If you're suffering from 'side' fatigue, that boredom that comes with trying to come up with variety in your mains every day, there are some healthy and delicious foods that you may not have tried, or even heard of, that can put some excitement back into your dinners. Rice and potatoes were the traditional go-tos for many dishes for a long time, then came couscous and quinoa to mix things up. There are endless things you can do with all of these ingredients, but you get tired of seeing them on your plate week after week.
A couple of years ago I came upon freekeh for the first time, and immediately fell in love with its subtle, nutty flavour and chewy texture. And unlike rice, it's a tough one to mess up as cooking time and conditions are forgiving which means no risk of a ruined meal. More recently, I've tried maftoul. And spelt. I had never heard of maftoul, but I knew of pizza doughs and breads made from spelt as an alternative to regular wheat; I just didn't realise you could eat it in its whole grain form. Both have the nutty chew in common with freekeh, and in keeping all of them on hand you keep those qualities you like but you have variety to choose from. As someone who cooks every day, I know it's important to keep things fresh and exciting so you don't lose interest in making your own meals!
Let's take a look each food and see why it should become a staple in your health-conscious diet.
(Note: each of these foods come from wheat, so if you have celiac disease or wheat allergies you'll want to avoid them. If you don't have wheat intolerances but are going gluten-free anyway, you're really missing out!)
Made from green durum wheat, this Middle Eastern favourite is roasted and rubbed to create its unique flavour. It works well in soups and salads to make a heartier dish without leaving you feeling heavy after eating, and makes a nice accompaniment to many types of mains. If you're a fan of barley, you'll like freekeh which tastes similar but with a light smoked flavour with the nuttiness. Packed with protein and fibre with higher amounts than brown rice, it also boasts a low glycemic index which means the sugars are released slowly into the bloodstream, making it an ideal food for controlling weight and managing (and avoiding) diabetes. My favourite way to prepare it is on the hob with some vegetable stock, brought to the boil then left to simmer for about 2o minutes until tender. And as mentioned, it's pretty much fool-proof to prepare, you can let it cook a bit long without winding up with a mushy mess, unlike with rice.
Want to try it? Here's a super yummy spring salad freekeh recipe from HelloFresh
A high protein, traditional Palestinian grain made from bulgur and whole wheat flour using traditional hand rolling techniques, maftoul is also known as Palestinian couscous or giant couscous, although I don't see any resemblance to the couscous we know in the west, in terms of both taste and texture. It's got a firm texture that makes it a great addition to dishes that need some textural variety, and its versatility means you don't need to have a cupboard full of Middle Eastern spices in order to use it. You can boil it as you do with freekeh - again it's very forgiving! Or you can toast it in a frying pan with a little olive oil. It stays al dente so you get that nice bit to it which makes it fun to eat.
Spelt is a high energy, ancient wheat that comes in whole and pearled versions. Although not gluten free, it is generally tolerated fairly well by those with wheat intolerances due to its genetic purity. Spelt is loaded with nutrients, vitamins, minerals and essential organic compounds that other forms of wheat don’t have, so it's an ideal food to add to your diet. If you've cooked freekeh or maftoul before, then you'll know what to do with spelt.
The other week I made chilli and instead of serving it with brown rice, I used spelt. I make veggie chilli fairly frequently so I welcomed the variation. Knowing that I was getting all of these bonus nutrients made it that much nicer! And you can use these three grains interchangeably since they share similar characteristics, it's really just a matter of which you prefer with the other ingredients.
While you're not likely to find freekeh, maftoul and spelt at your local shop, they can usually be found in health food stores, better delis, and higher end supermarkets. They're not the cheapest option, but they tend to be organically produced and high quality. And with all of those nutritional benefits plus the pleasing taste, texture and ease of preparation, it's worth the extra cost.