June 2010 Issue

Mediterranean Grains — The History and Healthful Preparation of Four Old and Emerging Varieties
By Nour El-Zibdeh, RD
Today’s Dietitian
Vol. 12 No. 6 P. 36

Home of pasta and land of olives, the Mediterranean region offers a wide selection of foods. But when it comes to grains, while it may seem that the region’s inhabitants eat a variety, they in fact eat grain-based foods derived mainly from wheat and rice.

With the increasing popularity of the Mediterranean diet in the United States, dietitians should become knowledgeable about old and emerging Mediterranean grains, including rice, bulgur, couscous, and freekeh, to best help clients incorporate these foods into their diet in ways that maximize each grain’s nutritional profile.

An ancient grain native to the eastern Mediterranean and parts of North Africa, freekeh (commonly pronounced “free-kuh”) is roasted green wheat. The word is Arabic and means “what is rubbed,” referring to the rubbing technique necessary for processing.1 Freekeh is usually made from durum wheat and in Egypt sometimes from barley.

Freekeh is harvested early in the spring, making it an ideal grain-food for that time of year, when stores of grains from the previous season have been used up during winter. When the leaves turn yellow and the seeds are still soft and milky, the wheat stalks are harvested, dried in the sun, and carefully set on fire to burn the straw and chaff (the dry, inedible casing of wheat and other grains’ seeds). The seeds do not burn due to their high moisture content. Once cooled, the wheat undergoes a rubbing process that cracks the seed and separates the chaff. Freekeh can be left whole (looks like rice) or coarse ground (looks like bulgur).1

Green in color, chewy and moist in texture, and with a nutty and smoky flavor, freekeh can be incorporated into many dishes. Freekeh-stuffed pigeon is common in Egypt, with green wheat pilaf in Turkey, bone marrow freekeh soup in Tunisia, and soup or pilaf with lamb or chicken and nuts in Syria and Palestine.2

An Australian company, Greenwheat Freekeh, is leading the research on green grains and was the first to develop modern technologies to process freekeh. Common in Australian markets, freekeh is making its way to the United States as a new so-called superfood after being highlighted by celebrity chef Jamie Oliver and Bonnie Matthews from The Dr. Oz Show

Freekeh’s nutritional profile may be of interest to dietitians. While the grain has not yet made the USDA nutrient database, the analysis that the Australian company has conducted on its products indicates it is high in protein and fiber and low in available carbohydrates and glycemic index. Freekeh is not gluten free or recommended for people with celiac disease. But according to Greenwheat Freekeh, the early harvesting and burning denatures the gluten. Research is under way and future studies may provide more insight into this matter.3

Freekeh is green for the environment and farmers, too. Tony Lutfi, managing director at Greenwheat Freekeh, says, “Harvesting the grain early means the farmer does not need to worry about end-of-season rains or drought or the negative impact of pests or vermin, which means no chemicals.”

Whole or coarse freekeh is sold in U.S. ethnic stores with cooking instructions on the package. Some Trader Joe’s locations sell cooked freekeh in their refrigerated sections. In addition to serving as a rice substitute, freekeh can be used in puddings, breakfast cereals, salads, and casseroles.

Traditional Palestinian Freekeh
Serves 6

2 cups whole freekeh (use dry measuring cups)
1 T olive oil
2 cups chicken broth
1⁄2 tsp allspice
1⁄4 tsp each cinnamon, salt, and pepper
2 T tomato paste
1⁄2 cup slivered almonds
1⁄4 cup pine nuts
1 cup curly parsley, coarsely chopped

Spread freekeh on a large baking sheet. Remove any stones or chaffs. Place in a bowl and rinse with water. Drain.

In a medium-sized saucepan, bring oil and chicken broth to a boil. Add freekeh, spices, and tomato paste and mix. Simmer for 5 minutes. Cover, lower the temperature, and cook for 20 minutes.

Meanwhile, heat the oven to 400˚F. Place nuts on a baking sheet in one layer. Toast in the oven until light golden, about 5 minutes.

Freekeh is done when chewy and al dente. To serve, arrange on a serving plate and top with toasted nuts and parsley. Serve with baked chicken seasoned with similar spices and plain yogurt and cucumber salad.

