Thursday, March 31, 2011

What is فريكة‎ ? Why, it's freekeh. What is freekeh?

Today I'm stuck on the couch with a cold, but instead of watching Dr Phil and Oprah, I thought I'd use the time to geek out over my latest grain obsession, freekeh. Maybe everyone out there already knows about this magical, nutty stuff? But after I was introduced to it at Hellenic Republic in the salad you'll find below, I went looking for it - and many didn't even know who my little friend was, let alone where to find him! So just in case you haven't met, let me introduce you to freekeh.

In case you couldn't tell from the title of this post, freekeh is a grain used mostly in Arabic cooking and it's actually green wheat that has been sun dried, roasted and then rubbed, or thrashed - a process that (somehow?) gives the grain a uniform appearance and a very special flavour that is both nutty and smokey. It's so tasty that you can eat it on its own (with a little olive oil and maybe some yogurt?), but it's used in stuffings, pilafs, salads and a host of other preparations. Some types are cracked into smaller bits, others are left whole - the one I use at home is a whole grain type.

Not only does is it delicious, but is a nutritional powerhouse. Because it is harvested young, it retains more fiber, protein and vitamins. It's low in fat and low GI and even if it wasn't, I'd eat it anyway. It's the bomb. To prepare it, you need only to boil it until tender. The whole grain variety I use takes about 30 minutes to reach tender but with some bite (how I like it), but if you have the cracked grain, cooking time will be considerably less. Once it's ready, you should try it in this salad:

This is George Calombaris' Cypriot Grain Salad, and I first ate it at Hellenic Republic a few months ago with the rest of the Kannas clan. I'd visited HR before and the food had always been good, but the stars must have been aligned that night because we ate a truly glorious meal of slow-cooked lamb, cabbage salad, chargrilled octopus, saganaki with figs and this unforgettable salad. As soon as I got home I googled it and thanked the lord for the TV chef phenomenon, because I instantly had the recipe. Not that you really need one; it's really just a great idea that you can play with in all different ways. The freekeh, along with some just-tender puy lentils, form the bulk of the salad. This is seasoned with briny baby capers, sweet currants, chopped red onion and plenty of chopped parsley and coriander. Then you add crunch: toast a bunch of slivered almonds, pumpkin seeds and pine nuts until golden and throw them in. Bring the whole lot together with great olive oil and the juice of a lemon and top with a cumin-spiked yogurt that hides just a smidgen of Greek honey. In each bite, there's a bunch of different things happening, but all the flavours are at the same party and, baby, it's a good one.

When we ate it at Hellenic Republic it was topped with fresh pomegranate seeds and they were perfect: little jewels bursting with sweet sour juice that explode into the rest of the flavours when you bite in. Sadly, I couldn't find any this week, so I topped the yogurt here with a dollop of pomegranate molasses, to remind me of that first taste. I served alongside some quickly fried slices of spicy Greek loukanika (leek and pork sausage). It was good. I hope you think so too.

Cypriot Grain Salad
Adapted from George Camlombaris' recipe, published on

Notes: Freekeh is available at Middle Eastern grocery stores and some health food shops. The one I buy is produced in Lebanon and sold at Hassoun's Coffee, 384 Gilbert Road, Preston. An aside: this store is so ace I can't believe I'm publishing the address on the internets. Click here for more information about Australian freekeh. Serves 6 as a side dish. This salad keeps really well for a couple of days, so makes a great brown bag lunch dish.

1 cup freekah (or cracked wheat)
½ cup puy lentils
1 bunch coriander shredded
½ bunch parsley shredded
½ red onion finely diced
2 tbsp baby capers
½ cup currants
2 tbsp pumpkin seeds
2 tbsp slivered almonds
2 tbsp pine nuts
Juice of 1 lemon
3 tbsp extra virgin olive
Sea salt to taste
½ cup thick Greek yoghurt
½ tsp cumin seeds toasted and ground
½ tbsp honey
fresh pomegranate seeds, or molasses to taste

1. Cook freekeh and lentils separately until just tender. Drain and set aside to cool.

2. Meanwhile, add coriander, parsley, onion, capers and currants to a large bowl.

3. Toast pumpkin seeds, almonds and pine nuts until golden, being careful not to burn. Add to bowl.

4. Add drained and cooled lentils and freekeh and stir gently to combine. Add sea salt, lemon juice and olive oil and continue to stir gently until the salad looks nicely dressed.

5. For yogurt topping, stir cumin and honey into yogurt. Top salad with yogurt and pomegranate seeds or molasses, if using.

Friday, March 25, 2011

'absent friends' coconut cream pie

I call this pie 'absent friends' coconut cream pie for two reasons: 1) I was listening to the Divine Comedy when I was baking it and, 2) it was inspired by a piece of pie I shared with my pal Emma on my last night in New York, without our mutual friend Jane there to help us out.

Not only is Emma one of Time Out's Most Stylish New Yorkers, but she's a regular at a brilliant little bar called The Great Jones Cafe. There's more than a dozen reasons I'd recommend visiting this place while you're in town, but here's two: 1) the greatest jukebox I've ever come across and, 2) the coconut cream pie.

