It’s officially the tail end of tomato season, where I live. So there is a twinge of pre-nostalgia as I savor the last of the best tomatoes of the year. The heirloom tomatoes are at their peak, as they finally finish ripening and hang heavy on the vine. Contemplating these tomatoes, so lovingly created by backyard gardeners faithfully saving the seeds from the best tasting tomatoes, you feel the past leading to the present. All those gardeners tended, tasted, and took the time to preserve these varieties.
You really have to thank them.
It’s the same with ancient grains, when you think about it. People grew these grains thousands of years ago, and saved the seeds.Genetic material always changes, as plants recreate it year after year, but they are still ancient stock. One of my favorite ancient grains is green-wheat freekeh. We usually call it freekeh, for short, but the full name includes the “green-wheat” part. Freekeh is made by harvesting green, unripe wheat, then roasting it in the husk, before removing the inedible chaff that encases the seeds. That process infuses the grain with a smoky, nutty flavor, on top of the wheaty qualities of bulghar. I’ve got a few recipes for it in the recipe index.
So heirloom tomatoes and ancient grains seem like a perfect match. Both carefully saved for their deliciousness, shepherded to us by a thousand hands. So I made these Heirlooms Stuffed with Freekeh and Pesto.
I’m using gorgeous Cherokee Purple tomatoes, streaked with dramatic deep tones. They are a symphony of sweet, tart, tomato-ey bliss. Since the freekeh is also so full of unique flavor, I wanted a simple, fast recipe to show them both off. To get every bit of the tomato magic, I took the extra step of straining the juicy pulp inside the tomatoes to use it in the cooking liquid for the ancient grain. I also saved the bits of flesh from inside and chopped them up, adding them to the grain as it cooked.
If you have ever scooped the seeds out of the tomato and thrown them away, you may be surprised to learn that the liquids inside the fruit are actually highest in umami. The clear, pulpy part is where the glutamic acid resides, which gives us that lovely, meaty, umami feel in our mouths. You can read more about that here. So as long as I’m cooking my whole grains with liquid, I might as well harness that bit of molecular magic.
A quick pesto was just the thing to bind the grain just a little, and give it some Mediterranean flair. Toasted almond slivers bring the nuttiness of the grain to the fore, and a few extra give you a crunchy garnish for the top. Whole grains have so much flavor, you need some punchy seasonings to pair with them. Timid pinches of dried out herbs just won’t cut it, when you go whole grain. Fresh basil, plentiful jolts of garlic, and these flavor-bomb tomatoes are just the companions who won’t get pushed into the shadows.
I don’t have to tell you that whole grains are at the core of a healthy lifestyle. With the amazing variety of whole grains out there, you can try a different one every week. I’m convinced that green-wheat freekeh is going to continue to gain popularity, for the smoky, nuanced flavor and chewy texture. If you don’t fall in love with it, you can always try this recipe with sunny yellow millet, or sweet, comforting pearled barley.
Eating ancient grains and heirlooms will certainly give you some old-school energy and a zip in your step.
Heirloom Tomatoes Stuffed with Freekeh and Pesto
The most common kind of freekeh on the market is a chopped, coarse chunk, but you can also find whole seed versions. The whole kind will take longer to cook, so check the package for instructions. Any grain that takes longer will need more liquids, just to cover the evaporation.
4 medium heirloom tomatoes
1 teaspoon extra virgin olive oil
1 large shallot, minced
1 cup freekeh
2 cups fresh basil
2 cloves garlic, peeled
1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons slivered almonds, toasted
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
4 sprigs fresh basil
Slice the tops from the tomatoes, and carefully scoop out the contents of each tomato into a bowl. Pick out the flesh, leaving the juices and seeds. Mince the flesh and reserve. Strain the juice and seeds in a fine strainer, allowing the juice to fall into a measuring cup. Press the pulp and seeds with a spoon, scraping and pressing until the remaining seeds are almost dry.
In a 1 quart pot, heat the teaspoon of olive oil for a few seconds, then add the minced shallot and stir. Over medium heat, let the shallots soften and turn golden as you stir. Add the minced flesh from the tomatoes. Stir and add the freekeh, and let toast for a few minutes. To the strained juice, add water to make 1 3/4 cup. Stir into the freekeh in the pan and turn the heat to high. When the pot boils, cover and reduce to low. Cook for about 20 minutes, then check to see if the liquids are all absorbed. When the grain is tender, take off the heat. Fluff and uncover to let cool.
While the grain cools, put the basil, garlic, and 1/4 cup slivered almonds in the food processor and grind. When the contents are finely minced, add the salt and olive oil. Process until smooth.
Stir the pesto into the cooled grain, then stuff the mixture into the tomatoes. Place each on a small plate and garnish with the remaining toasted almonds and a basil sprig.