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Forgotten grains make a comeback in new cookbook from the ‘queen of freekeh’

British cookbook writer Ruth Nieman offers readers research into ancient grains once popular in the Middle East and Europe, and recipes for everything from emmer wheat to sourdough

Jessica Steinberg covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center.

Cookbook author Ruth Nieman looking at grains being milled in Hagay and The Bread, the Kibbutz Einat bakery of Hagay Ben Yehuda on February 23, 2022 (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)
Cookbook author Ruth Nieman looking at grains being milled in Hagay and The Bread, the Kibbutz Einat bakery of Hagay Ben Yehuda on February 23, 2022 (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

Hagai Ben Yehuda opened the blue-tiled, wood-burning oven and slid a wooden peel under the loaves rotating inside, a final step in his sourdough baking process.

Across the room, a massive mixer folded oats into another batch of his rye-starter sourdough, while a sifter continually turned flour ground and milled from fresh wheat kernels, at a rate of six kilograms per hour.

A fifth-generation bread baker, Ben Yehuda is the great, great-grandson of Moshe Rozental, a Polish immigrant who landed in pre-state Palestine in 1870, selling his handmade rye loaves in Jaffa before opening a bakery in Petah Tivka. Today, his father is vice president of Angel Bakeries, one of the country’s largest bread enterprises.

Flour, yeast and the glutenous mass they form are in Ben Yehuda’s blood, but he points out that even large industrial bakeries like Angel are slowly being influenced by the use of whole grains and sourdough, which does not use yeast to rise.

Far from those bread factory behemoths, Ben Yehuda toils away at his craft from his grandmother’s former front porch on Kibbutz Einat near Petah Tikva, putting the cottage in cottage industry.

Using imported flours as well as his own, milled from ancient grains he grows in Moshav Sarona in Israel’s north, Ben Yehuda folds and shapes 250 kilograms of dough daily into 250 to 300 loaves of darkly crusted, lacily-crumbed sourdough bread.

From his bakery, called Hagai and the Bread, the loaves make their way to some of Tel Aviv’s top restaurants and food shops.

Artisanal baker Hagay Ben Yehuda in his Kibbutz Einat bakery, February 23, 2022 (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

Ancient grains taste better, said Ben Yehuda, and while they do contain gluten, it’s often less than commercially raised wheats, a plus for those who suffer from bloating and digestion issues.

“The idea is not to use just one kind of grain, but to create a mix of imported flour and ancient grains,” said Ruth Nieman, a British-born food writer, who was serving as a guide to Ben Yehuda’s bakery.

Nieman relied on artisanal bakers such as Ben Yehuda to research her new book, “Freekeh, Wild Wheat & Ancient Grains” (Prospect Books) about what she calls the “land to the plate” process of discovering and cultivating wild wheats and ancient grains, and understanding what they add to the modern meal.

Wild, ancient wheats such as emmer, thought to have been the flour used in the biblical matzah, was discovered in the 1940s at the foot of Mount Hermon and jaljuli, another old grain, was later found near Masada, but they don’t have big yields, and Israeli bakers have generally relied on imported wheat.

But in recent years, bakers like Ben Yehuda and others have increasingly turned to lesser-known grains such as einkorn, or spelt, which is grown only in cold climates such as Ukraine, imported and then milled in Israel, or freekeh, a local grain that is roasted and is sometimes compared to bulgur.

Cookbook author Ruth Nieman holding a grain of fresh wheat outside Hagai Ben Yehuda’s artisanal bakery on February 23, 2022, where she did some of her research for her new book, ‘Freekeh, Wild Wheat & Ancient Grains’ (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

Nieman spent a year and a half researching the cookbook, spending as much time as she could in Israel — she splits her time between London and northern Israel — where she first landed as an 18-year-old spending a year on Kibbutz Amiad.

A former nurse who turned caterer and then trained as a food writer, Nieman’s debut cookbook was “The Galilean Kitchen,” about the traditional cuisines of Jewish and Arabic matriarchs in northern Israel.

“Freekeh, Wild Wheat & Ancient Grains” reports on grains used historically throughout the Middle East. In Israel, the research was carried out with the help of archaeologists, botanists, culinary historians, the Dagon Grain Museum and artisanal bakers such as Ben Yehuda.

This book is interspersed with original recipes going back through the centuries (barley matzah, anyone?) as well as contemporary recipes, such as Freekeh Bread from chef Erez Komorovsky, considered the father of Israel’s artisanal bread craze and Spinach & Cheese Spelt Bourekas from Pitputim, a northern bakery that only uses spelt flour.

The cover of Ruth Nieman’s latest cookbook, ‘Freekeh, Wild Wheat & Ancient Grains’ (Courtesy Prospect Books)

There’s a mix of recipes more familiar to the Mediterranean table, such as Khorasan flatbreads with za’atar, and freekeh salad with pistachios and labane dressing. But the book also has recipes more common to Nieman’s native England, such as the wholemeal emmer wheat and walnut cob, or wild garlic and cheddar spelt scones. She recommends the latter be made with wild garlic picked in “woodland and gardens.”

“I wanted people to discover these grains and work with them and use them for part of their diet,” said Nieman.

In keeping with the heavy dose of sourdough activity in the book, Nieman said she did her share of sourdough baking over the course of the pandemic, and hardly touches white bread any longer.

That said, the biggest change to her own diet is the use of many grains in her food, particularly freekeh, the title grain that Nieman said was part of the first recipe ever written down in the 13th century. She often uses it in place of other grains, whether in soups or salads.

“I’m known as the freekeh queen to my friends,” said Nieman.

Freekeh with Roasted Cauliflower & Tahini Dressing (serves 4-6)

1 cup freekeh, rinsed and drained
2.5 cups water
2 small cauliflowers, cut into florets
extra virgin olive oil
3-4 heaped tablespoons za’atar
a squeeze of lemon juice
salt & pepper
100 grams pinenuts, toasted
1 bunch flat leaf parsley, finely chopped

For the tahini dressing

4 tablespoons tahini
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1 teaspoon salt
ice cold water

Method:
Preheat the oven to 190°C / 375°F / Gas Mark 5

Freekeh with roasted cauliflower and tahini dressing from Ruth Nieman’s ‘Freekeh, Wild Wheat & Ancient Grains’ cookbook (Courtesy Ruth Nieman)

Place the cauliflower florets in a saucepan of boiling salted water and parboil on a medium heat for 5 minutes until al dente, drain and place in a roasting tray, season with salt, liberally pour over olive oil and plenty of za’atar, then place in the oven for 30 to 40 minutes, until the florets are soft and charred at the edges, remove and set aside.

Soak the freekeh in cold water for 10 minutes, then rinse and drain before placing in a saucepan, cover with water and bring to the boil, lower the heat and simmer for 15 to 20 minutes until the freekeh is soft but with a slight bite and the water has been absorbed into the grains, turn off the heat and leave to steam for 10 minutes with a tight-fitting lid.

Place in a salad bowl, season with salt and pepper and drizzle over a little extra olive oil, a squeeze of lemon juice, some finely chopped parsley and most of the toasted pinenuts, leaving a handful for garnish, mix well to combine.

To make the tahini dressing:

Place the tahini in a bowl, add lemon juice and salt and mix with a whisk, very slowly add the cold water, mixing continuously until you have a smooth liquid the consistency of double cream, set aside.

Once the cauliflower florets are roasted, add them to the freekeh with all the delicious za’atar flavored oil from the roasting pan, pour over the tahini dressing and garnish with the remaining pinenuts and a little extra flat-leaf parsley, serve at room temperature.

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