Tuesday, October 27, 2009
The Forgotten Grain
A few weeks ago I visited the New Amsterdam Market in downtown Manhattan. Standing in the shadow of the Brooklyn Bridge, this multi-purveyor, outdoor market is a tribute to the great old market halls of New York which operated much in the fashion of the now (sadly) defunct Les Halles market in Paris, bringing affordable, trustworthy and locally sourced products to the masses. The stalls at New Amsterdam are made up of vendors who source their food and products directly from the farmers and producers who create them. From the excellent butchers of Brooklyn to the cheesemongers of Manhattan and all of the purveyors in between, the market provided me with a lot of culinary inspiration, in addition to encouraging me to spend, spend, spend. Among my many purchases were fresh tomatillos (10 for $1.00!), two jalapeños (for a mere 28 cents) the cheese I used for my roasted tomato soup and grilled cheese dinner a while back, and a big bag of farro. While I'll admit the farro was a bit of an impulse purchase, I'd heard so much about it in recent months that I couldn't resist.
Before rice, corn, and spelt, there was farro, the grain that once fed the entire Mediterranean and that has recently been touted as "the forgotten grain". Southern Europe (Italy especially) subsisted on this super nutty and chewy ingredient for thousands of years before trade brought rice to the continent and corn crossed the Atlantic (it's said to have fed the Roman legions across Europe). There was no risotto or polenta in Italy, no paella in Spain, just cooked or ground farro, which was often eaten porridge style, much like polenta is today. Sadly for farro it's a low-yielding crop, meaning that high volume new world crops likes corn and rice didn't have much trouble kicking it to the curb. In addition to providing more bang for the ancient buck, the new grains were also faster to prepare and infinitely more versatile. But thanks to innovative and health-minded chefs, farro has made a comeback outside of northern Italian cooking (where it's considered a regional mainstay). Farro is a hulled wheat, and much like brown rice, the protective outer bran layer remains on the grain, meaning that it is not only less processed than many grains, but also much more nutritious with a chewier texture.
As a lover of quinoa, couscous and all quick cooking carbs I must admit that farro's lengthy cooking time does not please me. In addition to taking 50 minutes to a hour to cook it also requires soaking beforehand in order to cut the cooking time down (not unlike what one does with dried legumes). Despite these characteristics I've come to enjoy farro very much. It's highly flavorful on it's own, with a deep nutty flavor stronger than that of brown rice, and with an even harder bite that makes it seem permanently al dente. Its flavor makes farro a perfect foil for steaks or meats with a good deal of gravy or sauce for sopping. It won't absorb all the liquid so your meat stays moist, but it adds a nice companion flavor so you can easily compose the perfect bite. I made mine to go with a steak and a light sherry-mushroom gravy. I added in a few turnips and their greens at the last minute, which made for a really well rounded meal. Even though it won't serve me well for last minute dinners the way other grains do, I'll definitely keep farro in mind when I'm planning my next meaty meal (I'm thinking maybe for the next time I tackle duck...).
1 cup farro
4 cups water or stock
1 tsp salt
1 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1. Place farro in a large bowl and cover generously with cold water. Allow to soak for at least an hour (you can even leave it overnight).
2. Drain farro well. Heat olive oil in a pot and add farro. Saute for 2-3 minutes then add water or stock and salt and bring to a boil. Cook covered until farro is tender but al dente, 45 minutes to an hour (the cook time will depend on how long you allowed it to soak). Drain and serve. Enjoy!
*For my favorite way to eat farro, reserve a little bit of the water/stock after draining. Return the farro to its pot and fold in your favorite greens (kale is perfect) and cook over medium-low heat, adding water/stock 1/4 cup at a time if necessary. Cook covered until the kale is done.