Farro: An Ancient And Complicated Grain Worth Figuring Out
I was ready to forget about farro. This was a couple of years ago when I first attempted to cook the savory grain that also boasts an ancient pedigree. I had sampled farro in restaurants where I had enjoyed it transformed into risottos and incorporated into salads. I had come to adore its nutty earthiness and satisfying chew.
But after spending well over an hour simmering a batch of this form of wheat, I wound up tossing the whole mess in the garbage. As it turned out, the type of farro I was using was the whole grain variety. It's highest in fiber and nutrients like Vitamin B3 and zinc, but whole farro also requires overnight soaking — a step I had neglected to take. That meant that no matter how much time I put in front of the stove, I was likely to wind up with tooth-breaking tough kernels.
What's a farro fan to do?
Eventually I learned about the semipearled variety — or semiperlato in Italy, where farro has been cultivated for centuries — in which some of the bran has been removed, allowing for speedier cooking. That's when my love affair with farro took flight.
In fact, with its cashew notes and undertones of cinnamon, and with its satisfying chew, farro has become my go-to grain for dishes ranging from salads to breakfast cereals.
Cook up some farro, layer it with roasted fruits, and enrich it with heavy cream or yogurt, and you have a swoon-worthy brunch dish. Or throw a handful into a pot of vegetable soup where it imparts an al dente bite to the tender soup ingredients.
Farro originated in the Fertile Crescent, where it has been found in the tombs of Egyptian kings and is said to have fed the Roman Legions. Italians have dined on farro for centuries. Now, with the revival of interest in whole grains, farro's popularity is gaining in the U.S. as well.
Americans' mounting interest in farro "got ignited by our passion for Italian food," says Maria Speck, author of Ancient Grains for Modern Meals: Mediterranean Whole Grain Recipes for Barley, Farro, Kamut, Polenta, Wheat Berries & More, in a phone interview. Chefs were the first to incorporate the grain into dishes. Now, home cooks are discovering farro too, she says.
Though we refer to farro as if it were one grain, it's actually three. There's farro piccolo (einkorn), farro medio (emmer), and farro grande (spelt). Emmer is what you'll find sold most often in the U.S. It's a harder grain than einkorn and is often confused with spelt, which is another type of grain altogether. Then there are farro's Latin labels: einkorn, which is Triticum monococcum; emmer, which is Triticum dicoccum; and spelt, which is Triticum spelta.
Is your head spinning yet?
There's also the question of whether you should choose whole farro, which retains all the grain's nutrients; semipearled, in which the part of the bran has been removed but still contains some fiber; or pearled, which takes the least time to cook but has no bran at all.
To top it all off, farro can be a bit maddening to shop for. At my local food stores, the label often simply reads "farro," so it's sometimes tough to know whether you're getting the whole grain or one of the pearled varieties. (In one head-scratching moment, I was confronted at an Italian specialty store with signage that displayed the label "farro," but packaging that said "pearl spelt.")
"There is indeed a lot of confusion about farro," says Cynthia Harriman, director of food and nutrition strategies at The Whole Grains Council. In fact, it can be enough to make you reach for your bag of quinoa.
Yet when all is said and done, farro is actually a forgiving grain to cook with. Simply follow the directions on the package. Otherwise, if the farro is clearly labeled, then for pearled and semipearled, bring the grains to a boil and simmer them covered for about 15 to 25 minutes, or for 30 to 40 minutes for the whole grain variety. In fact, I now favor whole farro for its intense flavor. Yes, you need to soak it overnight. But is it really so hard to pour a couple of cups of water over some grain before you go to bed?
Like all grains, farro is done, well, when it's done. For me, that means when it's al dente. But any way you prepare it, farro is a grain to savor. I'll trade my bag of quinoa for one of farro any day of the week.