Nutrient Analysis
Calories: 249
Total Fat: 9 g
Saturated Fat: 1 g
Polyunsaturated Fat: 2 g
Monounsaturated Fat: 5 g
Cholesterol: 0 mg
Sodium: 435 mg
Carbohydrates: 39 g
Fiber: 11 g
Protein: 7 g
Note: Using low-sodium broth saves 286 mg of sodium.

Invented by the Berbers of North Africa, couscous remains the staple grain-food in Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia. Traditional couscous dishes combine meat, poultry, or fish with vegetables, dried fruit, and spices. In North Africa, couscous comes in various sizes: muhammas, or burkukis, is large; masfuf is fine. The latter can be steamed and mixed with sugar, butter, raisins, and cinnamon for dessert. Large couscous has been used in the Middle East since the 1300s and is called morghrabiyya (meaning “from Morocco”) or maftul.4

Several myths surround couscous. While granular, couscous is not a grain. It is usually made from semolina flour, derived from durum wheat, and sometimes from barley, millet, corn, or dried bread crumbs. Couscous is not pasta because when boiled, it does not hold its shape and instead turns into porridge. Whether sold in health food sacks or supermarket packages and whether or not labeled instant, all couscous types are instant because they are precooked during processing.5

Mainstream couscous is not whole grain. However, Kimberly Tessmer, RD, LD, author of the forthcoming book The Complete Idiot’s Guide to The Mediterranean Diet, emphasizes that whole grain variations are available. “The whole grain or whole wheat couscous is made from 100% whole grain durum flour,” she says. It “tastes just as good as the regular version and cooks just as quickly. You may have to look a little harder [...] but it is well worth it if you are a couscous eater.” Whole grain couscous has slightly more protein and 2 to 4 g more fiber compared with regular couscous.

Cooking couscous is quick and requires minimal additional fat (perhaps a small amount of olive oil for extra flavor). Preparation involves moistening the granules either by boiling or steaming and allowing them to swell.

Tunisian Couscous With Vegetables
Serves 8

2 T olive oil
1 medium onion, 1⁄2-inch diced
4 garlic cloves, chopped
1 lb skinless chicken breasts, 1⁄2-inch diced
4 tsp caraway powder, separated
1⁄2 tsp each salt and pepper
1 6-oz can tomato paste
1 15.5-oz can chickpeas
1 cup raisins
2 cups baby carrots, cut into thick slices
Half a small head of green cabbage, cut into 1⁄2-inch pieces
2 zucchinis or squash, cut into 1⁄2-inch pieces
1 green sweet bell pepper, cut into 1⁄2-inch pieces
3 cups dry plain couscous, cooked according to package instructions

Heat oil in a large saucepan. Sauté onions and garlic until clear. Add chicken, 3 tsp of caraway, salt, and pepper and cook until juices run clear. Add enough water to cover chicken (about 6 to 8 cups) and simmer for 15 minutes until chicken is fully cooked.

Add tomato paste, chickpeas, and raisins. Cook for 15 minutes. Add remaining vegetables and remaining teaspoon caraway and simmer for another 15 minutes until cooked through.

To serve, arrange couscous in the bottom of individual bowls, then top with the vegetable and meat sauce.

Nutrient Analysis
Calories: 525
Total Fat: 6 g
Saturated Fat: 1 g
Polyunsaturated Fat: 1 g
Monounsaturated Fat: 3 g
Cholesterol: 33 mg
Sodium: 408 mg
Carbohydrates: 93 g
Fiber: 11 g
Protein: 28 g

Historical records indicate that between 1660 and 1672, the inhabitants of Istanbul consumed 300 to 500 tons of grains per day.4 Processing and storing bulgur helped meet the demand of this population when supply did not meet the demand. The Turkish, Greek, and Arabic words for bulgur are bulgur, pligouri, and burghol, respectively.6

Nutty in flavor and made from hard wheat, bulgur is not to be confused with cracked wheat. Cracked wheat is raw, uncooked wheat, while bulgur is precooked wheat that is boiled and dried before reaching the market.5 In the past, its preparation was a community affair and a celebration of the harvest. Paula Wolfert narrates in Mediterranean Grains & Greens that 60 years ago, Turkish women gathered either in their homes or a special countryside mill to boil hard wheat kernels for hours. As a result, the kernels swelled and cracked open. They were then dried on the roofs, cracked, and sieved to separate the bulgur by size.5

