Sometimes you try a new recipe and it goes off without at hitch, seamlessly incorporating itself into your repertoire. Other times, you beat it into submission, until it bends to your will…
A recipe for beef soup- what could be so hard about that, right? Well, if you’ve never cooked with beef shanks before and you don’t realize just how long it takes for them to break down and be edible, you might think that the recipe’s 90-minute suggested cooking time was reasonable, and might try to attempt making it after work one night. If you did, you would find that it actually required at least a few hours of simmering to reach the right consistency (this was discovered over the course of three days, in which I would cook it for a while each night and stick it back in the fridge before going to bed because it STILL wasn’t done). It wasn’t a huge tragedy, and eventually I got my soup done and it was delicious, but if I ever cook with beef shanks again I think I would consider going the slow cooker route and putting them in before work.
But enough about the beef, some of you are probably saying “What is this ‘freekeh’ of which you speak?” Long story short, it’s a form of wheat that has been roasted and has a wonderful smoky flavor. (You can read more about it in this post.) I had never cooked with it before and my blogger friend Warda had mentioned using it in soup, so when I saw this recipe, with its warming flavors of cardamom, cinnamon and allspice, I was attracted to it instantly. However, if these flavors don’t appeal to you, I think freekeh would be excellent substituted for barley in any mushroom, beef, or lamb-barley soup.
In spite of my issues with the recipe (which I have modified slightly in hopes of sparing you the aggravation I experienced!) the soup turned out to be a winner. Marvin, who isn’t the hugest soup fan, gave it two thumbs up. If anyone has slow cooker experience and can suggest how to adapt it, let me know- I think it would work well.
2 cups freekeh (see notes)
1/4 cup olive or vegetable oil
1 large or 2 small onions, finely chopped
2 1/2 lbs beef shanks (2 large shanks should be approximately this weight)
1 tsp ground cardamom
5 cardamom pods (see notes)
2 bay leaves
1 tsp ground allspice
1 3-inch cinnamon stick
kosher or sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
10 cups boiling water
optional: 1 28-oz can peeled plum tomatoes, chopped
to serve: lemon wedges and fresh chopped flat-leaf parsley
- There are two types of freekeh, crushed and whole. You can use either one; the whole freekeh will just take a little longer to cook. The freekeh I bought came packaged and I did not see any stones, but if you buy it in bulk you should sort through it like you would with lentils.
- The original recipe called for simmering the beef shanks for a total of about 1 1/2 hours. I needed to simmer mine much longer before I was able to separate the meat into pieces, and even then, it was tough (har har). I had never worked with beef shanks before and did not realize how cartilaginous they are! Just be patient, though, and you will be rewarded.
- I’m not exactly sure why the recipe calls for ground cardamom AND cardamom pods. If you only have it ground and don’t want to buy the pods, I would think you could just add an additional 1/4 tsp or so.
- According to the author of The Arab Table, Jordanian cooks sometimes add tomato to this soup. Although I love tomatoes, I preferred to try it first without, just to get the full impact of the aromatic spices. I did end up adding some tomatoes in with the leftovers and liked it. It’s easy to add the tomatoes at the end, so try it both ways and see which you prefer. (Use the tomatoes and the juice released when chopping them, but don’t add the thick purée they come in.)
Put the 10 cups water on to boil while you gather the rest of your ingredients and chop your onions (if you have an electric tea kettle, this is a great use for it). Wash and pat dry the beef shanks; give them a generous coat of salt and black pepper on both sides. Set aside.
If you are using whole freekeh, fill two medium bowls with water. Place the freekeh in one bowl, swirl it with your hands and transfer it by hand or with a slotted spoon to the second bowl. Repeat, refilling the bowls with fresh water until there is no more debris. Drain the freekeh and set aside. (If you have crushed prepackaged freekeh there is no need to wash it.)