The original recipe for this soup, from Vegan Planet: 400 Irresistible Recipes With Fantastic Flavors From Home and Around the World by Robin Robertson, called for using spelt and for cooking the soup for 1 1/2 hours. I used semipearled farro instead of spelt and added some oregano and a bay leaf, and found that not only was this soup delicious, it was done in no time. Indeed, one of the benefits of this recipe is that the farro cooks in the soup broth, and by the time the soup is done, so is the farro.
Makes 4 servings
3/4 cup farro
2 tablespoons olive oil, plus more for drizzling, if desired
1 small yellow onion, chopped
1 medium-size carrot, chopped
1 celery rib, chopped
2 garlic cloves, minced
1/2 teaspoon salt
Freshly ground pepper
1 bay leaf
1/4 teaspoon dried oregano
5 cups vegetable stock
1 1/2 cups or one 15-ounce can cannellini or other white beans, drained and rinsed
Heat the olive oil in a large pot over medium heat. Add the onion, carrot, celery, garlic, salt and pepper. Sautee over medium heat until the vegetables soften, about 5 minutes. Add the bay leaf and oregano. Add the stock and bring to a boil.
Add the farro and bring back to a boil, then reduce the heat to low. Cover and simmer the soup for 20 to 30 minutes or until the farro is almost tender (you don't want the grains completely cooked since the soup will cook for additional time and the vegetables are cooked). Add more water if the soup becomes too thick.
Add the beans and season with additional salt and pepper to taste. Simmer for 10 to 15 minutes to allow the flavors to blend.
Serve hot, drizzled with a little olive oil, if desired.
When I served this salad to my family, adapted from the food blog 101 Cookbooks, they scraped their plates and demanded that I make the dish again the very next day. I've added a bit of mustard and honey to the original recipe and found that these tweaks imparted a nice tang to the dish. Though this salad tastes great any time of year, I always try to make it when I can get really fresh vegetables from the local farm market.
Makes 6 servings
Green Garlic Dressing
2 large scallions rinsed and chopped
1/4 teaspoon salt
A few grinds of black pepper
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
4 to 5 slices avocado
1/2 teaspoon honey
1/4 teaspoon mustard
1/2 bunch kale, de-stemmed and torn into pieces
1/2 cup cooked farro
1 small bulb fennel
1/4 cup pine nuts toasted
Make the dressing by using a blender or food processor to puree all the ingredients until smooth.
Combine the kale, farro, carrots and fennel, and toss.
Before you're ready to serve the salad, combine the kale with about 1/2 the dressing in a large bowl. Use your hands to work in the dressing. The lemon juice in the dressing will help to soften the kale. Add the rest of the dressing and toss the salad again. Add the pine nuts and toss gently.
I'm not a big fan of zucchini, but this adaptation of a farro-stuffed version from Piatto Unico: When One Course Makes a Real Italian Meal — by my friend, colleague and Italian food expert Toni Lydecker — made me a convert. The farro and cheese combination enrich the mild-flavored zucchini, and Lydecker's tomato sauce adds some piquant notes. One of my objections to zucchini is that it can be mushy, but the crunch from the nuts — and from the farro if you cook it al dente — adds some texture to the dish.
Makes 4 servings
3/4 cup farro
1/4 cup walnuts, toasted and broken into pieces
2 large zucchini, split in half lengthwise with the pulp scooped out
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 to 3 shallots or 1 small onion
2 gloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon fresh thyme of 1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
2 to 3 ounces goat cheese
Freshly ground black pepper
A pinch cayenne
2 cups prepared or homemade tomato sauce
Prepare the farro according to package directions. Toast the walnuts and set aside. Cut off and discard both ends of the zucchini and halve them lengthwise.
Fill a large rimmed baking sheet with water and set it on a burner on top of your stove. Bring the water to a boil. Place the zucchini on a rack skin-side down and cook over the simmering water for about 15 to 20 minutes, or until the zucchini are fork tender. Set aside and allow them to cool for a few minutes.