Today, bulgur is considered a convenience food since its use at home requires merely soaking in warm water. Four different bulgur sizes are used for different dishes: extra coarse for soups, large grain for pilafs and Turkish köfte (meatballs), medium for stuffing vegetables and grape leaves, and fine for making tabbouleh and kibbeh (bulgur and minced meat dough stuffed with ground meat).5

Bulgur is mostly a whole grain, with only 5% of the bran removed during processing7, and contributes to the daily requirement of vitamins and minerals. During the extensive boiling process, the outer bran nutrients dissolve in the water and are carried along when the water is eventually absorbed by the endosperm.4 One cup of cooked bulgur supplies 8 g of fiber, 6 g of protein, a varied amount of B vitamins, and more than 10% of the daily requirement of iron and magnesium. The boiling also kills germs and insect eggs, increasing bulgur’s shelf life and its resistance to spoilage.4

The convenience and high nutritional profile of bulgur makes it appealing for health-conscious, on-the-go consumers. Tessmer points out that bulgur is sold in health or natural food markets, ethnic stores, and large grocery stores. “Sometimes it may not be in the place you would think, like the grain section. Make sure to look around or ask. It could be with bulk foods or in some cases near the deli foods,” she suggests.

Turkish Bulgur Pilaf
Recipe and photo courtesy of Binnur Tomay (www.turkishcookbook.com)
Serves 2


Roasted Vegetables
1 zucchini, washed, cut in half lengthwise
1 small Japanese eggplant, washed, cut in half lengthwise
3 to 4 garlic cloves, not peeled
1 red bell or hot pepper, washed, cut in half, seeds discarded
1 cubanelle pepper, washed, cut in half, seeds discarded
8 to 10 small mushrooms
1 onion, peeled, cut in 8 pieces
1 tomato, washed, cut in 4 pieces
1 T extra-virgin olive oil
Salt and pepper

Bulgur Pilaf
1 cup Turkish bulgur, large grain, washed and drained
1 medium onion, cut in small pieces
3 T extra-virgin olive oil
1 T red pepper paste
13⁄4 cups hot water
1 tsp crushed red pepper
1 tsp cumin
Salt and pepper

Set the oven to broil (or use a grill). Arrange the vegetables on an oven tray and roast. Check often, as some will roast earlier. Peel the garlic, tomato, and peppers and then cut all vegetables in bite sizes. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Drizzle the oil and gently mix with a fork.

While the vegetables roast, cook the bulgur pilaf. Sauté the onion with olive oil. Add all of the pilaf ingredients and stir. Cook over low heat, covered. Gently toss the roasted vegetables with the cooked pilaf. Serve warm or hot.

Nutrient Analysis
Calories: 635
Total Fat: 30 g
Saturated Fat: 4 g
Polyunsaturated Fat: 5 g
Monounsaturated Fat: 20 g
Cholesterol: 0 mg
Sodium: 315 mg
Carbohydrates: 87 g
Fiber: 22 g
Protein: 15 g

Although the Romans used rice for medicine, the Far East culture brought large-scale rice production to the Mediterranean for food using irrigation systems (rizicultures). Tenth century historians in Mesopotamia and the Middle East referred to rice and reports indicate that Arabs established rizicultures in Spain. In the 15th century, the Italian Lombardy plains were cleared for rizicultures to meet the food demand.

Rice is a major grain in all regions of the Mediterranean except for North Africa. Madeleine Said, RD, who is of Greek origin, says she “grew up on white rice and lots of it.” She adds that Greeks “use rice in soups, grape leaves (dolmades), and stuffed peppers.”

Rice types and uses vary among regions of the Mediterranean. The grain size, due to its starch content and water-absorption capacity, determines consistency. Long grain is low in starch and separates; medium- and short-grain varieties are higher in starch, moist, and sticky.

Pilafs, made by Turks, Greeks, and Arabs, require the long-grain rice variety.4 Because the goal is to separate each grain, “an eastern Mediterranean cook will commit herself to getting the starch out of each and every grain,” Wolfert wrote, by soaking and rinsing the rice with water.5 However, American long-grain rice does not require rinsing; in fact, rinsing may wash away added nutrients.8 Pilafs are often made with vegetables, such as fava beans, eggplants, cauliflower, chickpeas, and lentils, and meat or chicken is sometimes added.

