Critiques, Cravings and Conundrums From the Madison Food and Dining Scene
Nov 9, 2011
02:21 PMSmall Dishes
Farro? Far Out!
First of all, what is it? That was my reaction when farro first popped up on a menu I was pursuing as my panting palate looking over my shoulder. It’s a grain in its whole form to be sure, but exactly what kind is contentious. It’s especially popular in Italy where emmer wheat is most commonly used, but the choice of grain varies regionally. In other countries, grains such as spelt and barley are sometimes called farro. The most common substitute listed in recipes is wheat berries.
Like quinoa that suddenly became a foodie favorite a decade ago, farro really isn’t new but only new around here. It’s one of the five grains mentioned in ancient Jewish literature used during Passover to make matzo. I learned a long time ago to be suspicious of anything touted as “new”—or worse yet, “new and improved.” Once in a blue moon a truly new food does appear, the peppadew, for example. This sweet, hot pepper suddenly popped-up seemingly out of nowhere in South Africa in 1993.
But, back to farro. How does it taste? Most often it’s boiled and the concept of boiled grain—farina (as in Cream of Wheat), bulgur and even quinoa—for me is only as appealing as the other added ingredients. Unlike the afore mentioned, however, farro is crunchy with a nut-like taste—many compare it to brown rice, but I think it’s much more complex.
Fortunately, when I first tried it I didn’t have a clue as to what it was and of course was too proud to ask. I mean, if they like it in Italy, it has to be good, right? I was at Nostrano and the farro and Brussels sprouts salad grabbed my attention. I love Brussels sprouts and who wouldn’t when roasted with cippolini onions and tossed with frisée and Italian bacon. Served on a bed of pan toasted farro it was a divine combination and my favorite new dish for 2011.
Because farro contains a starch similar to Arborio rice, it works well in a risotto-like dish called farrotto. It’s on the dinner menu at Graze; flavored with apples, shitake mushrooms, arugula pesto, truffle oil and smoked cheddar. Sound delicious? It is! Unlike risotto, farrotto is never gummy, but creamy and at the same time retaining its distinctive texture. In Italy, farro is also made into flour that’s used to make pasta.
Finally, deciding I’d try cooking it myself, I didn’t have to look far to find it: on my first attempt at my nearby Willy Street Co-op (Whole Foods would have been my next stop if the Co-op hadn’t had it). My guess is farro will increasingly appear at markets that cater to gourmets and vegetarians. It can also be ordered online from companies like Alma Gourmet that specialize in imported Italian products.
Zuppa di Farro
A popular Italian winter soup.
2 cups farro
3 tablespoons extra virgin Italian olive oil
1 large clove garlic
1 medium yellow onion, diced
2 ounces pancetta or guanciale, diced
2 sprigs fresh thyme
2 crumbled fresh sage leaves
1 bay leaf
15-ounce can Italian plum tomatoes, crushed by hand
1-ounce parmesan cheese rind (optional)
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
6 to 8 cups beef stock
Italian parsley leaves
Extra virgin Italian olive oil
Freshly grated Parmigano-Reggiano
Place the farro in a large bowl and cover it with 4 cups of cold water. Let the farro soak for two hours, then drain, discarding the water.
Heat the 3 tablespoons oil in a large, heavy kettle set over low heat. Add the garlic clove and cook, stirring, until it turns golden brown. Remove the garlic clove and discard. Add the diced onion and pancetta to the kettle, stirring well. Season this mixture with a little of salt and stir over low heat until the onions are soft—about 5 minutes. Stir in the thyme, sage and bay leaf and continue to cook for another minute or so, but don’t let the mixture brown.
Add the crushed tomatoes and parmesan rind (if used), salt and pepper to taste. Mix well. Then add the drained farro, 4 cups of the stock, and 1 cup of water. Raise the heat and bring the mixture to a simmer. Cover the soup and lower the heat so it’s barely simmering. Cook for 45 minutes or until the farro is tender. Every 10 minutes or so, give the soupi a stir adding more stock a cup at a time to make sure the farro grains remains suspended in the liquid.
Let the soup stand off the heat for 30 minutes. Take about 2 cups of the soup and puree it in a food processor or blender until smooth. Return the pureed mixture to the soup kettle and more stock if necessary—the soup should not be too thick. Taste for seasoning, It can be made ahead of time, but you may need to add a bit more broth right before serving as the farro will continue to absorb liquid as it sits.
Serve in bowls, garnishing the top of each with parsley and a drizzle of olive. Pass around the grated cheese.
4 to 6 Servings