Preheat the oven to 350 F. Using a spoon, scoop out the zucchini pulp, leaving shells about a half inch thick. Sprinkle the shells lightly with the 1/4 teaspoon of salt. Roughly chop the pulp.
Melt the butter and olive oil in a medium skillet over medium heat. Saute the shallots and garlic until they're golden. Add the zucchini pulp and stir, then add the farro, walnuts, thyme and goat cheese. Add freshly ground black pepper and a pinch of cayenne pepper. Cook 2-3 minutes over medium heat.
Baked the stuffed zucchini about 15 minutes until they are heated through and lightly browned on top. Drizzle some tomato sauce over the zucchini.
Simple Tomato Sauce
1 can (28- or 35-ounce) Italian plum tomatoes with puree or juice
1 to 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
Leaves from 2 sprigs fresh basil or parsley
Sea salt or kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper
Place the contents of the tomato can in a medium saucepan. Break up the tomatoes with a wooden spoon.
Add the olive oil and basil leaves. Bring the sauce to a boil over medium-high heat. Reduce the heat and simmer for about 15 minutes. The sauce should thicken. Season with salt and pepper.
Allow the sauce to cool slightly, then transfer to a blender. Use the pulse button to process the sauce briefly. You want it pureed, but still a bit chunky.
I'm usually in too much of a rush to cook something hot for breakfast. But this hearty, comforting farro cereal adapted from Maria Speck's Ancient Grains for Modern Meals: Mediterranean Whole Grain Recipes for Barley, Farro, Kamut, Polenta, Wheat Berries & More is now my favorite morning dish when I have more time to spend in the kitchen. The original recipe called for using grapes alone, but I had some plums and apples sitting on my kitchen counter, so I decided to add them to the grapes. The result was a riot of color, and when I grilled the fruits, an irresistible aroma filled my kitchen. This dish will keep in the refrigerator for a couple of days. It tastes great cold, but also reheats well.
Note: I had trouble finding anise seeds in my local supermarket so I used anise powder instead, which seemed to work fine. Anise seeds are available online and at some health food stores.
Makes 4 to 6 servings
2 cups water
1 cup farro
1 teaspoon anise seeds or 1/2 teaspoon anise powder
1 (1-inch) piece cinnamon stick
Pinch of salt
1 cup seedless red or purple grapes (about 1 1/4 pounds)
1 cup or about 6 small plums sliced in halves
1 apple, cored and sliced
1 teaspoon extra-virgin olive oil
3 tablespoons honey plus extra for serving
1/2 cup heavy whipping cream, or half-and-half yogurt
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
Ground cinnamon, for sprinkling on top
To make the farro, bring the water, farro, anise seeds or powder, cinnamon stick and salt to a boil in a medium saucepan. Decrease the heat to a simmer, cover, and cook until the farro is tender but still slightly chewy, about 20 to 25 minutes, or cook according to the package directions. Remove the cinnamon stick. (If there is liquid remaining in the farro, place the farro in a strainer to drain off the extra liquid and return the farro to the saucepan.)
Preheat the broiler and position the rack about 6 inches from the heat source. Coat a large baking sheet with a thin slick of olive oil. Spread the grapes, plums and apple on the baking sheet. Drizzle the fruit with the olive oil and 2 tablespoons of honey, and toss to combine.
Broil the fruits until they just start to shrivel and release some of their juices as they burst, about 5 to 7 minutes. (The grapes and plums may roast more quickly than the apple.) Immediately transfer the fruits with their juices to a heatproof bowl.
Add the cream and vanilla extract to the farro, and bring the farro to a boil over medium heat, stirring frequently. Cook the mixture until the cream thickens slightly, 3 to 5 minutes. Stir in the remaining 1 tablespoon of honey, add the fruits with their juices, and cook the cereal just a minute or so to reheat the fruit and farro.
Divide the cereal among bowls, sprinkle it with cinnamon, and serve the dish warm with more honey on the side.