Friday, February 26, 2010

My favorite grain

One of the more welcome trends in food magazines of late has been a genuine emphasis on recipes featuring whole grains. In years past, many magazines would have but one or two such recipes, usually relegated to the diet or healthy living column. Either that or they were designated as the token vegetarian option amidst recipes for braised pork belly, grilled steaks and their ilk. Too many of these older recipes were reminiscent of earnest 1960's melanges of minimally seasoned nuts and grains that sprang from such books as Diet for a Small Planet and The Moosewood Cookbook. I forget where I read this but it is true: look at any of the recipes from Moosewood and mentally add bacon. It would taste much better, wouldn't it? So here's to the mainstream culinary press, who are finally putting out whole-grain recipes that can actually compete in flavor with a platter of pork belly.

I also am relieved to see the introduction of more variety in the whole grains featured in the recipes. No longer is the emphasis solely on brown rice or barley. Quinoa has stopped being presented as an undiscovered "exotic grain" and spelt is popping up with increasing frequency. But my absolute favorite whole grain is farro. Food editors too have seemed to recently discover that farro adds a rich nutty flavor to any dish. Farro has a very pleasing texture, the ideal of "al dente". Farro prepared risotto-style is far more flavorful and satisfying than than a true risotto made with arborio rice. Indeed, it boosts the texture and flavor of the dish so much that I find it unnecessary to trick it out with the usual risotto finishes of butter and a huge handful of parmigianno.

Farro's exact definition is murky and controversial. In a few recipes it is presented as another name for spelt, which adds to the confusion. Everyone agrees farro is a type of wheat, but beyond that, disagreements abound. According to wikipedia, this confusion arises from regional differences in Italy as to which type of wheat is grown and labeled as farro: emmer, einkorn or spelt. The type I use is emmer wheat, as best I can tell. It is hard to find, even in a big city like Chicago. I haven't checked Whole Foods, they must have a box somewhere on their shelves. I know I can reliably purchase farro from Caputo's, the independent Italian grocery chain to the west of the city. I make sure there is always a bag of farro on my pantry shelf.

I first tasted farro in Siena, Italy, where it was served in a thick vegetable-grain soup. It was a stick-to-your ribs meal --classic peasant fare -- and I thrilled to the depth and flavor of the dish. When I finally found farro stateside, I tried to recreate the soup. It tasted so-so, not at all living up to the intoxicating memory. Of course, this was likely because even a humble soup tastes better when you are newly married and sitting in a rustic osteria in a gorgeous medieval Italian town. Martha Stewart, as usual, came to the rescue and published a recipe for farro risotto so delicious that it has become one of my special "company" dishes. I have found it to be a hit with small children as well, if they are adventurous and willing to taste something that doesn't look like buttered pasta.

More recently, I found another winning farro recipe, a warm salad of farro and red cabbage, redolent of thyme. In the picture is above, it is the dish on the left. The other dish is a platter of roasted root vegetables tossed in a mustard vinaigrette and sprinkled with homemade feta. This was a real late-winter vegetarian feast! My weak photography skills do not capture the real color of the farro dish -- thanks to the cabbage, the whole platter of food had a gentle purple hue. This pleased my son to no end, who asked for seconds and thirds of the "purple pasta". My husband was a little more wary -- especially as the purple color deepened as the dish cooled. But it was hard for him -- even with the reservations about the color palate -- to deny that it was filling and bursting with flavor. I made both the root vegetables and this dish because I was afraid neither one would "be enough" to serve on its own. What folly! Both were incredibly filling and we are still eating the leftovers days later. And I didn't even think about adding bacon.

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