I am always looking for alternative grains to use as side dishes and lately I have been experimenting with farro and freekeh. These grains are all about texture and flavour, and they’re good for you too. They work as a base for bowls, as side dishes and are a healthy substitute for white rice and pasta.
Farro and freekeh are ancient grains, which means that they predate domesticated wheat. They are considered “super grains” and have tons of nutritional benefits. Both are used extensively in Middle Eastern cooking.
Freekeh is harvested young, when the durum wheat grain is still green, and roasted to remove the chaff and straw around it. The internal grain does not burn, as it is moist, but you do get a smoky, nutty flavour when you eat it. It is slightly chewy when cooked and loves lots of spices.
Its nutritional benefits kick quinoa out of the park. Freekeh is higher in protein and fibre than quinoa, two nutrients that can help you feel full for longer. It is also low on the glycemic index, which may be beneficial for dieters and diabetics. But it is not gluten free.
Farro has a less chewy texture. It has less gluten than wheat, but it, too, is not gluten free. High in iron and fibre, zinc and B vitamins, it is a plant-based protein, making it a great choice for vegans and a good carbohydrate option for diabetics.
Farro comes in whole grain, semi-pearled and pearled varieties. The whole grain I find too tough, but the semi-pearled is ideal – most Italian varieties are semi-pearled. The pearled variety loses too much of its nutritional value. Sometimes spelt is assumed to be farro and, although it is an easy substitution, it is slightly different.
Having tried various methods for cooking both farro and freekeh, I find that preparing them like pasta works best. Bring a large pot of salted water to boil and add your grain. Boil until the grain is softened (15 minutes for farro and 30 for freekeh), then drain. Cover the pot and let sit for 10 minutes to steam.
Farro makes a good risotto. Cook it first in water, don’t steam it, then sauté for a few minutes in butter, chopped onions and garlic. Add about 1 cup vegetable or chicken stock and let it simmer away. Finish with salt, pepper and a hit of Parmesan cheese.
Farro and freekeh make good salads too. Treat them as you would pasta for a pasta salad. Add your veggies and protein and a well-flavoured vinaigrette. They both love lemon, strong flavours and feta.