Off the Beaten Aisle: Farro

By: J.M. Hirsch

The trouble with so-called “ancient grains” is that though they recently have tickled the fancy of restaurant chefs, they remain way under the home cook's radar.

It’s an experience thing. Or lack of. Most of us aren’t even sure how to cook amaranth, quinoa and spelt, never-mind know how to serve them.

Which is too bad. They can be a delicious, creative and usually inexpensive way of working whole grains into your cooking.

So let me help you over that first hurdle by introducing you to farro, which I consider the easiest to cook and most versatile of the ancient grains.

Also called emmer wheat, farro was one of the earliest cultivated grains and was grown widely in northern Africa and Europe.

But farro -- the Italian name for this relative of modern wheat -- can be fussy to grow and lost favor. Fast-forward a few thousand years and it’s trying for a comeback.

Why should you care? Farro has a robustly nutty flavor, a satisfyingly chewy texture and it works well with numerous ingredients and cuisines.

Best yet, if you know how to boil pasta, you know how to cook farro. Boil 1 cup of farro in 3 to 4 cups of water (salted or not) for 15 minutes, then drain. Done.

In Italy, where most farro is grown, the grain often is added to soups. It also can be substituted for rice in risotto.

Like arborio and other risotto rices, farro is high in starch (needed to produce creamy risotto). Unlike rice, farro is forgiving. Overcooked rice results in mushy risotto. Farro holds its texture even when overcooked.

Most farro, which is high in protein and low in gluten, that is sold in the U.S. is pearled, which means it has been hulled. This helps it cook faster. Avoid farro that is not pearled, as this must be first soaked, then cooked for a longer period of time.

Like other varieties of wheat, farro can be ground into flour and used in baking and to make pasta. Raise your hand if you are never going to do that!

So I decided to focus on real-world cooking ideas.

  • Add 1 cup of farro and 2 cups of broth or water to your favorite chili or beef stew recipe. The grains will soak up the other flavors and give the dish a deliciously nutty chew.
  • Make your own sushi? Prepare farro according to package directions, then season with rice vinegar and use in place of sushi rice with your favorite fillings for robust maki rolls.
  • Cook farro in beef broth, then use it as an additional layer in a baked shepherd’s pie (along with corn, mashed potatoes and ground meat).
  • Brown some ground beef and onions, then mix in cooked farro, tomato sauce and seasonings. Use this as a filling for stuffed bell peppers.
  • Mix cooked farro with canned black or kidney beans, cilantro, salsa and shredded cheese, then wrap in flour tortillas and bake until hot. Burritos!
  • Mix cooked farro with chopped fresh tomatoes and shredded cheddar cheese, then use as an omelet filling. A bit of bacon would be nice, too.
  • Use in place of oatmeal for breakfast. Serve a bowl of warm farro topped with nuts, fresh and dried fruit, and a splash of cream, honey or maple syrup.
Warm Farro Salad With Grilled Italian Sausage
Start to finish: 30 minutes
Servings: 4
1 cup pearled farro
4 mild Italian sausages
Juice of 1 lemon
¼ cup olive oil
Ground black pepper
1 cup crumbled feta cheese
6 plum tomatoes, diced
1 medium cucumber, peeled, seeded and chopped
2 scallions, diced (whites and greens)
1 tablespoon chopped fresh oregano
1 to 2 tablespoons toasted sliced almonds

Bring 1 quart (4 cups) of salted water to a boil. Add the farro and cook for 15 minutes, or until the grains are plumped and chewy. Drain and set aside.

Meanwhile, heat a grill or grill pan to medium-high. Add the sausages and cook until browned, about 8 minutes. Set aside.

In a large bowl whisk together the lemon juice, olive oil and pepper to taste. Mix in the feta cheese.

When the farro has cooked and been drained, add it to the bowl and mix well. Set aside for 5 minutes to cool slightly.

Mix in the tomatoes, cucumbers, scallions and oregano. Cut the sausages into 1-inch rounds, then add those to the salad. Sprinkle the salad with the almonds.

Read more Off the Beaten articles including pancetta, mint and sesame oil.

J.M. Hirsch is the national food editor for The Associated Press. He is author of the recent cookbook High Flavor, Low Labor: Reinventing Weeknight Cooking . He also blogs at jmhirsch.

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