I love experimenting with different ethnic foods and flavors, as well as new cooking techniques, spices, and herbs. Lately I’ve been playing around with different grains and methods of preparing them, which lead to my discovery of farro.
So What is Farro?
Farro is an old variety of wheat from Italy that cooks up with a chewy, nutty flavor similar to barley. If you’ve never had it, you owe it to yourself to give it a try.The trick with farro is determining what kind you have, since it comes three ways, depending on how it’s cleaned and abraded–hulled, semi-pearled (semiperlato), and pearled. The hulled type is the most flavorful and nutritious, but it requires soaking and a much longer cooking time. Semi-pearled is somewhere in between, and pearled cooks in about the same amount of time as rice, which makes it perfect for this dish.
As a side note, be sure what you have is actually farro, as it is often confused with or mislabeled as spelt.
The first time I tried farro, my mind started picturing all the ways I could combine this nutty little grain with other items already available on my pantry shelf, like red lentils and rice. My inspiration for this recipe came from a Lebanese dish, mujadara, made with rice, lentils, and caramelized onions. Feel free to substitute other grains according to your tastes and what you have on hand, as long as they have similar cooking requirements. Just let your imagination run wild. After all, cooking is just chemistry that tastes good, so have fun with your food.
I call this a risotto because of the way it’s cooked. If you’ve never prepared risotto, don’t let the name scare you. Instead of adding all the liquid at once, covering the rice, and letting it do its thing, you stand over the pot and stir, adding the liquid a little at a time. More hands on, but for people like me who can’t seem to stop futzing with my food while I’m cooking, it’s a form of cooking zen.
This isn’t a quick recipe–total cooking time is about 90 minutes–but it’s chock full of tasty nutrition and hearty enough to be a main dish. The amounts on the spices are a starting point; add more or less to your taste.
Mediterranean Style Four Grain Risotto
1 medium yellow or white onion, thinly sliced lengthwise
¼ cup minced garlic (4 or 5 cloves, depending on how big they are)
½ cup chopped frozen carrots (they cook faster than fresh, and you want them kind of mushy for this)
¼ tsp minced ginger (optional)
Cooking oil (you can use olive oil, butter, bacon grease, or a combination of all three, as I did)
½ tsp smoked paprika
½ tsp cumin
½ tsp Ras el Hanout* or garam masala (you can use other spice blends or curries, if you prefer)
1 sprig fresh rosemary, chopped
1 small tuber fresh turmeric, peeled and minced (you can substitute turmeric powder, but the flavor will be slightly different)
½ tsp salt
½ cup long grain white rice, like basmati or jasmine
½ cup pearled farro
½ cup red lentils
¼ cup orzo
¼ cup toasted pine nuts (optional)
½ cup finely grated aged hard cheese, like Parmesan (I used Trader Joe’s Aged Cheddar with Caramelized Onions for this, but use whatever you have on hand)
1 cup good stock (beef or chicken)
2 cups water
½ cup white wine (you could substitute lemon juice or any other slightly acidic liquid)
Fresh cilantro, roughly chopped
Plain yogurt or sour cream
*Ras el Hanout is an Arabic spice blend. The name translates as “head of shop,” as like with curries, each spice merchant has their own unique blend. Depending on the ingredients, some have more heat than others. I have two types on my spice shelf, one I bought at Trader Joe’s, which is hotter, and one I ordered from World Merchants Spice, Herb, and Teahouse in Seattle. The latter is the one I used here. It’s a more complex, fragrant blend with less heat.
Preheat a deep, heavy skillet or small Dutch oven on medium-high and toast the pine nuts for 1 to 2 minutes, shaking the pan constantly (careful, they burn easily). Remove the nuts and set aside.
Rinse the white rice several times and set aside to drain.
Add about ¼ cup butter or oil of choice to the pan. When it gets warm, add the onions and turn the heat down to medium-low. Saute for 10 to 15 minutes, stirring occasionally, until onions are translucent. Add garlic, carrots, ginger, and fresh turmeric, stirring constantly. Add more oil or butter if, necessary. You want the veggies to slowly simmer, not stick or burn. Add all the spices except the salt and stir to combine. Turn the heat down to the lowest setting and cover, stirring occasionally and adding more oil or butter if needed, for approximately 30 to 45 minutes.
In the meantime, heat a small saucepan on medium and add the stock, water, and wine, then turn the heat down to low to keep warm. Do not bring the liquid to a boil; you just want it to be warm.
Uncover the veggies and turn the heat up to medium. Add the rice and farro, stirring for two to three minutes to coat. Add the lentils and orzo, stir to combine. When all the grains are well-coated with the oil/spice mixture, add 1 cup of the warm stock mixture, stirring constantly.
At this point, it’s helpful to set your oven timer to 25 minutes so you’ll have a better idea of when the grains are done.
Continue stirring the grain mixture until almost all of the liquid is absorbed, then add another half cup and repeat, stirring and letting the liquid absorb before adding more. If it looks like you’re going to run out of liquid before the 25 minutes are up, add a little more water to the stock pan to heat. You don't want to add cold liquid to the grain mixture.
When your timer goes off, taste the mixture to see if it’s done. The farro should still be a little chewy, but the rice, orzo, and lentils should be fully cooked. If they’re still hard, add a little more liquid and stir until absorbed.
When everything is fully cooked, stir in the salt, pine nuts, and cheese, then serve.
Garnish with cilantro and a dollop of yogurt or sour cream.