All the sudden I feel I am part of the fabric of our neighborhood here in Achrafieh. As I’m often alone for a week or more at a time, it’s these little interactions that make me feel part of the community as they’re sometimes the only human dealings I’ll have in a day. All along the narrow snaking streets, shopkeepers sit on plastic chairs outside their businesses, little impromptu cafes where they smoke, talk to passers by, or grab a sweet Arabic coffee from the men who walk around with large pots strapped to their backs and a stack of little coffee thimbles that they manage to clang together – a trill of ceramic, if you like – to let you know they’re heading your way.
As I leave our apartment building I pass a bakery where the proprietor sits each morning and he waves enthusiastically, always rising in his seat to wish me good morning. Down the road a bit there’s an older gentleman who sits in front of what can only be described as a junk room, in his wife beater and black wool trousers, watching the building across the street from his get torn down. Every day grumpily says “Ahlen, Ahlen.” as he ushers me to his side of the street lest I get hit by falling debris (which would be entirely possible given the complete disregard for pedestrians or any semblance of health and safety codes). If I walk by later in the day, this same man has been joined by his friends. They sit and smoke and watch the demolition progress and I just know they’re critiquing each and every move the workers make. Meanwhile, if I’m heading downtown our dry cleaner will come out and wish me good day and over by the mosque, the cute teenage boy who runs his family’s green grocer stand always gives me something as a gift, or “cadeau” he says, when I stop in.
There’s something so very old fashioned and charming about it all and I adore it. They are such generous, welcoming people (when they aren’t trying to run you down in the road). I’m having fun. I also suddenly have work! I’ll be teaching cooking classes at KitchenLab, have joined Chef Exchange’s site for private chef and catering work, and have talked to the people at Souk el Tayeb about getting involved with their various projects. My dance card is filling up and while I’m always impatient to be busy and get my life all squared away, these past six months have been particularly challenging. However, my patience seems to have been rewarded, and I can’t wait to get all of these various projects underway.
Anyway, I don’t often cook Arabic food because I feel like I happen to live in a place where the locals do it really, really well. However, there was one salad I ate at my lunch at Tawlet (I wrote about it here) that I was eager to recreate at home. It couldn’t be simpler or more delicious and uses a grain that I think many elsewhere are unfamiliar with – freekeh. It’s one of those “ancient grains” that have recently remerged and is in vogue among the healthy eating crowd, but it never went out of fashion here in the Middle East, and with good reason. It’s wheat that’s harvested while young and green, then it’s sun-dried and roasted, during which time the straw and chaff are burned and rubbed off which gives it its firm, chewy texture and a distinct flavor that’s earthy, nutty and slightly smoky. Yum, right? Oh, and apparently, it has more fiber and protein, and is lower in calories per serving than other trendy grains, like quinoa and brown rice. It also has a low glycemic index.
So back to this salad. I asked the chef of the day and she outlined how she made it and I couldn’t believe how simple it was…but really, I usually find most of the best food is terrifically simple, but made with good ingredients, thoughtfully combined. When you go to make this look for the cracked freekeh as opposed to the wholegrain as it will cook more quickly, and frankly, I like the texture better. Also, the recipe here used a local variety of thyme that’s different to anything I’ve seen elsewhere, but it’s very common here. Now, it’s doubtful that you’ll find anything along these lines, but I would suggest substituting French thyme, off the stem and chopped and supplementing it with some whole leaves of tarragon and maybe some chopped baby arugula. That will give it the slightly sweet and peppery edge and the texture that will finish the dish beautifully.
Freekeh, Thyme, and Pomegranate Salad
1 cup cracked freekeh
1 cup Lebanese thyme leaves or the equivalent mix suggested above.
1 cup pomegranate seeds
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1 clove garlic, grated on a microplane
4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
maldon sea salt and fresh cracked pepper to taste
Place the freekeh in a pot with 3 cups cold water and a hefty pinch of salt. Bring to a boil and cook at a simmer for 15 minutes. Drain any remaining water and allow the cooked freekeh to dry just a bit before adding any of the other ingredients. In a jar mix together the lemon juice, garlic, and olive oil. Shake well. Simply place the freekeh in a bowl, moisten it with the lemon juice dressing (not too much – you don’t want a soggy salad) and mix in the herbs and pomegranate seeds.