good deal of exercise, too, she hastens to add). Then, in a fit of inspiration, she pitched her story to Oprah through oprah.com. Four days later, improbably, Matthews received a call from the Dr. Oz Show, which is co-produced by Oprah Winfrey’s Harpo Productions. A whirlwind taping focusing on Matthews’ personal story as well as her weight loss tips followed; Dr. Oz subsequently dubbed Matthews a “Wellness Warrior,” an online mentor to others trying to lose weight.

Once the show finally aired—four months after taping—Matthews’ inbox was flooded. “All these people e-mailed me through that and said ‘Where do you get that grain you were talking about?’” she says. By that time, according to Matthews, Trader Joe’s had stopped carrying freekeh. So Matthews decided to take matters into her own hands. And last year, after months of research and a few false starts, she moved to Minneapolis to co-found Freekeh Foods with a fellow fan, Troy De Smet. “We have this killer cool farmer,” she says of the company’s California grower. “He’s, like, really passionate.”

Matthews hopes to spin her weight-loss story and her television exposure to the company’s benefit. She was working at Trader Joe’s when quinoa appeared on the shelves and remembers its rapid rise to stardom. “Nobody had even heard of it. No one knew how to pronounce it,” she says. Then an article on quinoa appeared in The New York Times and the staff was besieged with requests for the formerly obscure grain. Perhaps, Matthews says, freekeh will be next.

“From a culinary standpoint,” she says, “it’s a much more interesting vehicle to me than quinoa, which is kind of blah. . . . People are ready for something new. Quinoa was a big splash and they’re looking for the next big thing.”

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