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Adding new interest to risotto

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Posted: Saturday, May 10, 2014 7:00 am

Because my mother was a dietician, I usually feel a little guilty when I get in a high-fat cooking rut. I mean, I know better but deep-fried is a food group, right?

In any case, I am trying to branch out with the latest ‘superfood’. Case in point: Freekeh. Sometimes spelled ‘frikeh’, meaning ‘rubbed’, this young, green wheat kernel is an ancient cereal grain popular since at least Biblical times throughout the Middle East and North Africa.

According to Wikipedia, Freekeh (‘FREE-ka’) is harvested early, while the seeds are still soft and piled to sundry. Firing the piles allows the seeds to roast as the chaff and straw burn away. Once cracked, the grain is ready for use. It has a nice, gentle nuttiness with more body than the Arborio rice used in most risottos.

Freekeh compares favorably with other healthy grains such as quinoa. A dry serving of 3 1/2 ounces contains 360 calories but only 25 fat calories. With no saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol or sugars and with low sodium, reasonable amounts of calcium and iron, more protein and fiber than brown rice plus a low glycemic index, freekeh makes sense. Use in any recipe calling for quinoa or rice. Sheri’s Sonshine Nutrition Center here in Lodi carries it, as well as a variety of other whole grains and flours, seeds and nut products.

The following formula is based on one found in Bon Appetit magazine, which I have changed up a bit. Some years ago, we were in Tahoe at an excellent lakeside restaurant where they served an amazing rice risotto with dried mushrooms. With that in mind, I include them (they can be salty, so omit salt in this recipe) along with kale and the usual fresh parmesan for a creamy, meaty, yet light ‘Risotto’ of distinction.

Freekeh, risotto-style

1 cup freekeh, picked over

8 cups unsalted chicken or vegetable stock, preferably homemade; heated

1/2 ounce dried mushrooms

1 cup boiling water

3 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided

1 medium onion, finely chopped

Fresh ground pepper

2 teaspoons fresh thyme, stemmed and chopped or 1 teaspoon dry, crumbled

1 bay leaf

2 cups baby kale, rinsed, patted dry and sliced into thin shreds lengthwise

1 garlic clove, smashed and minced

1 teaspoon lemon zest (Meyer or other)

1 tablespoon lemon juice

1 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Toast freekeh on a baking sheet in oven until lightly brown and aromatic, about eight minutes. Set aside. Place dried mushrooms in a heatproof bowl and pour boiling water over to cover. Soak 15 minutes, drain, and chop coarsely. Set aside. Meanwhile, heat one tablespoon butter in a large skillet over medium heat. Add onion, cooking until softened. Add freekeh, thyme, bay leaf and twp cups warm stock to onions and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to medium-low and simmer, stirring often, until stock is almost absorbed, about five minutes. Add remaining stock by half cupfuls, allowing it to absorb before adding more and stirring often, until freekeh is tender and mixture is creamy, 40 to 50 minutes. Remove bay leaf. Mix garlic, lemon zest, and lemon juice, kale and mushrooms into freekeh mixture, then mix in Parmesan, about a 1/4 cup at a time, stirring until melted and well combined before adding more. Mix in remaining 2 tablespoons of butter and fresh pepper to taste. Serve immediately. Serves 2-4, depending on serving size.

Lori Bowles lives in Lodi with her husband Jeff and is living the semi-retired life while staying current on food trends. She enjoys searching out local purveyors of the best that Lodi has to offer.

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