Barbara Incognito Fanelli had broken her shoulder, so she couldn't go to work. Instead, she was home making breakfast with the television on when she heard Dr. Mehmet Oz talk about freekeh.
He said it was healthy; he said it was delicious … but what was that he said? Freekeh?
"I had no idea [what freekeh was]," Incognito Fanelli says of first hearing the word that day, Jan. 5, 2010. "But that made me start to look."
The Norwood resident was searching for a way to make more healthful meals for her husband — a Type II diabetic with other health concerns. Maybe freekeh was part of the answer.
She did a lot of research about the ancient grain from the Middle East. She learned that freekeh (pronounced free-ka) is derived from wheat, and that it's made by harvesting the grain young, drying it and roasting it. She learned that it is plentiful in the Middle East and Australia. She learned that it has a low glycemic index (perfect for her diabetic husband). She learned that its young harvesting allows it to retain more protein, vitamins and minerals than traditionally processed wheat does.
She also learned that it was difficult to find in the United States, and nearly impossible in the Northeast. She ordered it from Australia and continued to look around North Jersey.
When she finally found some at a Middle Eastern market, she realized that although the process may have been the same, the product was not.
"It was a different grade," she says. "There was no comparison."
Eventually, the solution came to her. Incognito Fanelli realized freekeh could help not only her husband's health, but many others as well — if it was available. And she could make that possible. So Incognito Fanelli became the U.S. importer and distributor for Greenwheat Freekeh.
She considered it not only a business but also a way to give back after working at ABC News for 34 years. She launched the Web-based business freekehlicious.com a year ago and has since heard many validating stories, like the one of the woman from a Baptist church in Philadelphia who was excited to serve freekeh at a church picnic because so many of the parishioners have diabetes.
Incognito Fanelli is happily moving her product into local stores, and freekeh is becoming more popular, moving toward trendy and maybe one day toward taking over the quinoa craze. As if anything can stop the wildly popular quinoa. On a recent trip to Whole Foods at the Bergen Town Center, both bulk bins were empty.
Quinoa is not only healthy, it is also gluten-free, giving it even more appeal. Freekeh is wheat, so it has gluten. However, gluten-intolerant people should pay attention; studies are being done to see if harvesting the grain so young keeps the gluten structured in a way that freekeh wouldn't aggravate those sensitive to it.
Even with that bit unknown, freekeh fans have popped up everywhere the last couple of years. It's not just Oz and Incognito Fanelli. Celebrity chef Jamie Oliver has called it a favorite "superfood." And health and food bloggers all over the Internet write about its flavor and healthy qualities.
"People are intrigued," says Incognito Fanelli, who admits it might not look appealing, but swears that once people try it they are won over.
"I really liked it," Anne Charlap of Ramsey said after trying a freekeh summer salad and oatmeal-like breakfast cereal at Whole Foods in Ridgewood recently.
Charlap didn't buy freekeh then, but planned to get some on her shopping trip the next week. She said she and her husband love quinoa and eat it about twice a week, but she was looking for a way to get a little more variety in their meals.
Many others at the store that morning stopped at the sample table. They sounded just like Incognito Fanelli that day in her kitchen. What did he say? Freekeh? What is that?
They learned about it. They tried it. And, unlike Incognito Fanelli, they won't have to import it themselves.
* FREEKEH SUMMER SALAD
3 cups cooked freekeh (see below)
1 bunch pencil asparagus, chopped
3 fresh roasted beets, diced
1 portobello mushroom, chopped
1/4 cup walnuts, chopped
3 tablespoons of goat cheese
Mix all together, except goat cheese.
Pour dressing (see below) over salad and add goat cheese.
Makes approximately 3 cups
Cooking the freekeh:
1 cup uncooked whole-grain freekeh
3 cups water
3 cloves garlic
Bring to a boil and simmer for approximately 40-45 minutes.
Preparing the dressing:
1/2 cup walnut oil
3 tablespoons white wine vinegar
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
1 tablespoon fresh squeezed lemon juice
1 clove garlic
Blend together; add salt and pepper to taste.
Grains for your shopping list
Searching for a few "superfoods," little additions to your diet that can make a big difference in your health? Look for one of these in the grain aisle of your grocery store; they are typically sold in boxes or bags, just like rice.
Also known as farik, the ancient grain is a derivative of wheat made by harvesting the grains when they are still young and soft, then drying and roasting them.
* Health benefits: Low glycemic index, high in resistant starch and fiber, good source of protein; it also acts as a prebiotic to help digestive health.
* Use for: Hot cereal, salads, in soup or as a side dish.
Gluten-free and considered a grain, quinoa is actually not a grain — it's a member of the leafy green vegetables family, cousin to spinach and Swiss chard.
* Health benefits: High in protein and a good source of magnesium, iron and riboflavin.
* Use for: Salads, hot cereals, as an addition to soups or a substitute for bulgur wheat in tabouli.
Increasingly popular, farro is three varieties of wheat, but the one seen mainly in the U.S. is farro medio, also known as emmer.
* Health benefits: High in fiber, protein and magnesium. Has a gluten structure that may be OK for non-Celiacs who are gluten intolerant.
* Use for: As a pilaf, in soups or salads.
This gluten-free grain is the main ingredient in most birdseed, but can be enjoyed just as much by people.
* Health benefits: High in fiber, B vitamins, iron, magnesium and zinc.
* Use for: As a side dish, millet can have the consistency of fluffy rice or mashed potatoes, depending on preparation; it can be added to baked goods like muffins.
Also spelled bulgar or burghul, it is a wheat derivative made when whole-wheat kernels are soaked, steamed, dried, then crushed. It comes in fine, medium and course varieties.
* Health benefits: High in fiber, protein, magnesium and vitamin B.
* Use for: For tabouli; as a pilaf; add to soups, meatballs or burgers.
Everyone knows about the heart-healthy dietary staple oats. There are also gluten-free whole oats.
* Health benefits: Good source of protein, manganese, fiber, magnesium and vita-min B1.
* Use for: Oatmeal and in baking.