Risotto, the opposite of a pilaf4, is the rice cooking method in northern Italy. Using Arborio rice is best, but other short-grain varieties also work. When well cooked, risotto is sticky and creamy due to the starch. The rice is never washed; the liquid is added in batches and constant stirring is required.4

A famous, inexpensive rice dish is the Egyptian kushary. A pilaf of white rice and brown lentils is topped with macaroni, special tomato sauce, and fried, crispy onions. Vegetables and plant leaves, such as cabbages and grape leaves, are often stuffed with short- or medium-grain rice. Paella, a dish native to Valencia, is cooked in a special flat, shallow pan. It consists of Spanish medium-grain rice, vegetables, saffron, olive oil, and meat or seafood or a combination of both.

Rice, sometimes considered unhealthful, high in carbohydrates, or uninteresting, can be a nutritious choice if consumers purchase whole grain varieties and prepare them healthfully. Even though white rice is the most popular version in Mediterranean cooking, whole grain brown rice is available in long- and short-grain varieties. Rice dishes can improve vegetable intake if a significant amount is incorporated. Rice is also gluten free.

Mushroom Risotto
Serves 8


4 cups chicken or vegetable broth
4 T olive oil, separated
1 lb white mushrooms, thinly sliced
14 oz portabella mushrooms, thinly sliced
2 shallots, chopped
1 1⁄2 cups Arborio rice
1 T apple cider vinegar
1⁄4 cup chives, finely chopped
Salt and pepper

In a saucepan, combine broth with 2 cups of water and heat gently.

Heat 2 T of olive oil in another large saucepan. Stir in mushrooms and sauté until soft, about 5 minutes. Remove and place in a bowl, reserving the liquid.

Heat remaining oil and sauté shallots. Add rice and vinegar and sauté for 3 minutes. Start adding warm broth to rice, 1⁄2 cup at a time, stirring continuously to allow maximum water absorption. This step will take about 20 minutes.

Remove from heat. Stir in cooked mushrooms with their liquid and the chives. Season with salt and pepper. Wait 10 minutes before serving.

Nutrient Analysis
Calories: 232
Total Fat: 8 g
Saturated Fat: 1 g
Polyunsaturated Fat: 1 g
Monounsaturated Fat: 5 g
Cholesterol: 0 mg
Sodium: 471 mg
Carbohydrates: 35 g
Fiber: 3 g
Protein: 7 g
Note: Using low-sodium broth saves 429 mg of sodium.

— Nour El-Zibdeh, RD, is a nutrition consultant, freelance writer, blogger (http://practicalnutritionbydietitian.com), and the public relations and media chair of the Virginia Dietetic Association. She is pursuing a master’s degree in nutrition from James Madison University.

1. Zurayk R. The edible landscape. Sloweek. March 4, 2008. Available at: http://www.slowfood.com/sloweb/eng/dettaglio.lasso?cod=
. Accessed March 20, 2010.

2. CliffordAWright.com. Freekeh - farik - green wheat. Available at: http://www.cliffordawright.com/caw/food/entries/display.php/topic_id/23/id/101. Accessed March 18, 2010.

3. Greenwheat Freekeh. Greenwheat freekeh nutritional profile. Available at: http://www.greenwheatfreekeh.com.au/nutrition.php. Accessed March 20, 2010.

4. Wright CA. A Mediterranean Feast: The Story of the Birth of the Celebrated Cuisines of the Mediterranean, From the Merchants of Venice to the Barbary Corsairs, With More Than 500 Recipes. New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc; 1999.

5. Wolfert P. Mediterranean Grains & Greens: A Book of Savory, Sun-Drenched Recipes. New York: William Morrow Cookbooks; 1998.

6. Wolfert P. The Cooking of the Eastern Mediterranean: 215 Healthy, Vibrant, and Inspired Recipes. New York: William Morrow Cookbooks; 1994.

7. Wheat Foods Council. FAQs: What’s bulgur and is it a “whole grain?” Available at: http://www.wheatfoods.org/Whats-bulgur-and-is-it-a-whole-grain.6.10.htm. Accessed March 18, 2010.

8. Utah State University Cooperative Extension. Rice: Nutrition and food sciences fact sheet. Available at: http://extension.usu.edu/files/publications/publication/FN_141.pdf. Accessed March 31, 2010.