Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Ancient Grains Salad -- Freekeh

Are you acquainted with freekeh (pronounced free-kah)?  

Freekeh is an old grain.  Really, really old.  We're talking ancient Egypt.

A quick but interesting freekeh history:
'The story goes that in 2300 B.C., a nation in the Eastern Mediterranean was anticipating an attack on their city. Worried about losing their crops and starving, they picked the green heads of wheat and stored them. When the city came under fire, the green wheat was burnt. The people discovered that, when rubbed, the green grains inside were still fit to eat. In the ancient Aramaic language freekeh means ‘to rub.’ Now we know that this process also confers many nutritional benefits.'

Freekeh is wheat based and, so, yes, it contains the forbidden, dare I say, gluten.  Freekeh is harvested when young and green, which allows it to maintain more of its vitamins, minerals and protein than in its mature form, and then roasted,  I particularly like its toasty, nutty flavors.

I made this freekeh salad while in Ireland earlier this year, but never got around to posting it. Stumbled upon freekeh at my favorite neighborhood grocery store/wine bar in Dublin, Fallon & Byrne.

Unfortunately, have not been able to track down freekeh in the D.C. area.  I've made the rounds to all the usual grocery stores.  Am thinking that a trek to a couple of Middle Eastern markets in the suburbs may be required.

Darn, should have brought a few bags of freekeh home with me from Dublin; although, not sure I would have had room, as my bag was already WAY over the weight limit.  Ended up paying the extra baggage fee for all my treasures I accumulated during my three-month stay -- including the blue and white dish (pictured above) and the cutting board (pictured below), the latter made from a fallen horse chestnut tree.

Here's a good article in the Washington Post I recently stumbled upon: 'How to shop in a Middle Eastern market.'  The article includes a list of places at which to seek out ingredients (for those of you in the D.C. area).  Fingers crossed that one of these places stocks freekeh.

In place of freekeh, you could use wheat berries, kamut, farro, spelt berries, a coarse bulgur, etc.

This is sorrel...

I also added sorrel to my freekeh salad.  Sorrel is a really interesting plant.  It's in the knotwood family, along with rhubarb and buckwheat.  Sorrel resembles spinach, but has a taste all its own. When you take a bite, it hits you with an unexpected tart, lemony flavor.  Keep your eyes open for sorrel at your local farmers' market.

If you can't find sorrel, substitute another green.  Purslane (a common edible weed) would be a wonderful stand-in for sorrel.  Purslane shares some of sorrel's lemony, citrus qualities.  Or, you could go an entirely different route, for example, with a peppery arugula or bitter dandelion green.

The salad is topped with a simple yogurt-lemon-garlic sauce and toasted, chopped pistachios for a bit of crunch.  Any number of toasted nuts would work (e.g., toasted almonds, walnuts, cashews, etc.).

Pomegranate seeds would also be a nice addition.  Some lemon zest or even preserved lemon zest would lend a welcome acidity to the salad.

Learn how to make preserved lemons here.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Seafood Chowder

Crisp autumn days call for comfort food.  As the leaves begin to fall, thoughts turn to nourishing soups and stews.  For me, comfort food is best enjoyed in the form of a big bowl of steaming hot seafood chowder.  Dishes like this truly soothe the soul.

This chowder was inspired by a trip to Ireland earlier this year.  Everywhere I went, there was some type of fish/seafood chowder on the menu.  And, I did my best to try as many as I could.  The ones that stood out were loaded with an assortment of (typically smoked) fish and/or seafood.  The broth, not too thick, but rather, smooth and creamy.

I dislike nothing more than ordering chowder at a restaurant that's heavy-handed with the potato and lacking in fish/seafood.  Of course, when you make chowder yourself, you're in the driver's seat. You have complete control over the type and amount of seafood.

I went heavy on the seafood -- smoked mussels and beautiful top neck clams -- no skimping in my kitchen.  I bought the mussels already smoked [Ducktrap River smoked mussels].  If you can't find smoked mussels, you could always substitute smoked fish (e.g, smoked salmon, mackerel), or add a bit of smoky bacon to your chowder (equally good). Whichever way you decide to go, I feel this chowder would be lacking without some kind of smoky component.

Aren't these clams a thing of beauty?

All you need to do is place the clams in a pot with a small amount of water (or white wine).  Cover and let them steam.  After a few minutes, the clams will pop open and voila, they're ready.  Chop them up and add to the chowder.  And, the great thing about clams is that they exude the most wonderful liquid, creating a broth reminiscent of the sea.

At it's core, this is a humble chowder.  A simple potato and leek soup elevated by the addition of seafood.

Be sure to clean your leeks well.  Leeks are magnets for grit and sand.

I used a generous amount of smoked mussels and chopped clams.

Sláinte Mhaith ("Good Health" in Irish)...

Friday, October 3, 2014

A Grilled Cheese for the Grown-Ups

I grew up in your typical American household, with your typical American diet (a child of the 70s/80s).  Frozen dinners?  Yep.  Processed food (including processed cheese)?  Yep.  Fluffy white bread?  Yep, plenty of that as well, not to mention marshmallow fluff, Swanson TV dinners, and various Entenmann's products.

Instead of the grilled cheese of my youth, I've sought to create an 'elevated' (for lack of a better term) grilled cheese -- let's call it a grilled cheese for the grown ups.  I've ditched the American cheese and Wonder bread (is that still around?), and replaced them with local, artisanal ingredients -- crusty bread and delicious, stinky cheese.

First, you'll need good bread, the foundation of any sandwich.  I used a levain from my favorite new bakery Bread Furst.  As for the fromage, used a local Virginia cheese (Grayson Meadow Creek) and Tallegio.  You'll want a soft cheese that melts well (along the lines of Gruyere, Fontina, Asiago, etc.).

Slice the bread.  Butter (generously) the outsides of the bread.  Spread a layer of pesto (this is a kale pesto) on the inside...

Be generous with the cheese.  Sometimes you just need to indulge.  

Top with a couple slices of beautiful, local, heirloom tomato...

This is where I strayed from convention -- added sliced avocado...

And, prosciutto -- because I can't resist prosciutto...

I may have deviated a tad from the traditional grilled cheese sandwich, but who cares -- it's delicious!

Cook until the cheese is nice and gooey, and the bread nicely browned and crispy. 

Slice in half.  Share with someone you love -- if you're feeling generous -- or savor it all yourself :-)