I wasn’t really sure how to explain farro to you, exactly, so a bit of un-sexy research was required for today. With apologies to the Oxford Companion to Food and Harold McGee, here’s my quick Biology 101 summation, not that anybody asked for it: about a million years ago, a wild wheat and a wild goatgrass (whatever that is), both bearing two sets of chromosomes (same as humans and armadillos and beets and most every other plant or animal) fell very much in love and produced offspring with four sets of chromosomes. These babies were emmer and durum (of pasta-making fame), some of the very first edible plants to be cultivated by humans. And more recently (8,000 years ago or so) one of those tetraploid babies fell in love with a grass with two sets of chromosomes, got married and had babies with six sets of chromosomes (spelt and our modern bread and cereal wheats among them).
Farro is the Italian name for emmer wheat, one of those ancient grains with four sets of chromosomes. Wheat’s the genus, in other words, and farro a distinct species. (There is some confusion and contention out there among scholars and on the Interwebs, but I trust Harold on that.) In related news, farro also boasts a high amount of protein and insoluble fiber, and less gluten than modern wheat, making it a good choice for vegetarians and some folks with gluten sensitivities. (Though not suitable for those with full-blown celiac disease. Alas.)
Now forget the chalkboard. Picture instead the rolling hills of Central Italy, where farro is mostly cultivated these days: sunlit Umbria, Abruzzo, Lazio. Picture those heirloom grains, lovingly tended despite low yields and a difficult harvest, coming to the table simply dressed in local olive oil and a snowfall of shaved black truffle. That’s how I first made the acquaintance of farro this past summer, and even without the romantic backdrop, they make a sigh-inducing, flavorful dish. The healthful, quick-cooking grains have a pleasantly firm, wonderfully chewy bite to them, and a warm, robustly nutty flavor with an edge of sweetness. If I’m calling favorites, I prefer farro’s flavor and texture to quinoa, rice and bulgur and usually serve it plain, which might tell you something.
Stir farro into stews, cook low and slow with stock into a risotto-style dish, add a dice of roasted vegetables for a warm winter salad or serve very simply, the Umbrian way, as written below.
serves four as a side dish
- 1 C semi-pearled farro
- 1/2 C shallots, finely chopped
- 2 garlic cloves, minced
- 3 C water, vegetable or chicken stock
- 1/4 tsp salt (more to taste)
- 2 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil, divided
- 2 tsp balsamic vinegar
- scant 1/2 C Parmigiana-Reggiano, freshly grated
In a cold saucepan or dutch oven over medium heat, add 1 Tbsp olive oil, shallots and garlic. Sweat for 2-3 minutes until softened. Add the farro and toast 2-3 minutes. Add water or stock, 1/4 tsp salt, and bring to a simmer. Cook, partly covered, about 20 minutes. Drain off any remaining stock. Toss with 1 Tbsp olive oil, 2 tsp balsamic vinegar, the cheese, and salt to taste. Serve warm or room temperature.
Note: if you happen upon hulled or unpearled farro (farro with the outer bran intact) adjust the cooking time up to 60 minutes, or soak overnight and proceed with the recipe; cracked farro (outer bran completely removed) should behave relatively the same way as semi-pearled farro (a portion of the bran removed) with slightly less cooking time.