Many of us cook ahead on the weekends to put weekday meals on the table quickly. For centuries, cooks in the Mediterranean have gone one better, cooking and preparing whole grains months ahead of time, so that minimal time—and very little precious fuel—would be needed to put together a delicious dinner. To help you during back-to-school season and Whole Grains Month, you can follow in their footsteps with these three Mediterranean whole grain fast food traditions:
Bulgur. Women in the Middle East have always celebrated the wheat harvest by cooking up bulgur. Longtime Oldways friend Ayer Ünsal recounts in Paula Wolfert’s book, Mediterranean Grains and Greens, that Turkish women of her grandmother’s generation would take their wheat to a communal horse-powered mill, and “stay there for two days boiling hard wheat kernels until they swelled, drying the kernels on ﬂat roofs, then cracking and sieving them to separate the bulgur by size.” The grandmothers traded bulgur recipes, then returned home to savor the fact that their wheat could now be ready to eat in 10-15 minutes instead of an hour or more.
Freekeh. Another Mediterranean fast food option starts with grain harvested before it’s ripe. The “green” grain—wheat in the Middle East, but often barley in Tunisia—is steamed and dried, like bulgur, but then slowly roasted, giving it a subtle smoky ﬂavor. The smoky grains are then rubbed to thresh them (remove their inedible hulls), and cracked into smaller pieces so they will cook more quickly. The name freekeh derives from farik, the Arabic word for “rubbed.” In the last few years, freekeh has become widely available, so no need to smoke your own!
Couscous. In North Africa, especially Morocco, couscous is the traditional grain fast food. To make couscous, grain is milled into a coarse ﬂour. As with bulgur and freekeh, often the grain is wheat, but barley, millet, and corn have also been used traditionally to make couscous. No matter the grain, the process is similar, as Wolfert explains in her book: Spread some milled grain on a large, perforated, round tray; sprinkle with a little water; then rotate your palm in circles to create tiny beads. Keep adding ﬂour and water and rotating under your hand until the beads are the desired size, then shake them in a colander to remove excess ﬂour. Whether you make your own couscous or buy ready-made, always steam—never boil—it to get the best ﬂuﬀy results.
Remember, bulgur, freekeh, and couscous aren’t actually grains. You won’t ﬁnd any of them growing in a ﬁeld. Rather, all three of these are ancient, traditional ways of processing grains, ways that are often thought to apply only to wheat but can actually be used to turn nearly any grain into a quick-cooking meal solution.
Mediterranean cuisine oﬀers many more whole grain traditions. In Italy, buckwheat pasta called bigoli is a classic Venetian staple, and farro, an ancient wheat, is perennially popular eaten as a side dish or milled and made into pasta. In Greece, dried barley rusks, known as paximadia, soak up olive oil and the juice of diced tomatoes in a popular snack. Turks mix bulgur with meat to make kofte and kibbe, much as Americans might stretch our meatloaf with oatmeal or bread crumbs.
While wheat, rice, and barley are perhaps the most common grains used for thousands of years in the Mediterranean region, today we have access to more than a dozen diﬀerent whole grains, including others like sorghum, amaranth, and quinoa, that can also pair perfectly with Mediterranean ingredients and herbs. Use your imagination (or Oldways’ latest book, Whole Grains Around the World) to create and savor new Mediterranean whole grain dishes. Get more whole grain inspiration—and learn how your creation could win you a $500 gift card—with our Whole Grains Month celebrations happening all this month!
This blog post was inspired by a previous Fresh Fridays, our bi-weekly Mediterranean diet newsletter. Click here to sign up to receive our next Fresh Fridays newsletter and never miss delicious Mediterranean recipes and cooking tips again.