Safflower or عصفر in Arabic (pronounced Osfor) is a little know spice used in Damascene cooking. It has an earthy subtle flavour and gives dishes a light yellow orange colour. The spice is the dried petals of Safflowers flowers. Apart from being used in Syria and the wider Middle East as a spice, the plant is grown for its seed oil. It is also used in herbal medicine or as an organic dye for cloths and paper.

Many people consider safflower as poor man alternative to Saffron. This might be the case in other countries but I will have to disagree in the case of Damascus. Saffron doesn't exist in Damascene cooking. I can't think of a single recipe sweet or savoury that calls for saffron.

Safflower in Syrian cooking is usually an optimal ingredient. It adds a certain note to the flavour of certain dishes but they work perfectly well without it. It is mainly used in stuffed vegetable dishes including courgettes (Kusa mehshi كوسا محشي), aubergine and cabbage. Other uses include Ejjeh عجة (Syrian omelet) and Kibbeh Bel Senyieh كبة بالصينية (oven baked kibbeh).

One dish in particular is not the same without safflower. Fakhdeh فخدة, a chicken broth dish cooked with large amounts of safflower gives the dish its characteristic flavour and colour.

I will try to cook few dishes using safflower in the near future.

Freekeh with Slow Roasted Lamb Shanks

Freekeh (فريكة roughly translated, Rubbed) is a type of wheat grain common in the Levant, Egypt, Turkey and parts of North Africa. Freekeh grains have a distinct nutty smokey flavour due to the preparation method. Traditionally freekeh is cooked as pilaf or soup but it is a versatile ingredients and can be utilised in numerous ways from salads to cereal bars.

To make freekeh, wheat is harvested green. This is then arranged in piles and set on fire. This is a tightly controlled process and only the straw and chaff burns while the high water content in the green grains prevents them from burning. This process gives freekeh its distinct smokiness. The grains are then thrashed and rubbed by hand (hence the name) to separate the chaff. The final step is drying the grains in the sun.

In Syria, freekeh is cooked as a pilaf with cooked chicken or lamb. Shanks (or
Mozat as called in Syria) is a favourite cut to serve with freekeh. However Mozat is of-the-bone cut and it is served braised rather than roasted.

You can buy freekeh in London from Middle Easter supermarkets. Try Green Valley in Edgware Road or Damas Gate in Shepherds Bush.

Today's recipe is my take on the traditional
Freekeh with Mozat. I cooked freekeh the traditional way but I roasted the lamb shanks in the oven with Arabic style flavours. I also like to raost some vegetables with the meat; potato, caroot... anything you like really.

Here is my Freekeh with lamb shanks recipe:

4 Lamb shanks
One potato
Two Carrots
Mushrooms 200g
Olive oil 2-3 tbsp
Black pepper 1tsp
Salt 2tsp
Paprika 2tsp
Chilli powder 1tsp
Allspice 2tsp
Juice of half a lemon

For the freekeh:
Freekeh 2 cups
Chicken stock 2 cups (stock cube are a good alternative)
Boiling water 2 cups
Green peas 200g
Pine nuts 30g
Ghee clarified butter 2-3 tbs (leave out for a healthy version, it adds a great flavour though!)

Heat the oven to 200C.

Mix the oil, lemon juice and all the spices to make a spicy rub with Arabic flavours. Rub the mixture into the shanks to cover completely and get some of the mix into the muscle fibres. Arrange the shanks in a deep roasting tin bone side up. Cut the potato and carrots into chunky cubes and add with the mushrooms to the tin around the shanks. If you have any spice mix left drizzle over the vegetable. Otherwise season with salt and pepper. Add a little water to the tin to prevent the spice mix from burning.

Cover the tin with foil and roast on the high heat for 30 minutes. Turn the oven down to 170C and continue cooking for another 120 - 150 minutes. Take the foil off for the last 45 minutes. After you take the foil off paste the meat with juices from the tin every 15 minuets or so to stop it drying.

Wash the freekeh in a large bowl. The burnt grains and any residual chaff will float on top. Pour away with the water. You don't need to get rid of every floating grain. You need the smokey flavour they give. Soak the freekeh in cold water for 30 minutes.

In a heavy bottom pan add the freekeh, water and stock. Bring to hard boil then turn the heat to medium and cook for around 30 - 45 minutes. Taste the freekeh to make sure it is fully cooked. The texture should be a bit al dente. If the pot is getting too dry add a little bit of boiling water. Add the peas 5 - 10 minutes from the end (I cooked them for longer than I should in the picture above).

While the freekeh is cooking fry the pine nuts (and some almonds if you wish) in the Ghee butt till golden brown. Remove the nuts quickly before they burn. Preserve the butter for later.

Once you are ready to serve heat the butter until smoking hot. Pour very carefully over the freekeh put and mix through.

Serve the shank on a bed of freekeh with the vegetable on the side. Sprinkle the pine nuts on top.

Serve with some yogurt or Syrian style Tzatziki.