Everything that came out of that little kitchen behind the bar smelled and looked Delicious - and I can personally attest to the fact that the cornmeal catfish, the okra, the burger and the sweet potato fries are Delicious. Oh - and the coconut cream pie. But before I tried it, I totally had to be convinced. Despite food being like the centre of my gluttonous universe, I really am not that big on cream. Stoopid, huh? I like custard, and ice cream and even pannacotta - but my inner-lactard just starts freaking out when I'm presented with a pile of the freshly whipped stuff. In any case, I needn't have worried, because coconut cream pie at The Great Jones is just not like all those other pies. It's creamy, but with rich, coconutty custard atop a short and sweet crumb crust that balances perfectly with the silky filling. There's no giant layer of cream spread on the top of the pie: instead, it's adorned with a mound of toasted, shredded coconut - and the cream is served on the side, if you want it. Of course, as soon as I got home, I had to start trying to make this.

So this was my first attempt - and I'm actually very happy with it. I cobbled together a couple of recipes to approximate the Jones's beautiful pie, including the cracker crust from The Hummingbird Bakery's Key Lime Pie and a coconut milk custard from a recipe on epicurious. I skipped the cream top, folding only a little into the custard to lighten it before pouring it into the crust and topped the whole thing with freshly-roasted coconut. It was (and is) really good. I even just got some licks of approval from Quincy Cat, who's eating some with me now. When I ate it with Emma we were missing our friend Jane, back in Melbourne. As I eat it now, I miss Emma - and those great nights at the Jones. At least I can always raise my fork; absent friends, here's to them! x

absent friends coconut cream pie
Adapted from the hummingbird bakery cookbook and epicurious

Notes: I originally made a full quantity of crust, but there was far too much for this pie. I threw some mixture away and still thought it was a little too thick, so I've halved the recipe here: should be about right. I used less coconut than specified in the filling, but was surprised to find it could have done with the extra after all, so I've included the original amount here. Finally, some recipes say that this is best eaten on the day it's made. I think this pie is lovely (and even more coconutty) even two days later, so there!

cracker crust
250 gm digestive biscuits or graham crackers
100 gm unsalted butter

coconut cream filling
2 1/4 cups canned unsweetened coconut milk
2/3 cup sugar
4 large egg yolks
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons cornflour
Pinch of salt
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature
3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons shredded unsweetened dried coconut, toasted
3/4 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1/4 cup heavy (whipping) cream
1/2 tablespoon icing sugar

1. Preheat oven to 180/355. To make cracker crust, process biscuits until finely crushed (you can do this with a rolling pin if you like). Add melted butter and process or stir until crumbs come together. Using a large spoon or the bottom of a drinking glass (I find this easier for the sides), press the crumb mixture into a pie tin to form the shell. A good trick for the sides is to use your thumb to keep the mixture down at the rim, while using the glass to press and form the side. Keep doing this around the circumference of the pie, and you should have a nice, even shell. Bake for around 20 - 25 minutes, or until set and golden.

2. Heat the coconut milk to just below boiling point. Remove and cover to keep hot. using an electric mixer, beat the egg yolks with the sugar until pale and voluminous. Whip in the flour, corn flour and salt.

3. While still beating, gradually pour in the warm coconut milk. When all is incorporated, return the mixture to the saucepan and cook over medium-high heat, whisking constantly, until it comes to a boil and thickens, then boil for 1 minute, whisking constantly. Remove the pan from the heat, add the butter, and whisk until melted. Add 3/4 cup of the coconut and 1/2 teaspoon of vanilla.

4. Transfer the coconut cream to a bowl and let cool to room temperature, whisking occasionally to prevent a skin from forming. When cooled, cover the surface with plastic wrap (push in against the custard) to prevent a skin from forming and refrigerate for about 2 hours, until thoroughly chilled and set (You can do this a day in advance).

5. Beat cream with the icing sugar until it holds stiff peaks. With a rubber spatula, gently fold the cream into the coconut custard. Using the spatula, transfer the filling to the crust and smooth the top. Sprinkle the top of the pie with the remaining toasted coconut and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes, or for up to 4 hours, before serving to set.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

train of thought

I've been spending quite a bit of time on trains lately. In New York City!

Yes, I had me a little bit of a holiday and a whole lotta great times. My friend Jamie and I ate and drank our way through the French Quarter of New Orleans, then through as much of NYC as we could in the time we had left. I took pictures of the inside of trains, but I didn't take one picture of anything we ate. I think this is a good thing.

Early in Julie Delpy's 2007 film Two Days in Paris, Delpy (as Marion) laments that the European holiday she has just taken with her partner Jack was experienced almost entirely through the lense of their camera. As Jack forces Marion to reenact Brando in Last Tango in Paris on the bridge, her voiceover narrates that 'taking pictures all the time turns you into an observer. It automatically takes you out of the moment.' I love taking pictures, but I think there's something in this. On the Staten Island ferry I saw - and became one of - those tourists who watch Manhattan grow bigger and bigger through their little viewfinder as the boat moves closer and closer to the city. It was fun, but I'm so glad that I didn't spend the whole trip looking through a tiny rectangle.

Instead, the best pictures I have of this trip are in my head, hazy and embellished and absolutely inspiring. I can see that gumbo we were served by that nice-looking waiter with the to-die for Southern drawl, all soupy and rich with its sprinkle of white rice sinking through the top. From the pictures in my head I'll learn how to blacken fish and chicken and I'll perfect a recipe for spicy okra stewed with tomatoes. I'll boil another batch of bagels and they'll mean even more than they did last time cause they'll remind me of the miniature ones we ate each morning in Brooklyn. And these three words together - coconut, cream, pie - after a long, late night at the Great Jones Cafe with Emma, conjure something infinitely more sublime than a picture taken in that dark little bar could ever have expressed.

So there'll be more photographs - and recipes! - soon. But for now, I'm using my jet lag as an excuse to relax and sink into the photo album in my mind that I built on a truly wonderful trip.
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