Monday, November 16, 2009

Fall Farro Salad

I first came across farro a few years ago in a cookbook by Giada De Laurentiis, in which she used farro as the grain to support a coarse herb pesto. I've made that dish many times with great success and often bring it to picnics and other summer events. I've been a fan of farro ever since. The taste is a little nutty and the texture a little chewy, in a good way, and it provides a welcome and healthy change from the usual pasta.

According to the Food Lover's Companion, farro is a wheat grain grown and used in Italy since ancient times. It is also known as emmer wheat and although it looks like the much less expensive spelt, it is not the same grain. Please don't make the mistake I made and substitute the one for the other as whole spelt grains take forever, I mean forever, to soften up to an edible texture. After I'd been purchasing farro for a while at Balducci's, one day they no longer had it. During my quest for another source, I tried my local organic market, where a helpful clerk assured me spelt was the same thing. I learned after attempting to cook the dish I'd made many times before, that spelt just doesn't want to loosen up. I pretty much simmered it to death and was still left with hard bits of rock instead of the tasty chewy kernels I usually had.

In the couple of years since, farro has become more readily available. I try to buy it at my local Italian grocery as it's least expensive there. They still have it at Balducci's, and now have it at Whole Foods and that same organic market that mislead me with its bulk spelt. Many regular grocery stores carry it now too. The only brand I've ever seen, though, is rustichella d'abruzzo from Italy. I've seen it anywhere from $7.00 to $10.00 for a 1.1 pound package, which seems like a lot until you see how much the farro grows during cooking and how many this one pound-ish package serves.

I've been seeing more and more recipes lately using farro in the risotto style - sometimes called farrotto - and in lieu of pasta in other dishes and soups. I call this dish a salad because I finish it with what amounts to a vinaigrette, but it can be served hot, cold or at room temperature. One of the beauties of farro is that it doesn't get soggy in sauce or dressing and doesn't harden up in the refrigerator.

This recipe can be adapted quite easily to become vegetarian. I use a little pancetta or prosciutto to start it off, but you could easily substitute caramelized onions for the smoky flavor (see my April 02, 2009 post on caramelized onions!). Just substitute vegetable stock or water for the chicken stock and you'll be all set.

Though I don't actually include them in the recipe, you also see brussels sprouts in the photo above. I added them in this time as I had some sitting around in the refrigerator. If you want to add brussels sprouts, add them halfway through the time for the cauliflower to cook as they cook much more quickly.

While the instructions on the package of farro advise you to soak the farro before cooking, I've never needed to when I've cooked it this way. This is a delicious complement to fish, chicken or meat. I've made it with all of them.
This is what the package looks like:

Fall Farro Salad

(serves 8 - 10 when served as a hearty side dish)

1 large head cauliflower, cut up into small florets
2 tablespoons olive oil
sprinkle of salt
4 cups no or low sodium added chicken or vegetable stock (if making vegetarian version)
4 cups water
1.1 pound package of farro, rinsed
4 ounces pancetta or bacon, diced
1 medium red onion, diced
1 carrot, diced
1 large stalk celery, diced
1/4 cup chopped parsley
2 tablespoons chopped fresh oregano
1/4 cup chopped fresh chives
juice of one large lemon
1/4 cup olive oil
salt and pepper to taste
handful rinsed capers, optional

1. Preheat oven to 450 degrees F.

2. Toss the cut up cauliflower with 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a Ziploc bag or bowl. Make sure all pieces are coated with olive oil. Spread cauliflower in a single layer in a shallow baking dish. I use a half sheet pan lined with foil. Sprinkle a pinch of salt over cauliflower.

3. Let cauliflower roast, stirring and turning pieces over occasionally, until tender and golden brown, about 25 - 35 minutes.

4. While cauliflower roasts, bring the stock and water to a boil in a large saucepan over high heat. Once the stock boils, add the rinsed farro and stir. Reduce the heat to low and simmer the farro, covered, until tender, about 20 - 25 minutes. Drain farro and set aside in a large serving bowl.

5. Meanwhile, in a Dutch oven or large pot over medium heat, saute the diced pancetta until it darkens and gets a little crispy. Add the onion, carrot and celery and cook, stirring frequently, until onion is translucent and carrot has softened, about 10 minutes. You can season these vegetables lightly with salt and pepper while they cook, if you like.

6. Add onion mixture to serving bowl with farro.

7. Add cooked cauliflower to serving bowl.

8. Add parsley, oregano and half the chives to serving bowl.

9. Add lemon juice and olive oil to serving bowl and mix contents well. Taste for salt and pepper and add if necessary.

10. Garnish with remaining chives and some capers if you like a little extra, salty tang.

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