In a Dutch oven or other large, heavy-bottomed pot, heat the oil over medium heat. Add the onion and sauté until it begins to soften. Add the beef shanks and spices and stir well to coat the beef, about 3 minutes. Add the boiling water, cover the pot, and return to the boil. Skim the foam from the surface of the soup. Reduce heat and simmer gently, covered.
After 2 hours or so, you can check the meat every 30 minutes by poking it with a fork. When it’s nearly falling apart, remove it from the soup. Cover the soup and turn the burner off or on the lowest setting. When the meat is cool enough to handle, pull it from the bone, tearing it into bite-sized chunks and discarding any gristly pieces. (If the meat does not pull apart easily, return it to the soup and cook it longer.) Return the pieces of meat to the soup pot.
At this point, you can add the freekeh, or you can do what I did, which was to refrigerate the soup overnight so as to skim the fat from the surface. Either way, return the soup to a simmer and add the freekeh along with 1 Tbs salt. If using crushed freekeh it will cook almost instantly, like bulghur. If using whole freekeh, simmer for 30-45 minutes. The freekeh should retain a slight crunch when you bite into it, like biting into a kernel of corn. If you are using tomatoes you can add them at this point. Taste the soup for salt and pepper, adding more if needed.
Serve with wedges of lemon and fresh chopped parsley.
Things are crazy lately and I haven’t been able to post full-on recipes as regularly as I would like, so I had the idea to do some shorter posts focusing on single ingredients that you may or may not be familiar with. First up: freekeh- also spelled farik, frik, freka, and probably a handful of other ways depending on who you ask. The reason this ingredient doesn’t have an established anglicized spelling is because it is fairly uncommon in the U.S. (although a pre-cooked version has recently made an appearance on the shelves at Trader Joe’s).
So what exactly is freekeh? According to May S. Bsisu in her book The Arab Table, it is “…the roasted grains of green wheat stalks. There are two types: whole green kernels and shelled kernels. Whole green freka can be purchased in Middle Eastern stores… As with bulgur, freka should be soaked in cold water for 10 minutes before cooking…” The Wikipedia entry on freekeh gives more detailed information as to how it’s produced. (Personally though, I love the succinct description on the package I bought: “Roasted Baby Wheat”- sounds a bit diabolical!) The freekeh I purchased was the cracked or “shelled” variety, and it cooked up very quickly. I think if you were using whole freekeh it would take 2-3 x as long.
Roasting gives freekeh a delightfully smoky flavor, which makes it really stand out in comparison to its cousin, bulghur. If you enjoy smoked foods, you’ll really like freekeh- its scent reminds me of campfires and fall. You can use it in soup, or cook it on its own as a side dish. According to Bsisu, the finished texture should have a slight crunch or “pop” to it, like when you bite into sweet corn. As you can see in the photo below, since it is not fully mature, freekeh has a slight greenish tint to it.
I first heard about this grain a few months ago from Warda of 64 Sq Ft Kitchen. It’s a pretty obscure item, at least around here- I’ve shopped at several grocery stores specializing in Mid-East foods and had never seen or heard of it. I finally came across some when the band took a trip out to Grand Rapids and we stopped to get sandwiches in a small Middle Eastern deli/grocery (The Pita House). (Update: I have since found packaged whole freekeh at Gabriel Imports in the Eastern Market.) Once I found the freekeh, though, I still had trouble finding recipes- I looked in several Middle Eastern cookbooks and found only two or three mentions.* I’m guessing this is because it’s more common in Palestine, Jordan and Syria, whereas many Middle Eastern cookbooks published for Westerners tend to focus on foods from Lebanon, Turkey, or Morocco. I did find a recipe for Beef & Freekeh Soup (Shorbat Freka) in The Arab Table, which I will post about very soon posted about here!
*Note: I have since come across this website, which offers off-the-beaten-track recipes such as “Freekeh Yogurt and Zucchini Loaf” and “Crisp Freekeh Crab Cakes with Aioli”. If anyone is brave, you can try them and let me know how they turn out.